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Interview: John Robinson, chairman of MHA

13 December 2019

‘Staff in our care homes do work that I’m simply incapable of doing’

MHA is Methodist Homes — originally “for the Aged”, hence the A, but that’s no longer used. It was founded 75 years ago to care for all people, no matter their faith or background. We serve 18,500 older people across our 90 care homes, 70 retirement living communities, and 62 live-at-home schemes, supported by over 7500 staff and over 4000 volunteers.

We’re the largest charity in the sector, and our chaplaincy service is unique: 120 paid chaplains from all denominations, led by Chris Swift, who’s an Anglican. In a typical care home, we might have 60 or 70 residents, and a chaplain for 12 hours a week to lead services, befriend people, especially in crisis, and support the staff, who are in a fairly stressful environment. We have four Roman Catholic chaplains, which I’m particularly proud of.

The chaplain is absolutely the centre of it, as a vicar is in a community. You can’t measure it, but you can somehow feel it. It costs over a million pounds a year, but in the scheme of things it’s a small amount.

All of us on the board are volunteers. We focus on long-term direction, but we ensure the highest quality day-to-day management, because we’re looking after people at a particularly vulnerable time in their life.

We have to adapt to changing demands, and remain financially viable, although government funding gets tighter. We have to maintain outstanding committed staff, and excellent staff conditions and Living Wage Commission rates.

The chief executive and I focus on relations with all denominations, as well as the Methodist Church. This had slipped somewhat, and we’re nothing without our Christian foundation. Perfection is when we have volunteers from local churches befriending residents. In Penrith, 25 volunteers come from the local Methodist church. It benefits them, too, because Christianity isn’t just about looking after your own church. We try to link up with Students’ Unions and other organisations to bring young people in.

I was very fortunate to spend much of my career working for Smith & Nephew [medical equipment suppliers] because, while it’s very commercial, it’s also focused on improving people’s lives physically, which is where my Christian faith naturally led me.

I most enjoyed the people, and building teams throughout the world, particularly strong in R&D and marketing. My proudest achievement was helping to develop from an industrial conglomerate with little overseas business a world-leading medical-device business, and it’s gone from strength to strength.

I chaired Railtrack a long time ago, because I was asked to do it, and rightly or wrongly, I believed I could help in a pretty chaotic situation after privatisation. It was interesting! The political exposure didn’t help. The switch to Network Rail probably made sense at the time, but the impatient political process made it harder, and cost a lot more money than it needed. I learned a lot.

My first role in the care sector was chairing Voyage, caring for people with learning difficulties in 450 small communities. Then I chaired the Abbeyfield Society, the second biggest charity caring for older people, from an Anglican foundation. I’m a trustee of Livability, a Christian charity caring for people with learning and often physical difficulties in schools and homes. I also chair the Hull Minster Development Trust, investing £7.4 million to make the building fit for purpose in the 21st century.

I also mentor and direct two engineering spinouts from Imperial College as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. One of them enables people to sample their own blood weekly at home during oncology, saving a lot of money and stress. The other is developing a material which radically reduces impact; so it can be used in cycle helmets and clothes, or in panties to protect elderly ladies’ hips from fracture if they fall. In both cases, we now employ 30 young people, and it’s uplifting to be around them.

I was an only child brought up in West Yorkshire by wonderful Methodist parents. My father ran a textile business. I had lots of friends, and loved playing cricket and football and roaming the fields. I boarded at a Methodist school, Woodhouse Grove, from the age of ten. The wonderful, dedicated staff, gave us very broad exposure to true education, faith, and social justice. They encouraged us to “do as much as you can, as well as you can, as long as you can”. Their influence comes out more as I get older.

I studied chemical engineering at Birmingham, where I met Doreen, who was doing nurse training. We married as soon as I graduated and we had two children. Mark has his own translation business. Karen nursed, and now she’s a teaching assistant. We’re proud of them, and of our four grandchildren — though I’ve totally failed to influence any of them to become engineers.

God feels ever present from childhood, but, of course, the relationship deepens and broadens over the years. I’ve come to know Christians through my charity work, and learned from them all, from the deep spirituality of the Jesuits and Catholics, to the Evangelical tradition. The Jesuits and Methodists, at their best, have much in common: a real focus on social justice and spiritual care for all.

I attend our welcoming Anglican village church, but I still feel a Methodist. What’s the true difference, anyway? The reasons John Wesley created a separate movement are long gone, and the issues debated now are largely about form and structure, and the preservation of what we grew up with.

My favourite form of worship, as I get older, is quiet and reflective — typically 8 a.m. communion without music. That’s a long way from early Methodist experience “born in song” — but I still love singing. I increasingly enjoy peace and silence. But I love the sound of a cricket bat on ball, and classical music. I’ve just taken to learning the piano.

I’m not directly involved in current Anglican-Methodist conversations, but I’m vocal where I can be. The wheels need oiling somewhat. I’m optimistic but nervous, remembering what happened last time. I simply believe that there should be only one Church, but it’s a real challenge to get there. Mutual recognition of ministries is a first step, but what happens on the ground — like LEPs [local ecumenical projects] — is probably more important. I don’t think that the problems are so much quarrels, but deep misunderstandings and, frankly, prejudice.

There have been many issues in my professional life where I’ve agonised as to what I should do, and I’ve had to make unpopular decisions; but the big life decisions, like marrying Doreen, were really easy.

I get angry when some England batsmen don’t show the technique that, in my view, they should have learned at school. But, seriously, I’m angry when people in public and business are concerned about self and not others. And I despair at the way many, and some media, just denigrate others.

I’m happiest with the family, and seeing them all in their different ways doing their best to live good and fulfilled lives. The peace and views from the top of mountains puts all my small issues into perspective. Seeing developments from things that I strive to achieve, and seeing people develop, make me happy.

And people give me hope: unsung, doing wonderful work, committed to doing all that they can for others. Staff in our care homes doing work that I’m simply incapable of doing: volunteers, school governors, churches, arts societies, Brownie leaders, coaches at sports clubs. . .

I do pray. I’ve used the Jesuit Sacred Space for some time. I always pray for my family, friends, and colleagues, and for areas where I may have some influence, and for guidance as to how best to handle things.

Being a restless soul, my first reaction to being locked in a church would be to get out. But, once reconciled to the idea, I’d choose to be there with my father, who died in my first year at university. He was a truly good man, with vision and huge energy. He laid the foundations. And then my housemaster at Woodhouse Grove, who is still very much alive. He wrote in my report: “Needs to learn that the more he puts into life, the more he gets out of it.” That kick-started me. I’d ask them: “Can I do better?”

John Robinson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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