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Interview: Sandra Millar C of E head of projects and developments

05 April 2013

'I am passionate about intercessory prayer. It should be exciting and imaginative'

I took up my new post in February, continuing the work achieved through the Wedding Project, and developing new projects around the Church's ministry at times of birth and death.

I won't be working nine to five.  Although some of the time I'll travel to Westminster, at other times I'll be in various parts of the country.

I'm looking at christenings and funerals  - though the Church calls it baptism . . . encouraging people to think they can access their church for those things, and encouraging them to come back a bit more.

A lot of the work will be helping clergy and lay people to understand their role;  but also the public as well: to know that they can access the Church.

The Wedding Project has had quite a high profile.  It makes the whole experience of booking and creating a church wedding much more accessible, and helps clergy look at the key stages, so they can help support couples better, so they will come back in the future.

This work brings together all kinds of themes in my life  - growing up in a shop in a rural community, my career in marketing, academic research, being a parish priest, and my passion to see people of all ages discover that God loves them and there is a place for them with God's people. In July, an advert in theChurch Timescaught my eye, and I wondered if this was the moment when I should make a change.

Living in a village shop is a distinctive childhood,  quite good for someone working in the public eye, meeting people's needs, doing pastoral work. It was an "everything shop" - toys, books, cards, the mystery world of fancy goods, as well as food. My mum used to let us play shop in it - the only rule was to put everything back on the shelves afterwards. We learned about serving. It was good.

I think that I have a particular way of looking at the culture we live in:  listening to and noticing the realities of life for those on the edge and beyond the Church, and then building communication. Someone once told me I had a gift for the sacred in ordinary. In reality, this means I watch adverts, read magazines, enjoy TV, and talk to people, and place all that in dialogue with the gospel.

Adults often categorise as pressures things that are simply realities for children  - like using technology. I've just been rereading the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and I found myself thinking about the resilience of children during the war, and how life for children is just what it is, lived in the moment. But it's true that some children live in very difficult circumstances, often economically - but more frequently emotionally - difficult. Love is still the most important need for children: love, security, and freedom.

Children are co-disciples,  followers of Jesus, who have good days and bad days, just like everyone else. The Church has been working with a very educational model of discipleship with children, seeing them as empty vessels that need filling - like Paulo Freire's banking model of learning. We've also been through a phase of thinking we need to entertain them.

Only now are we realising that we simply need to create a space  where children can engage with God through encounter and experience.

I am passionate about things like including children in the life of the Church.  I'm irritated by the Church's inability to do basic things like hospitality, and the way it so easily becomes a cosy club for insiders.

God is like a multi-faceted crystal.  Sometimes I spend a long time looking at one facet, thinking I'm there; but then God shifts, turns, and whole new depths appear.

My default position is optimism.  I'm programmed to find positives and to enjoy life; so all my different working experiences have had great moments in them and great people to work with. The Church is the same - yet with the sense that what we are involved with is always more than what we can see or touch, with this capacity to transform lives and situations.

Family has always been important to me,  and my sister, niece, and nephew are truly special. The hardest time of my life was when my parents died suddenly, six months apart. They weren't young: it wasn't a tragedy; but it is a loss that shook me deeply. I try not to do regret, but I do wish I had been able to say goodbye to my parents.

I wanted to be an air hostess,  as they were called then. But I went to a wonderful girls' grammar school, which led us to believe that, as women, we could achieve anything. I believed them, and my ambition has always been to make a difference. And to bring laughter.

There have been a fewSliding Doorsmoments,  when I have wondered what would have happened if I had turned right instead of left; but the best decisions were to study for my Master's, then a doctorate, at Warwick University, and to push the door on ordination.

My research was in the area of adult learning,  specifically about adult women learning faith. I discovered that women use life-experiences to shape their faith, rather than formal learning. Women completely undervalue these: they don't count them as learning.

Very ordinary people think very deeply about matters of faith.  We don't always put enough value on things people say. They don't use the language of the academy or the Church. They use homely language - like "christening" instead of "baptism".

I don't have a grand plan for my life.  I simply want to do what I do well, to be who God has created me to be, and to enjoy the journey.

I'd like to be remembered for making people feel good about themselves.

As a teenager, I was deeply influenced by my Crusader leader,  who remains a good friend to this day. I read widely, and my favourite fictional characters are lifelong friends, like Anne of Green Gables and the girls at the Chalet School. Writers who influence me now include Henri Nouwen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Elizabeth Goudge. She's completely out of fashion and underrated, but her books are embedded with spiritual values. She writes really well about children, too. If I ever wrote a biography about someone, it would be her.

Sometimes I wish I could remember and live out my own sermons.  When Christopher Lewis was Dean of St Albans, he spoke one Ascension Day about the elasticity of language, and the challenge of using the limited nature of words to de- scribe the mystery of Jesus. If words are the tools of our trade, they are both immensely powerful and yet strangely useless at times.

I love Isaiah and Luke  - the focus on change, and including those who experience exclusion. And my fa- vourite story is the raising of Jairus's daughter, including the healing of the woman. I struggle with Revelation.

I've travelled a lot,both on holiday and when I worked for a mission organisation for about six years. It was YWAM. I did a lot of work training youth workers in other countries, and was in the Ukraine not long after it became open. I like cities, I like new experiences, and I like a bit of luxury, but not too much sun.

I'm happiest with a book,  a pen, and paper in a tea room or coffee shop with great cake.

I am passionate about intercessory prayer,  which should be exciting and imaginative. I pray for people known to me and unknown; I pray for businesses and shoppers; and for people who shape our world. And I pray for those I love. I like Ignatian spirituality, and, in a different way, will pray with icons or paintings and Bible stories.

I'd like a bit of a girls' night in,  if I were locked in a church - with some of the women who have shaped the Christian faith down the centuries: Martha, and Joanna, and Lois, and many more. And they could bring the children, too. It would be so much fun, wouldn't it?

The Revd Dr Sandra Millar was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.




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