The Bridge Interviews
Richard Coombs has been vicar of the Burford benefice for 18 years. The opening of the new Warwick Hall this month is one of the biggest events in his time here – by far the biggest in terms of church buildings, although he points out that there have been a number of smaller projects in all the benefice churches (Fulbrook, Taynton and Asthall, Swinbrook and Widford as well as Burford).to improve the church fabric in various ways. It is a big event not just for the church but also for everyone who lives in the area.
Richard was born at Kingston upon Thames, his father being an executive in the paint industry. When Richard was seven, his father lost his job and joined another paint company in Buckingham. Richard says this was one of the greatest blessings that has happened to him as he was able to grow up in the countryside and go to a school where he became a Christian. He has loved the country and rural pursuits ever since.
He attended Stowe School as a day boy. Although he came from a church-going family, it was at Stowe that he developed a personal Christian faith through the school chaplaincy, Christian Union and the example of other boys with a living faith in Jesus Christ. After leaving school he spent a gap year in Indonesia with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He taught English and formed a real concern for worldwide mission work.
He read psychology at Durham University, where he met Nicola, his future wife. He originally planned to study medicine but, as he realised he was moving towards ordination, he felt psychology would be a more useful discipline. After graduating he decided he needed some experience of the business world so he became a management trainee at United Biscuits where he loaded lorries, was a biscuit salesman and worked in the marketing department. He says this helped him to understand the concerns about working life and the pressures Christians could be under in terms of balancing work, family life and church membership.
Next he went to Ridley Hall theological college in Cambridge where he spent three years doing a theology degree and being trained for ordination. In 1990 he started his first curacy at Cockfosters in the northern fringes of London, where he had a great time and did a lot of youth work. He and Nicola married in 1991. He did a second curacy at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in the City of London. This church had been blown up by the IRA twice, once by the Bishopsgate bomb to the west and again by a bomb in St Mary Axe to the east. The vicar had narrowly escaped death or serious injury on the first occasion- when his bedroom windows were blown in while he was in bed. Richard was able to observe a major rebuilding project, something that has come in handy in recent years. At St Helen’s he had a rigorous training in preaching and this has remained a central part of his ministry.
He had imagined that he would become a vicar in a suburban parish but he was told of the vacancy in Burford and decided to apply. He and Nicola were nervous about moving to Burford with a young family; at that stage he and Nicola had three children (now four) aged 5, 3 and 0. And Burford church was at a low ebb with a congregation of about 30 mainly older people. Nevertheless they felt called to come here and he and Nicola moved into the vicarage in 1998.
They faced an immense challenge in rebuilding the church life in the benefice. At the end of three months he found he had five churches to look after single-handed. They started with prayer, Bible teaching and children’s work which was run by Nicola. They ran Alpha courses which turned into home groups. He was helped immensely by John Leach, who was in training and was then licenced as a lay reader, and he persuaded a retired vicar (Tom Farrell) to move here and help him. With the help of Hilary Tadman-Robins, the director of music, they introduced more informal services with contemporary hymns. This met with some opposition, but later he was able to start a second service for those who preferred more traditional forms of worship. He made sure he took a service in each of the villages at least once per month (he still does).
Gradually things built up. After two years he and Nicola decided they had not been mad to move here and Burford proved to be a wonderful place to bring up a family. By the end of seven years the church was well-established with a much bigger congregation and a friendly, family atmosphere. He was also able to build a staff team. The first curate, Stuart Allen, arrived and there have been curates ever since. Cedric Reavley was ordained, which was a great blessing. He was able to appoint a youth worker and a children’s worker, vergers and administrative staff. Nicola has been central to this process. Apart from children’s work she has run the women’s ministry and Rock-a-Tots (a very popular singing group for toddlers), she was chair of Burford Pre-School and has been in charge of planning the opening events at the Warwick Hall.
The idea of rebuilding the Warwick Hall came to Richard soon after he arrived as it was apparent that the old hall was not adequate to the church’s needs. The opportunity came when the existing lease of the hall to the town council expired. The then churchwardens, Ian Brown, Charles Hunter-Smart and Andrew Salsbury, did the preliminary work. A key moment was a church weekend away led by Bishop Paul Williams who encouraged the church to have “a big, bold, scary vision which without God’s help is bound to fail.” A generous donor, Olive Greening, funded the planning application and, without any idea of where the rest of the money was to come from, the project was set in motion.
The fundraising was launched by a gift day when over £1m was donated or pledged by individuals. Another churchwarden, Liz Gauntlett who tragically died in her mid-forties, left a very large legacy to the fund. Local trusts including the Falkland Hall and the Burford Charity Trustees, gave generously. At a later stage, Olive Greening promised to match everything the church raised pound for pound. Eventually the whole cost, £3.7m, was raised.
The new hall will have space for all sorts of church activities, especially children’s and youth work, and will provide somewhere to meet that is warm and comfortable. Richard is keen to emphasise that the hall is there for the use of the whole community of Burford and the surrounding villages, not just for the church. Already a number of societies and organisations have made arrangements to use it. There will be a Café, the Warwick Café, which will be open to all most of the time.
What comes next? That, Richard says, may become apparent once the hall is open and running. It may open up other opportunities, and time will tell.
How does he manage to fit in other things than work? Richard says he is strict about having one day per week off and good holidays. Having a dog, Lottie, forces him to get out of the house. He is a keen gardener (the vicarage garden was open during the last Burford Festival), he loves fishing, walking and painting. Above all he spends time with his family. Rebecca is about to start a teaching career in Somerset. Charlie is in his first year at Durham University and Ben has started a gap year teaching in Sydney. Jack the youngest, is in year 10 at school. He is delighted that Nicola’s parents, Jim and Anne Pringle, now live in Burford. His mother still lives in Buckingham, not far away.
One of the biggest things Richard has had to deal with over the last year was the death from cancer of his younger brother, Edward, who was himself vicar of a church at Banbury. Did this challenge his faith? No, he says, although he does not know why God allowed this to happen. The experience has made him wonder how people get through such events when they have no belief in everlasting life. The way his brother faced death was hugely inspirational to him. Being a Christian, he says, does not minimise grief when a loved one dies. He quotes a Bible verse, saying that Christians do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We do still but grieve, sometimes terribly, but in a different way from people who are not Christians, because Jesus died and rose again, we have such a wonderful hope of heaven and that changes everything., Would he ever consider leaving Burford? He admits that he might be tempted if a sufficiently exciting opportunity came along, but it hasn’t done so yet. He and Nicola are very happy here, and have many close friends in the church family and in the surrounding area, so that it would be very difficult for them to move away. Let’s hope there are enough new projects coming along to keep them here for years to come.