I was born in Tottenham – famous for its football and riots. My dad was a window cleaner and my mother was kept plenty busy bringing up me and my five siblings. If our house wasn’t already overcrowded, we also shared it with my nan and grandad. We were just a typical loving, if larger than average, rough-and-ready family.

My family wasn’t an especially religious one. So my decision, aged sixteen, with no added peer pressure, to want to know more about Jesus was all the more curious. However, my first visit to church, accompanied by a friend, wasn’t the experience I’d hoped for – everyone blanked us ... although this may have been due to my appearance. In hindsight a ‘kiss me quick’ hat, although suitable for a rebellious teen, wasn’t appropriate attire for the somewhat ‘stuffy’ church. We returned the following week, only to be shown the same level of disdain; enough was enough, my friend called it a day. Whether this experience is linked to her becoming an atheist I’ll never know; but we remain friends to this day. 

Undeterred, and still seeking answers, I paid a visit to another church. On this occasion I received the welcome I’d hoped for – my journey of faith had begun. By the age of seventeen I had a strong sense of God calling me to be a priest, the only hurdle being the small matter of the Church of England’s unwillingness for women to be ordained. So my faith led me in other directions and in my mid-twenties I made my temporary life vows and became a nun with the Society of Saint Margaret in Hackney, London. Being in a convent is unlike anything you see on TV. It had its challenges, especially within a very dynamic and – at the time – the most deprived part of the country. It was rough and tough but helped me grow as a person, while also playing to my strengths of engaging and talking to those within the community for the greater good. I’ve sat in gutters while individuals at their lowest ebb poured out their troubles – it was very much like street counselling. The habit I wore acted as both a beacon for those looking for help, while at times alienating me. 

After five years it felt like the right time to leave the convent. I hadn’t lost my faith, but my calling to be a priest hadn’t gone away, and I needed to embark on life’s next chapter outside of the religious community. I pondered as to the route I should take. But it took my good ol’ dad to suggest that my needs, of helping in the community, might be best placed as a housing-estate caretaker – he was spot on! So I, along with another nun who left the convent shortly after me, applied as a duo for several caretaker vacancies within two housing associations. One was in Camden, the other in Edmonton; we got offered them both. Edmonton was less money and a tougher area but, being gluttons for punishment and looking to effect change, it was the preferred choice. The estate was everything and more – a true multicultural microcosm. Aside from physically maintaining the estate, my role expanded into one of creating harmony and pride among residents. I got the kids involved, who until then took pleasure in trashing the very environment they called home. The changes didn’t happen overnight, but with time safety improved (due to our no-nonsense approach) and the results were plain to see. 

Meanwhile, in 1992 (during the fourteen years I was a caretaker) the vote was passed allowing women to be ordained. The news left me crying and rejoicing with delight, while at the same time dealing with equal measures of trepidation – as I now had no excuse not to follow God’s plan of action for me. The consternation and nagging doubts of whether I was ‘good enough’ to take on the role of priest added lengthy delays to my decision to begin the studying. After three years of study I completed my degree in contextual theology and was well on my way to ministerial formation. I left my role of caretaker and furthered my church training as assistant curate in Southend-on-Sea.

 

Towards the end of my curacy I was urged to visit St Mary-at-Latton in Harlow, where seemingly my skills were felt to be of benefit to the congregation and community as a whole. 

I knew less about Harlow than I did Southend, but upon visiting the church I was struck, aside from how green the surrounding area was, by what a happy congregation it had. Long story short, nine years ago I became vicar. I never looked back; I love being here – Harlow is now truly my home. 

Congregation numbers are increasing, maybe due to our progressive liberal attitude towards church services - namely, a mix of traditional solemn and  contemporary worship - but who knows? Within the community we make our presence known: among other things we assist the homeless, those in financial crisis, work with young and old alike and encourage our league-winning Latton Football Club! 

Despite the town’s problems, Harlow still surprises me. Chiefly, how it comes together and exhibits that strong sense of community. It’s as if that ‘Londoner’ attitude that many of the early Harlow New Town inhabitants had is now hardwired into society – Harlow townsfolk really are a resilient bunch.

Yes, there’s negativity slung at the town, but I urge people to see beyond that and focus on all the wonderful things we have. I love the fact the town is multicultural – I don’t care whether you’re black, white, straight or gay – what’s important is that (as our church motto professes) whoever you are, wherever you are on the journey, you’re welcome here.

© 2018 CHRIS HADDON

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