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Interview: Sue Adeney, cathedral education officer

06 September 2013

'I enjoy seeing the children's mouths fall open when they enter the nave'

I use Worcester Cathedral, and what it is about, as a resource for teachers and schools to support them in their curriculum delivery.

That is education-speak. It's different from what may have happened 20 years ago, when schools got the same historical tour as the adults. Now it can most obviously be based on the RE or history curriculum, but also on almost any subject.

We have ethics conferences for sixth-formers; science, music, and technology for gifted and talented students; art and design, maths trails, drama and poetry days, geology, architecture . . . and special events such as the "Pilgrims' Quest", which involves many schools taking part together, which adds a special dimension. PGCE students and undergraduates also visit us.

It was through a voluntary post at Great Malvern Priory, as visitors officer, that I was introduced to cathedral posts, and then the Pilgrims Association, now Cathedral Plus. I've been at Worcester for about 15 years, 12 as education officer. We have a very supportive network, and share ideas and good practice with each other through Cathedrals Plus, otherwise it can be an isolated post. We have an annual conference, too.

I'm a PE teacher by training, but we were always told that we were trained to do anything.

I always wanted to teach PE, as that was what I excelled at, playing hockey for Scotland at Under-18 level. I became head of department at Malvern Girls' College. After nine years, I had thoughts of working in the Church, inspired by Faith In the City. I'd had enough of trying to persuade people it was all great fun to be out in the freezing cold, when I was frozen myself. But sometimes you knock on doors and they are not the right ones.

Instead, I did a pastoral-studies diploma at Birmingham University, which led me not into the inner-city, but back to a small school as deputy-head - but with a new outlook on education, and a new confidence in living out my faith.

I was recommended for ordination, but I decided to delay it at least while I married and started a family. Now, my work with young people in the cathedral and in my community is my vocation.

The Chapter are very supportive. It's regarded as an important part of the mission of the cathedral. We've increased our staffing, and are creating an education centre. I started with a wardrobe in the undercroft. We do charge schools, but it is a minimal charge.

We believe that we are doing something special in welcoming children, making them feel comfortable, giving them a memorable experience and the opportunity to be in touch with their own spirituality. They often share some very personal things with us.

We do family activities in holidays, and it's great to see the adults learn alongside the children. Adults are coming to realise that interactive approaches are often more helpful for them, too.

I enjoy seeing the children's mouths fall open when they enter the nave, and then seeing them off at the end of their visit when they all express delight in their experience: "The best school trip I've ever been on. Even better than the zoo!" one said.

I was unable to volunteer as a Games Maker in the Olympics because I'd got quite a few tickets, and for the Paralympics, too. But I heard about "More than Gold", and decided to apply to be a Games Pastor. That meant being available on the transport nodes in London to help visitors find their way around, or if they were in trouble or distress. London was very different during the Olympics. It was a 24-hour city, and everyone was so friendly. You felt completely safe wherever you were. Not like a night-life city.

There are plans to have Games Pastors at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and the Rio Olympics, as a result of this first presence. I'm going to keep an eye on Brazil, if my lack of language doesn't hold me back; and local churches and secular organisations have asked me to speak; so I am doing my bit to fulfil the legacy of the Games.

I hope I was not a fearsome games teacher. I loved coaching the "naturals" and seeing them succeed, but maybe even more memorable were the ones who achieved personal goals beyond their expectations. Athletics was wonderful for that, as often someone would find that they could run distances, or throw, whereas they really struggled with team or ball games.

I like to get alongside young people. I hope that I can open their eyes to possibilities for their life, whether it's: "You could learn to do a handstand," or "You could organise a rock concert," or "Stand by your beliefs." And I love it when they come back and show me what they have achieved.

My immediate family are my life, and on both sides of the family we have big networks. Mine are in Scotland, and Chris's are a worldwide Adeney clan of missionaries. We've got two children, 21 and 19. My favourite place is my Scottish home on the Lomond Hills in Fife, or Llangranog in Ceredigion, where we had great family holidays with our children.

I regret that I didn't stick with my piano practice, or learn a portable instrument to a reasonable level.

I'd like to be remembered for having time for people, but I might have to work at it more.

Veronica Owen was a spiritual influence, as well as recognising an ability in me and giving me challenges to fulfil. She'd been a headmistress in Kenya, and then came back to Malvern Girls' College. Quiet, unobtrusive, but hugely influential - a lady of the era before schools became much more business-orientated. She had the gift of drawing out your strengths, and giving you opportunities you'd never have thought of. My parents were both community people, and that has been a strong influence on me, too.

I am not a great reader, but I love The Cloister and the Hearth, and The Mill on the Floss. I'm not keen on Paul's letters, but love reading Job, especially chapter 28: where is wisdom and understanding?

I love the sound of the wind in the trees when the curtains are closed.

Fracking makes me angry, and anything which distracts us from finding non-carbon, sustainable energy sources. Don't get me started, but I also act as self-appointed cathedral eco-worrier and -warrior. I get very cross when people don't make an effort, and it's quite a hard battle. The Church so obviously misses its opportunities. I guess we haven't got the right people to lead it. As being sustainable has an initial cost, people think: "Oh, we can't afford that." They don't see the prophetic aspects.

I'm happiest when my children are home from wherever they are, and we're round the kitchen table enjoying a meal together; or walking my dog with my husband, when we can finally talk.

I'd like to get locked in a church for a few hours with Hildegard of Bingen, or St Wulfstan of Worcester. He was obviously politically very shrewd, as well as being a holy man, because he managed to remain a bishop over the Norman Conquest, and remained very pally with whoever was in power at the time.

Sue Adeney was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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