Between studying English at Dundee, training as a teacher in Norwich, and training as a priest at Durham, it’s fair to say Simon Witcombe is hardly a stranger to higher education.
While he admits that his understanding of current university life has come largely through his children (currently aged 29, 27 and 23), the 56-year-old spent eight years studying multiple subjects to get where he is now, so he’s surely as qualified as any other would-be university chaplain.
His decision to join the Gloucestershire chaplaincy late last year was, he says, one that took some time to come to.
“I’d been thinking about student chaplaincy for about three years”, he explains, “and I started visiting different chaplains: at Keele University, which is near where I was living at the time [near Wolverhampton], and Wolverhampton, which is nearer.”
It was then a meeting with Jo Parkin, the current Park campus chaplain, that convinced Simon that this was the position for him: “I came down to see her about the chaplaincy, and I knew from her that it was a likelihood that this would be advertised in [prominent UK church newspaper] the Church Times, so I applied.”
Ministry has long been a passion of Simon’s.
Asked to describe how he became a Christian in 20 words, he puts it down to “a series of gradually deeper commitments over maybe 10 years, from when I was 11 to when I was 21.”
He first thought about becoming a vicar while studying at Dundee, but decided against it at the time: “I thought, ‘No, no, I don’t think that’s right. I’m not trying to do that for the right motives.’”
He then started a career as an English teacher, which proved fairly short-lived. “I taught English for four years in two secondary schools – I found it quite hard, it wasn’t an easy role – and meanwhile felt ‘Actually no, this isn’t what I’m meant to be doing.’ My heart wasn’t really in it, I didn’t really care whether people spelt properly or whatever [laughs]. So I thought, ‘Well, I know what I really care about, which is people becoming Christians, people growing in faith – that’s what really motivates me.’ I woke up one morning with that clear insight: that’s what [I’m] really interested in. So that was like a message really, saying ‘This is what you should be doing.’”
Simon joins the Gloucestershire chaplaincy following a decade spent as vicar of Codsall, a village near Wolverhampton.
“When I left [Codsall] in the summer, I’d been there ten years, and was just beginning to think, ‘Yeah, I need to do something different, probably.’”
He explains that one reason behind his departure was a desire to spend more time talking to people: “As a vicar, you do talk to a lot of people, but it’s mainly in meetings or something you’ve got to do for various reasons – you don’t get a chance just to stop and talk to people who happen to be there.”
His previous parishioners have been largely supportive of his move to Gloucestershire, although some found it hard to begin with. “Somebody said to me at the service, ‘I was a bit doubtful about whether you should be here, but now I’ve seen this, I think you should.’ For the last two or three years, I’ve said to them, ‘I’m exploring this, this might be what I do, I’m not going to stay [in the parish] forever’, even though people don’t want to hear that. So they’re interested, but I’m not sure they really understand [what it is to work at a university].”
Of course, it’s likely there will be a few differences between ministering in a parish and at a university, one main difference being that ‘people of faith’ are less likely to be the majority.
Simon agrees: “I think that there are a lot of people these days who would say ‘I’m not religious, but I am spiritual’, so part of our challenge is to say, ‘How can we engage with that part of people?’ And some people will want opportunities to explore ‘faith’, and some people won’t, and that’s fine. “I was talking to a colleague of mine today who’s the chaplain at Pittville, and she runs something called meditation – it’s not specifically Christian, it’s just a space to relax, it’s for relaxation and calming. And my other colleague does a lot of mindfulness. And [those] are resources that we can offer to everybody. But then for some people, they’ll want to just take that a step further and explore ‘faith’, so that’s an extra step.”
Despite only having been in the chaplaincy a matter of weeks, it’s clear Simon is already putting a lot into his new role.
Asked whether he thinks the Gloucestershire chaplaincy currently does enough to connect with students, he seems optimistic: “I think here, it’s really good compared to what I’ve seen at other places. Some chaplaincies are very much on the edge, and feel like they’re on the edge…
“What I think is great about the University of Gloucestershire is that on each campus, you’ve got the Faith Space, and then also you’ve got the chaplain. People like a place, so the [FCH] Chapel itself and the little area around it is very popular – people will come in there because they’ve got an active place”.
“We then have to take advantage of that by offering people different things that they can engage with. I think that there’s a lot going on already, but there could be more.” What kinds of things does he have in mind? “We have things like the carol service, but we were talking about whether we might put on something special next year for Remembrance, since it will be the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. So we’re looking for opportunities where we can say ‘Well, we’ll mark that, we’ll offer students the chance to get involved”.
Simon was formally licenced as chaplain on Saturday 11th November, with a service held in the FCH chapel. Attendees numbered well over a hundred, and included students from the university as well as local clergy and members of Simon’s former parish. A number of positive things were said about Simon at the service, but surely the most curious of them was his good taste in cakes.
“I am known for having a deep interest in cakes!”
“Somebody once said that what the Church needs is more prayer and parties, and I would say that that is part of what I feel is important – we need prayer, we need deep roots, but we also need to have fun, we need a sense of community and enjoyment, and cake is a symbol for that.”
Another point of contention at the service was a plant, one of a few symbolic items with which Simon was presented. There was some debate as to whether this plant would survive… “I’m not known for my gardening skills,” says Simon,
“In fact I’m known for my lack of them! It’s not entirely true, but I think it has some truth in it. But I was given this plant, I don’t think it had been watered for a while, and it was meant to be a living plant to show that it’s all about people flourishing and growing.
“Growing is a very important thing for me. In [my] last church, we had a symbol of the tree for the church, which was [to represent] becoming rooted in God, growing together in faith, and reaching out with love – the idea that you can only really grow if you’ve got your roots in God. So the plant was a nice idea, but unfortunately it hadn’t been watered very much and it was looking a bit sad, so it’s now my job to try and nurture it back into life. Which might be a symbol for all sorts of things [laughs]…”