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27th October 2017

Father Timothy retires; Vicar of Preston reflects on his ministry

Adjectives. That was the first word that came to mind sitting down to interview the Rev Canon Timothy Lipscomb, the retiring Vicar of Preston.

Here are some: ebullient, charismatic, amusing, passionate, committed, faithful, accomplished, prayerful.

The overarching feeling you get when you speak to him is that here is a man of the true Christian tradition who has taken account of the clear Biblical instruction handed down to us to minister to the poor, to sinners, to the sick, to the lonely, the isolated and ostracised.

He is quoted as saying: “I believe the priesthood is a life of sacrifice to serve the church and you have to make sacrifices to live in the footsteps of the Disciples.”

Now as retirement looms (although not the kind of retirement that most people would contemplate) he has the chance to reflect on what he has experienced, seen and heard.

A Yorkshireman, from a gentleman farming background, his schooling reflected the family’s status as landowners – Aysgarth prep school in the Dales and then packed off to Radley College in Oxford.

The usual path would have led him into banking, but he was aware of his calling to serve God as young as 13, and at 29 finally entered theological training in the now closed Chichester College.

“Nothing in my life has gone as I expected it to – which probably means that God has a great sense of humour,” he told me.

The anecdotes come thick and fast. Timothy knows just about everybody in Yorkshire and everyone in Lancashire now as well! His calling has always been that of a catholic.

Priested in 1986, his ministry began in Sevenoaks and then in 1988 he came back to Yorkshire as Vicar of Stanningley and Swinnow, a tough inner-city parish between Leeds and Bradford.

As you would expect, he made an impact. It was his first opportunity to indulge a lifelong interest in improving and restoring the fabric of churches: “I transformed the 1960s prefab church into something more church-like,” he says.

That early experience was a prelude to a much tougher incumbency.

“I was headhunted for another job, but the then Bishop of Ripon said no, I’ve got somewhere I want you to go … St Bartholomew’s, Armley.”

As well as being one of the most deprived inner-city areas in the country, the church was, in Timothy’s words, ‘in a terrible state’.

“We needed to restore the whole place – outside, inside and organ, a Schulze, one of the finest of its kind in the world.

“I was blessed in that during my 13 years there, we managed a complete restoration and actually paid the £2million cost of it as well. I told the congregation and PCC if God wants this done, it will happen. Thankfully He did, and it was!”

For his last five years in Armley, in addition to already being Area Dean, Timothy was also given the job of looking after St Saviour’s Church at Richmond Hill in Leeds and started a restoration there which he didn’t see finished.

“Eventually the Bishop told me that there was a job just suited to me in Preston. ‘Why would I want to go to Preston?’ I asked him. But God was right again, and I was interviewed and got the job!”

Preston

“They didn’t know what to make of me in the early years,” he says. “People began to disappear and others began to appear and eventually we got to the point where everyone in the church family was getting along famously and now we work together really well.”

“My ministry has always been to make all people feel included, that they belong.”

“What our communities need is kindness, pastoral care and Christian Hope – explaining clearly why we need God in our lives, and just how important Jesus is to us here and now. The Church must be careful we don’t alienate people. Church isn’t playtime or entertainment, church is quite serious stuff really.

“So, I have been privileged to reach out to the marginalised people in the communities I have served and it is a joy to do so.”

Timothy has also enjoyed fostering good relationships with other faith groups; being able to ‘share our theology in a reasoned and respectful environment’.

In addition to two parishes, Timothy also has a wider community profile in the City, having taken the roles of Chaplain to the Mayor of Preston and the High Sheriff and sitting on 47 committees, with many being an active role rather than ex-officio!

From 2008 to 2015 Father Timothy held the additional Diocesan role of Area Dean of Preston, but this was brought to an abrupt end by God, midway through a sermon at St John's Minster, Preston!

Speaking at the time he said: "While delivering the sermon I heard this voice in my head saying: 'You must give up being Area Dean.' And it kept being repeated, over and over.

"After the service, I phoned Bishop Julian (the Bishop of Blackburn) and said: 'You won't believe what's happened.' He listened, and, apart from saying it left him with a bit of a headache, he did understand!”

Later that same year, following the retirement of Archdeacon John Hawley, Bishop Julian offered Father Timothy the temporary job of Assistant Archdeacon of Blackburn, an appointment that was just up his street.

He smiles: “I thoroughly enjoyed that responsibility, it gave me a global view of the Diocese and, as a people person, I relished spending my time getting alongside clergy and congregations and helping to make things happen.”

So how does he feel approaching retirement?

“I have had a wonderful time in Preston,” says Timothy. “I've not regretted a minute but it's never a bed of roses being a priest. The pay’s not great, the hours are long and your life is never your own once you wear a dog collar!”

And the secret of his success? He ponders for a moment before saying: “You have to be very flexible if you are to be a priest – softly, softly rather than hard edged. Although you must not be afraid of making prayerfully-considered hard decisions either.”

He continues: “I worked hard to make the Minster and St Georges a community hub with regular arts and community activities for example.”

Another lifelong passion is cooking: he is modest about this particular skill, but those who know him pay tribute to his skills in the kitchen and he has consistently provided and cooked food for the many groups that use the Minster and St George’s.

Once a month, Timothy also hosts a Sunday Lunch for people who are lonely or living alone.

Timothy is also particularly fond of the Preston Guild, and in 2012 he organised a huge Guild ecumenical service under canvas in Avenham Park. At the same time, Timothy suffered a heart attack. ‘All stop’, the hospital told him. ‘No way’ he said and within five hours was back in the thick of it at a Guild concert in Preston!

Thankfully Timothy is now planning to slow down – a bit. He is retiring to Old Colwyn, in North Wales. He will remain a priest, but will have time at last to take holidays, and intends to keep catering for people. (His business will, he thinks, be called Canon Fodder!)

He also plans to maintain his interest in classic cars; write a book about his ‘unusual and eccentric’ childhood and, crucially, he has found a suitable church as well.

Other pastimes will include indulging his lifelong passion for horseracing.

What about exercise? He chuckles: “I won’t go for brisk long walks as my doctor says I should. I want to be able to saunter!”

And so we part, leaving me with the most unlikely picture in my mind – that of Father Timothy Lipscomb simply sauntering along through life … no way.

 

Feature written by Mark Ashley

You can listen to a BBC Radio Lancashire Special interviewing Father Timothy Lipscomb's Big Adventure part 1 here on BBC iPlayer with part 2 now available here. The whole programme (parts 1 and 2) will be broadcast together at Christmas.