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Interview: Howard Such, warden, The College of St Barnabas

10 June 2016

‘If people feel safe, they’re much less likely to be grumpy’

We are home to up to 64 people. There are 37 places in sheltered flats, including for eight couples, and 27 beds in our integrated nursing wing.

Anglican clergy have first refusal when a place becomes available; then widowed clergy spouses; next, lay people who have held a bishop’s licence; and then practising communicants.

The College was founded in the 1890s by Canon William Cooper, after he found dozens of clergy living in poverty in workhouses. He wanted to form a community in which Anglican priests could receive the spiritual, as well as the practical, care they need in retirement. Today, we welcome retired Anglicans, ordained and lay, who have served all over the world, in such places as the Caribbean, Africa, Malaysia, Chile, and India.

The College is here for the whole of the Anglican Communion, and we have people of all traditions living here. At one time we had Dr John Stott and a former Superior of the Cowley Fathers here together. If there’s a label that characterises the community, it is more that we have a Benedictine way of life, the gentle stability of daily worship and hospitality that is at the heart of that tradition.

People are admitted according to need
rather than the length of time they have been on the list. There are usually around 60 names on the list, but only some of them will be ready to move at any one time. At the moment, at least seven people are waiting to arrive when accommodation becomes available.


We live a collegiate life together, rather like a religious community in the non-technical sense, although we do have several Religious living here. The daily life of prayer is at the heart of all we do. Also, we aim to provide a seamless transition from one level of care to another, as people’s needs change. You can arrive at any time from active early retirement to end-of-life care.

It’s important to leave the way clear for a successor; so I don’t believe it would be right for me just to stay on when I retire. My wife and I plan to retire to Kent when the time comes. Later on, if we need care, the College would be a great place to consider.

I’ve been asked to provide spiritual and pastoral care for the clergy in all the jobs I have done, since I moved from being a curate; so coming here was a natural progression. In the nine years I have been warden, I’ve used the experience I have gained in all my previous appointments.

I try to understand from the inside, as best I’m able, what it is that people are bringing to the conversations. It helps that I’ve been ordained, too. The task is also to try to hear what God is saying and wants them to hear in a particular conversation — not just what they say and I say back. Sometimes that can be very surprising: ideas come to me that had nothing to do with me but, people say, are very helpful.

No two days are the same, but there’s a daily rhythm of worship, beginning with the eucharist and ending with evensong, and a daily timetable of meals. There are many different activities, including groups for art, poetry, music, theology, films, and model railways, individual activities, and a regular programme of outings and pilgrimage. Although there is a lot of variety, there is a sense of stability that comes from being rooted in the life of the chapel.

Everyone needs to know that their view is respected, and they’re not threatened by the life we live. If people feel safe, they’re much less likely to be grumpy. And there needs to be a willingness to be tolerant and to have appropriate give-and-take. People who can live well in a community are people who understand that. We don’t bring new people in without a period when they come here and they and the community reach a view about whether this is right for them.

Exercising priesthood is one of the joys of this place:
everyone who is able, and wishes, to continue a liturgical or pastoral ministry has ample opportunity to do so.

People can come and stay who don’t want to be permanent residents but need a time for retreat and reflection. One of the exciting things is to see someone arrive really very tired out and stressed, and go away smiling and with a spring in their step. It’s not because the college is full of saints, but because it’s a place where God is at work. And the prayers of the residents can bring healing and transformation, even though they are of “a certain age”. Their prayers are astonishingly powerful.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is preaching at our festival evensong this year, as our patron. He reviewed a lot of his inherited patronages when he was consecrated, and decided to retain those which reflect the priorities of his episcopate: prayer, mission, and reconciliation. We are very pleased to think that this is very much what the College’s work is about.

We have our annual open afternoon on 11 June, which gives people the opportunity to learn more about the life of the college. It’s from 2.30 to 4.30 p.m, all free, and you don’t have to book. We’re right next to Dormans railway station on the East Grinstead line. William Cooper must have been an irresistible force: he managed to buy this estate, and even got a siding built in the station for college supplies. We can be in London in under an hour.

St Barnabastide also brings our fully subscribed festival dinner, which is a formal fund-raising event, and brings people together. The President of the College, the Dean of Southwark, is this year’s after-dinner speaker.

One of the things people say here is ‘Don’t leave it too long,’
because the earlier you move into a community, the better it is for everyone. There’s a letter I received: “As I’m only 95, I don’t think I’m old enough yet.” He did come, aged 98, and lived with us for 18 months.

The College is well managed, and we are financially secure, but there’s a continual need to meet the shortfall that we face in caring for people who are socially funded. Last year, this meant a gap of £125,000 to fill; but we are hugely fortunate that many individuals, parishes, and trusts understand this and support us generously.

Of course, I have lost people here that I’ve come to love, and I miss them greatly. But there’s something uniquely privileged in being alongside someone until the end of their earthly life, holding their hand and praying with them as they prepare for death, and giving them a good send-off when the time comes. And that’s not only my view: it’s the way the community as a whole responds when someone dies.

My first experience of God was such a long time ago it’s difficult to remember exactly. I think the best way to describe it is a growing awareness, from childhood onwards, of being accompanied and directed towards a ministry that I didn’t even think about to begin with.

As with anything, the more you explore, the more you realise you don’t know. My early faith was really very simple and understandable, but increasingly now I find God more than my little mind can comprehend. My prayers are now less to do with doing and more to do with offering and listening. But then it’s not much of a conversation if only one person does all the talking.

I’m an only child. My father worked in a local solicitors’ office, and my mother looked after the home. My wife and I met in Cheam in 1981 when I was the junior curate and she was a newly qualified teacher in a church school. We now have two sons and three grandchildren.

My favourite sound has to be music, but it can take many forms. It can be quiet organ music in a cathedral before a service, my wife singing to herself at home, a jazz pianist, or string quartet. I am musical, yes: I’ve been a precentor at Canterbury and at Sheffield.

There have been several key people who’ve influenced me, especially teachers. If I have to pick one it would be Allan Wicks. He was organist and master of the choristers at Canterbury Cathedral, and I worked with him as his last precentor there. I learnt more from him about living well and practising the faith, as well as his musical wisdom, than anyone. There are countless former choristers who would say the same.

I love my role as the warden of the College, but, as I’m on call 24 hours a day, the time I can spend with my wife is very precious. It’s that which brings me the greatest happiness.

My prayer has two main elements: gratitude, and a longing to grow in faith and understanding. Some wisdom would be good, too.

If I was locked in a church, and my companion had to be someone other than my wife, I should love to spend more time in conversation with Allan. Every moment would be a delight: fun, enriching, and inspiring.

The Revd Howard Such was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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