Why Shaftesbury’s New Vicar Felt ‘Drawn’ To Our Town

The Reverend Kirsty Clarke took up her Team Vicar position with the Church of England in Shaftesbury in September. She chatted with Alfred’s Keri Jones about engaging with the community, inclusivity, Dawn French and her special skill for jumping off buildings!

When Kirsty Clarke saw her Shaftesbury job advertised, she knew she had to apply and return to her family roots. “I visited Shaftesbury when I was 14,” said Kirsty, as she handed me a coffee in the study of her new home on Tanyard Lane. “I was a Thomas Hardy fanatic and I lived in Sussex at the time. I used to make my parents drag me around Hardy sites in Dorset and we had a trip to Shaftesbury. I have a photograph of me and my sister standing at the top of Gold Hill. It turns out I was standing right outside the church office. It has come full circle,” smiled Kirsty.

Reverend Kirsty Clarke with some of the cards made by Abbey School pupils to welcome her

She says when she saw the vacancy advertised it stood out to her. “I was drawn to the job in Shaftesbury when I saw it. I’m also called to rural ministry in particular, and again, that drew me here. From a personal point of view, my dad’s side of the family came from Dorset a good couple of hundred years ago, so I felt a little bit like I was returning to my roots,” Kirsty said.

I remarked that many of the decorations in Kirsty’s workspace seemed to follow a seaside theme. A model of a yacht sat on the mantelpiece behind us. I questioned why she hadn’t pursued a seaside parish. Kirsty said she wanted to be in the countryside, having spent most of her life in rural areas. Her curacy was served in Leominster, a small town comparable in size to Gillingham, which lies within the Diocese of Hereford.

“I grew up in Sussex and moved to Herefordshire, so I haven’t lived in the city environment apart from my training in Birmingham. That was weekly, so I came back to Herefordshire at the weekends,” she explained. “I have always felt that I am a country girl at heart. It is my natural environment. I think it is important for the church to be visible in rural areas, particularly with public services being reduced. The church can play an important part in the community and always has done. I think that at a national level the rural church can be overlooked.”

Kirsty believes her Shaftesbury role within a team ministry offers her the best of both worlds. She can work to her own direction but also has the support of colleagues at hand, should she need it. “At one level, I am happy working on my own. I have my role within St James’ and St John’s in Enmore Green and also at Melbury Abbas. But it is also good to have the support of colleagues and people to go to for advice – praying and eating together and having that sense of collegiality. It is important to me that we can discuss things together. Although I am happy working on my own, it’s nice to know I am not on my own,” Kirsty said.

Kirsty first considered becoming a vicar when she was as a young girl, but she says she wasn’t a regular churchgoer at the time. “I first felt this nudge towards ministry when I was a teenager but I don’t come from a churchgoing family, so it felt alien in that sense. I remember distinctly an assembly in school when the local vicar came and something in me said that this should be something I should be doing. I didn’t explore it for several years. Although I had a faith, I didn’t go to church. It seemed the wrong way around. I didn’t belong to a church community. I was always very ‘booky’. I liked history and literature, so I did a history degree and worked in libraries and archives.”

Kirsty worked at Hereford Cathedral for five years before she was ordained. Her close contact with vicars at work helped her understand that the role was right for her. “I got to know clergy and realised that they are just as human as everybody else. I started to go to church regularly and got involved in the cathedral and the church in Hereford. I did a theology course to see how I got on,” she said.

People use the term ‘a broad church’ to represent a wide spectrum of views and opinion. That description could certainly apply to the Church of England. I asked Kirsty how she would define her favoured worship style. “I’m probably up towards the higher end, but I have a very liberal theology. I’m quite happy in a broad range of traditions,” she said.

“I trained at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham, which is an ecumenical college. We could have quite a high service at lunchtime, and then we could have something that was much lower in the evening. I am comfortable in a broad range of worship styles. I would say my theology is consistently liberal,” said Kirsty, who served on a Hereford Diocese committee which addressed inclusivity.

She believes it is an important issue. “I always worry that I preach the same sermon. All my sermons say that ‘God loves everybody’, and that we should be welcoming everybody. It’s important that I’m seen in the community and that the church is seen to be welcoming. It’s not just a club that meets on a Sunday behind a closed door.”

