Interview: Jo Cundy solicitor and author

29 August 2014

'Each day is a gift from God'

I was married to Ian, who was Bishop of Peterborough for 13 years. In Letting Go of Ian, I wrote about my faith journey over four very eventful years.

I structured the book around three determining moments that changed my life: Ian's terminal diagnosis in 2007, his death in 2009, and my experience in the Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake in 2011.

When Ian became ill, I started to keep a journal where I could articulate my feelings and reactions. As I looked back after a near-death experience in Christchurch, I wanted to share those reflections, and to explore the "why? what? how?" questions that I was asking God. I learnt things I wanted to share.

Immortality is not an option, and the issues here are ones that we'll all, at some time, have to face. Also, I had in mind other people in high-profile positions who have to walk through these difficult times in the public view.

It's not really a book about grief and bereavement, but about journeying with God through the unexpected. It's an adventure of life and love, as well as loss.

Ian was a polymath, with a wonderfully wide range of interests and talents. He came from a family of mathematicians and teachers, and his deep faith had been nurtured from childhood. I was the grounded lawyer. He did the DIY, tinkered with clocks and old cars, and taught me about the natural world. I cooked the Cordon Bleu meals, and my father taught him about wine. Both of us enjoyed singing. We met in a Christian choir at university.

My father was a consultant surgeon, and my parents came to England from New Zealand in the 1930s. My mother's great-grandparents had gone there in 1830s as CMS missionaries, and my father's family had left Northern Ireland in the 1880s. I grew up in north London with two older brothers.

I went to a Woodard boarding school. That gave me a formal Christianity for which I'm immensely grateful. We learned plainsong, and prayers by heart - things which this generation doesn't know.

It moved from my head to my heart when I was at university, and Dick Lucas came to a mission. My faith matured through singing with the choir, because we were trying to preach through our music. Almost exactly a year after the meeting, I realised how much I had changed. It was like having a first birthday.

Ian and I were married shortly before he was ordained; so for me marriage and ministry have always gone together. After qualifying, I always worked part-time as a solicitor so that I could have time with the family and be involved in Ian's ministry. I have two sons and a daughter, and five grandchildren.

Life as a bishop's wife was fascinating and enjoyable, because it enabled so many insights and opportunities. There is involvement in church, community, and civic life, as well as national and international contacts.

Life now is very different. I'm finding other ways of being involved in local church life, and I no longer have community involvement as a lawyer or as a non-executive director in the NHS; so there's the challenge of finding a new identity and purpose in life.

I'd arranged to be at General Synod in York on 14 July to promote and sign my book; so I found myself able to attend the debate on the ordination of women bishops. When the vote came, it felt like the right way forward in a real spirit of trust and reconciliation, and also of profound joy. Ian would have been so pleased.

One of my sons now lives in Australia; so in 2011 I had arranged a trip to visit him and meet a new born granddaughter, and this gave me the opportunity to go on to New Zealand and visit family and friends there. Hence I found myself in the cathedral in Christchurch on 22 February when the major earthquake struck.

In January this year, I was back again, partly to research family papers in the National Archives in Wellington, and I revisited Christchurch. The Transitional Cathedral is inspiring and beautiful. They don't like to call it the cardboard cathedral, but it's made of big cardboard tubes triangulated like a tent, with perspex over it. It's designed to be earthquake-proof and to last for about 40 years. It's built opposite the cleared site of the Canterbury Television building, where most of the people who died were. They are still debating what to do with the original cathedral.

New Zealand provided two contrasting images, which I have used in the book. The earthquake was perhaps the ultimate determining moment in my life. It made me ask much more fundamental questions of God than I had ever asked before: Why am I still here? What is my life about?

Then there was the Maori motif of koru, the unfolding fern leaf, which speaks of new beginnings, new life, gradual growth, and helped me to see these past four years as an unfolding journey.

Each day is a gift from God. I want to see our family growing up. I want to go on sharing life's adventures. I want to go on storytelling.

I love the peace and quiet at the top of Weardale, in County Durham, with just the sound of the wind and the birds. But then, for comfort, there is nothing like the sound of a kettle boiling for a cup of tea.

There are two groups of people whose friendship was important to me. First, the Ichthyan Singers, an interdenominational Christian choir which was formative in my young Christian life. That range of churchmanship has helped me feel comfortable in any group of Christians in later life. Second, the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship [LCF], which helped me to integrate my faith with my chosen profession.

In the 1980s I edited a little booklet called Law: Some Christian perspectives, which dealt with issues of money, family law, defending a defendant whom you believe is guilty, and generally how to be a Christian with integrity in a profession where there are many temptations to take the easy or lucrative route. Expectations and financial pressures have increased; but there are some very fine Christian lawyers around in all branches of the profession, and the LCF has been going strong since 1852.

The individuals who have influenced me most have been Ian, and then Ruth Etchells, who was Principal of St John's College, Durham, when Ian was Warden of Cranmer Hall. She was an academic with profound spiritual insight who became a valued friend and mentor. I miss them both greatly.

I read widely: history, biography, novels, Christian books. I remember a little booklet, Sacrifice, from my student days. We were a generation who were taught to count the cost of Christian commitment. More recently, I appreciated the novel Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky, for her profoundly moving understanding of the often painful complexity of human life and love.

I pray daily for an awareness of the reality of God in what the day may bring, and for the people I will encounter.

This question reminds of the end of Buñuel's film The Exterminating Angel. If I was locked in a church with anyone, I'd like to be with my great-great-grandparents, John and Anne Wilson, and have an honest insight into what life and ministry in New Zealand was really like in the 1830s.

Jo Cundy was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Letting Go of Ian was published this year by Monarch, £7.99 - CT Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT945 ).

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