Clergy woman takes on challenge of replacing the murdered Rev John Suddards
David Clensy meets the new incumbent at St Mary’s Church in Thornbury, Rev Jan van der Lely, as she takes on the challenge of replacing the murdered Rev John Suddards.
NOTHING Rev Jan van der Lely was taught in her training, or in her three years as a curate, could have prepared her for the challenge she faces as she takes on her first role as a parish priest.
For every member of the clergy, the responsibilities of taking on that first parish as a fully-fledged vicar must feel enormous – but for Jan, replacing the murdered Thornbury vicar, Rev John Suddards, is a calling that brings an almost unique set of challenges – spiritual, practical and emotional hurdles that the 57-year-old must overcome.
"I remember when I first heard the news about John's death on television – how that poor man had been killed in his own vicarage. As well as being struck by how tragic the whole thing was, I also remember thinking – another vicar is going to have to replace him, and I knew that would be an enormous challenge for somebody. I never imagined it would be me."
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But just a few months later, Jan was to receive a call from the Bishop of Gloucester, the Right Rev Michael Perham, asking her if she would consider taking on the parish.
"It came completely out of the blue," she admits. "But the fact that Bishop Michael thought me capable of such a challenge was really quite humbling.
"I gave it a lot of thought, and talked it through with my husband, but in the end I decided God had a real purpose for me here at Thornbury – I knew it wouldn't be as straightforward as a normal first parish, but I felt there was an important role I could fill."
Rev John Suddards had only been installed in the role for eight-and-a-half months when he was found dead in the hallway of the vicarage on St Valentine's Day.
Stephen Farrow, 47, who was arrested on February 19 in Folkestone, Kent, has been charged with the murder of Rev Suddards.
News of his murder sent shockwaves through the close-knit community – not just among the regular churchgoers, but throughout the community, as residents tried to come to terms with the brutal murder that had taken place in their sleepy market town.
As she looks across the empty rows of pews in the ornate church, which was crammed with more than 500 mourners for Rev Suddard's funeral a little over six months ago, Jan says: "The community was in shock. Bishop Michael, quite rightly, wanted to get a new priest installed for the parish as soon as possible – after all, now more than ever, the role was vitally important to the community.
"Also, John had himself only been installed a few months – so the parish had undergone the usual lengthy period without a vicar, while interviews took place for the job only the previous year. So I fully understood why Bishop Michael approached me directly.
"I've been getting to know everyone over the last couple of weeks since my arrival – the post covers not only St Mary's, but also St Paul's on the other side of the town, as well as two nearby rural chapels.
"Everyone has been very welcoming. I think people are just happy to see the parish returning to some sort of normal day-to-day life. As a community we do need to look to the future.
"Thornbury isn't a place with a high crime rate; it isn't a dangerous place – so for this to happen here, and for it to happen to the parish priest, really stunned everyone.
"But I'm doing all I can to help people to move on from that initial shock and sadness. It is true that communities pull together even stronger at times of crisis and tragedy, and that's been proven here at Thornbury. People have been there for each other."
But as well as ministering to the spiritual and emotional needs of the community, Jan has also had to consider the practical matter of ensuring her own safety.
"John's death did remind clergy people how vulnerable we can be," she says. "The very nature of our calling means we must of course open our doors to all who need our help, and often that means helping people who may be emotionally unstable or be suffering with mental illness.
"You have to balance your own practical welfare in all that. While I will continue to have an open-door policy to the way I live my life, I do make a judgement call with each individual. If I feel concerned, I would only invite somebody into the vicarage while my husband is there, and I have the reassurance of having my dogs at home too. But you can be vulnerable in this job."
Jan previously worked as curate at Cirencester, before which she had a background in teaching.
"I taught in Cheltenham and Gloucester, and then worked as a lay-chaplain at an international school in Switzerland, which really gave me the confidence to follow the calling I felt towards the clergy," she says.
"It's a real privilege to be welcomed into people's lives, and into a community like Thornbury – now I will focus on serving the community spiritually, emotionally and practically."