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Interview: Debbie Thrower

19 December 2014

I think I grew up with a strong sense of God. I went to the Methodist boarding school Edgehill College, in Bideford, which provided me with a firm Christian foundation. I lapsed a bit in my 20s, but regained a stronger faith as we became parents, and later when I was accompanying my own parents through the difficulties of their own old age. 

I became a licensed lay minister while I was working full-time in television, and developed the Anna Chaplaincy in Alton. We think it's such a good model that could be used elsewhere. Just as Lucy Moore developed Messy Church with the help of the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF). I started working for the BRF in January 2014 to spearhead an initiative for older people called the Gift of Years, resourcing the spiritual journey of older people. 

The Anna Chaplaincy is an ecumenical chaplaincy to older people. It's like planting a flag in the middle of the market town of Alton, or wherever, saying that older people matter. It's named after the faithful widow Anna in Luke's Gospel, and it's a way of ministering to frail older people, particularly, but not exclusively, in residential and sheltered homes. 

We want to help churches, individuals, and care homes make the most of the fact we're living longer, and capitalise on the opportunities for spiritual growth in later life. 

For several days a month I'm working on the micro-level, doing pastoral work with individuals and families; the rest of the time, I'm preparing course materials, and training people. 

I'm trying to give people resources, commissioning writers, asking what Bible notes we need to reach the really frail older person, asking: how can I inspire others who have a heart for older people?

It's great to encourage young people, but don't neglect the people you've actually got on your doorstep. And think about a slightly fairer sharing of resources. 

It was through seeing all those things through my parents' eyes that I recognised what enormous challenges there are. I also saw what a spiritually fertile time it can be: a mellowing emergence of a nobility of spirit. They grew spiritually through the vicissitudes. 

Society's emphasis on being youthful, beautiful, useful, and productive makes it incredibly difficult to enter the more passive stages of our lives. People can feel sidelined, surplus to requirements. There used to be more of a sense that to reach a grand old age was a great achievement, and you were a repository of wisdom in society. 

I work with people with dementia. We mustn't be too hasty to say they lose their spiritual life. You can reach people even in the most advanced stages of dementia by using things that engage the senses, the right music, traditional prayers. The Lord's Prayer often acts as a key that unlocks memories. If you take this worship in a quiet, tranquil way, you can do a lot of work that's quite surprising. 

We're so steeped in our value of cognitive ability that it's very natural to feel inadequate in a room full of people who have lost that, but if you are 100 per cent present in the moment, you find new ways of connecting. 

John Swinton's book Dementia: Living in the memories of God has influenced me profoundly. He talks about holding such people, re-membering them: literally putting them together again, on their behalf. 

No, I don't miss my old way of life, actually, because for me it was always about story, and now I have stories galore when I'm listening to older people tell me about their lives. Listening and helping people reflect on their unique life experiences helps them discover who they truly are, deep down. So I hope you can see there is continuity between what I once did for a living, and what I'm engaged in now. 

I loved the immediacy of radio, and the close connection with the audience; so they were very happy and varied days, having my own show on Radio 2 in the afternoons, for example, or presenting one- off series and more long-running shows like You and Yours and Sunday. I really enjoyed the buzz of TV news, and regional broadcasting had lots of light and shade in it, celebrating the good news of the South of England, as well as providing a record of the sad, and more exceptional tragedies and news events. 

The hardest thing any journalist has to do is visiting bereaved families, often because of particularly harrowing events. It is good now when spending time with someone who is grieving or contemplating their own mortality, not to have to rush, taking the opportunity to really listen attentively, and share, and absorb, some of their pain. 

My husband and I have two children: a daughter, Bryony, and a son, Sam. They're both in their twenties. We live a few miles from Winchester. Pete is a conservationist; so we love living a bit off the beaten track. I was born in Kenya, but spent part of my childhood in east Devon; so I suppose, unconsciously, we have recreated a home setting that's also as remote as it is feasible to be when you are both busy working and travelling. We have a dog, a lurcher called Rosie, who needs a lot of exercise, and two seal-point Siamese cats. I'm also a water baby: I love swimming. 

As a lay canon on Chapter, Winchester Cathedral's governing body, I bring communications expertise, I guess, and my knowledge of the diocese as a lay minister, and of the wider region as a broadcaster who's lived and worked there for more than 30 years. It's a very exciting time for Winchester Cathedral: a £20.5-million development scheme, and exhibition space for the renowned Winchester Bible. 

I'm a keen reader, so always have a book on the go, and I enjoy cooking and seeing friends. 

We often go to Italy, where one of my sisters currently lives, or to north Cornwall; and we enjoy ambling through Europe with no particular agenda, but we don't go often enough. Anywhere with (preferably warm) blue water is very appealing. 

I'm content to take things as they come these days. I used to be quite calculating about what career step to take next, but now realise it is more about receiving than achieving. 

A drama on TV really made me angry. It was based on the true stories of the way girls are groomed for sex by older men. It seems to have been followed by wave after wave of news accounts of girls, especially vulnerable when they are in care, who are exploited by gangs. The recent scandals have sickened me.

I'm happiest on a beach, in the sun, and with no deadlines, and not having to do anything in particular. Also when I am home, and the fridge is well-stocked, and I'm relaxing among the people who know me best. 

Lots of good soul-friends have influenced me, who seem to have appeared at just the right moments. Also my parents, of course. My father always used to say: "Never put your wishbone where your backbone ought to be." And my mother's epitaph should have been: "Never mean with the butter." 

If I were ever to be on Desert Island Discs, I'd see if I could get away with the complete works of Michael Mayne as my chosen book. I met him once when he was Dean, and I was presenting Songs of Praise from Westminster Abbey. He writes like a good friend who takes you by the hand into a library, and says: "Now, I know just what you'll enjoy." 

I pray that everything will turn out for the best for those I love, for myself, and for all of us planted for a season in this world that can be, by turns, surreal, sorrowful, but also superbly surprising. 

I actually did get locked in a church - with Russ Parker, of the Acorn Healing Trust, the other day. We were in what's called The Pod in St Lawrence's, in Alton, and at dusk someone locked up not realising we were still there. He's a very funny man, with a fund of stories, and a strong sense of the ridiculous, so we laughed a lot - and fortunately we didn't need to phone for help, as I did, eventually, find a key on my keyring that I'd never used before, which unlocked an obscure outside door.

Debbie Thrower was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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