The ordination of women priests in the Church of England began in 1994. I asked Kirsty whether she had encountered any negativity in her role as a female priest. “Nothing too serious or too explicit,” she said. “In Hereford Diocese, I was very fortunate. It’s always been very favourable to the ministry of women. There are always little comments you hear from time to time, but nothing too worrying or shocking. But I suppose it is always something I’m aware of. I sometimes feel that as a woman priest, I have to work harder to prove myself, in a way.”

Has Dawn French’s ‘Vicar of Dibley’ character helped? “Yes and no,” smiled Kirsty. “In some ways, I think she did help because she made women clergy visible, particularly as the first series was (broadcast) as women were first ordained. On one level, I think it was good. But at another level, no, it wasn’t very good.”

Kirsty is keen to engage with people who, like her teenage self, didn’t include the church in their lives. “I feel I’ve got a real pastoral heart, so I want to develop pastoral relationships with people. I feel that’s really important. In the area of spirituality, I’ve just finished a master’s degree at Sarum College in Salisbury. Maybe prayer groups or discussion groups, Advent talks, Lent talks, things like that. Not just for people that come to church, but for people on the fringes of church or in the community.”

St James Church

Kirsty wants to reach out to Shaftesbury people who wouldn’t necessarily term themselves as religious or want to go to church. “I feel there’s a real yearning for the spiritual. I would like to be able to bridge the gap between people within the church and people outside in the community,” she said.

Kirsty says the church needs to evolve, ‘and listen to people about what they want’. “It might not necessarily mean that they want to come to church, but we could engage with them in the community. I could just go to The Mitre on a Monday night, for example, and talk to people there. That could be a church just as much as coming to a service on a Sunday.”

I asked Kirsty whether she had been set a target to achieve? Does she, for instance, have to get more people in church for Sunday services? “I think churches are always aware of their congregation numbers. I have a particular brief, as part of my job, to help to minister and outreach to people in their 20s and 30s. I think that’s going to be a very gradual and a slow process. It might not necessarily see results overnight, but I’m aware that I need to get out into this community and find out what they want, what they’re interested in and what they want to engage in.”

Kirsty says that one of her first engagements gave her a real buzz about her appointment. “I’ve just come back from being part of the ‘Open the Book’ assembly at Abbey School, just around the corner. I really enjoyed that, bringing the Bible stories to life and acting out roles. It’s lovely seeing the children,” she said. And she was touched by the ‘sweet’ selection of handmade cards the pupils had made to welcome her. We read some of the comments. ‘Don’t be scared. You’ll fit in fine here’, was one greeting, handwritten in black felt tip pen.

During her time in Leominster, Kirsty volunteered with the town’s festival committee, arranging publicity and helping the events to run smoothly. I suggested that, perhaps, a place could be found around the Fringe committee table for her.

But before volunteering, Kirsty says she still needs to get used to her working pattern. She hasn’t even had time to reacquaint herself with Hardy’s local literary locations. “I know the various places and I could do a Hardy Trail, but I have not done that yet, to my shame. I am reading ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ at the moment, but I’d have to say my favourite book is ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. Hardy was my first love, in terms of writers, and I have a soft spot for him. There’s something beautiful about his writing, particularly about nature.”

And that’s another of Kirsty’s interests. She has a passion for wildlife. “I do like photography, particularly nature photography and pictures of birds,” she said.

Finally, I asked Kirsty to share something from her past which might surprise her new friends and colleagues in Shaftesbury. “I’ve done a few abseils for charity for the church. I’ve abseiled off Leominster Priory twice and off the castle in Hereford to raise money for a children’s hospice. I’m a bit of a ‘Piglet’,” said Kirsty, referring to the Winnie the Pooh character.

“I really get nervous and worried about things. But I do them anyway. I probably have a little bit of a daredevil streak in me, although you wouldn’t know it to talk to me. You might find me doing a sponsored parachute jump which would seem entirely out of character if you knew me, but there is this little bit of me that wants to do things like that,” she said.