Faith Stories 

Geoff Westwood, a Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) at Christ Church, Catshill, tells of his journey into ministry in this talk given to the Mothers' Union...

Good morning my name for those who don’t know me is Geoff Westwood, but if you refer to your programme of events I am down as Geoffrey Westwood this is my Sunday name and what I am occasionally referred to by my granddaughter.  My title is given as a Diocesan reader which is the title generally given to what I do but the actual title is Licensed Lay Minister.  What is that Geoff I hear you ask.  Well I will attempt to tell you.  For me the main difference from being an Authorised Lay Minister to being licensed is that my talks during services are called Sermons and not talks.  I can also deliver sermons during Eucharist services.  In addition, during Eucharist services I also act as Deacon for Bev which takes some of the strain off her, which when you think about it is a bit of a cheek when she only works Sundays. Joy of joys I am automatically co-opted onto Bromsgrove PCC.  There is only one sacrament that readers can deliver and that is the funeral sacrament.  For one reason and another I have decided that is not for me.

When Sue asked me to deliver this talk, I thought what will my topic be? what interests me? what do I love? and what do I know most about?  The answer was obvious me.  Or more accurately my walk of faith.  How did I get to become a reader and by inference standing up here and talking to all you lovely ladies?

I entered this world one October day in 1952 in what used to be called Dudley Road hospital and is now City Hospital, and lived for my formative years in Winson Green, that wasn’t the prison by the way.  Like most kids of that generation I attended Sunday school every Sunday afternoon.  It wasn’t, I don’t think, that my parents were especially religious, I think they just wanted a few hours peace and quiet.  Up until the age of 6 we lived with my gran in a terraced house.  Now my dad wasn’t as fortunate as me.  I have been blessed with the most wonderful mother in law, from thinking back I feel pretty confident my dad did not have the same relationship with his.

We moved to Ladywood if anyone is not familiar with the geography of Birmingham it was then and probably still is a working-class area with mainly council housing on the western edge of the city centre.  The local school was a Church of England school, St John’s.  Our vicar was a chap names Canon Norman Power, and if I close my eyes, I can still picture him and conjure up his voice.  Canon Power would visit us kids from time to time and we would trot intermittently up to church.  Presumably for the major festivals.  In fact, my earliest memory of my Christian walk was a particularly painful one.  It was the nativity play and I was cast as one of the wise men which quoting a well-known Beatles tune meant all I had to do was act naturally.  The problem was that perhaps due to a lack of funds the beards were not the ones that hooked around the ears, but someone had the good idea of gluing the hair to the face.  After the performance a liberal amount of surgical spirit was required to remove the offending hair.   Ouch!

Now back then as opposed to now I was quite clever and passed my 11 plus and got a place in George Dixon grammar school.  A fact here for you.  The character in Dixon of Dock Green was named after that school.  The director Michael Balcon was a student.  This saw the start of a fallow period in my Christian life, as with I imagine the majority of teenagers and young adult’s religion was not terribly appealing.  We had the obligatory morning assembly; if you were a catholic then you were excused attendance.  I was one of the Pope’s disciples for a couple of terms before I was brought to book.  Every Friday we all trooped off to the chapel which was next door.  When I began writing this it occurred to me that I was happy there.

When I was 20, I lost my dad who was only 49.  He had been unwell for a long time, but me and my brothers just didn’t take in how ill he was.  Me and my mum visited him, it was Good Friday in the General Hospital only to be told he wouldn’t last the day.  The funeral cortege arrived, and my uncle said to me he didn’t understand how a God could take a man at that age with so much in front of him.  I said to him words to the effect that I believe it is a God who will welcome and look after him.  I remember thinking where did that come from?  It was the only spiritual oasis in what was a religious desert.  To quote another song this time from a band called Squeeze the devil took me from bar to street to boogie.

This situation existed until the Lord sent me this woman sitting here the love of my life.  We met in the January of 85 and I proposed in the March.  As an aside we were sitting in the car park of the Blue John mines.  I said to her I had something to ask.  Jan thought I was going to ask if we could skip the visit.  In the car she asked me 2 questions.  First can we have a twin tub washing-machine whatever that was, and the second one was can we adopt a child.  Those of you who heard Janice talk on how that ended will know what my answer to that one was.  In fact, I didn’t realise how one person can ask so many questions.  I am right aren’t I Connie?

I can’t tell you how welcome I was made by the Wright family and I would go over Sundays after church for lunch.  Hoping that Connie’s apple pie was on the menu.  This persisted until it came to the time when the Banns had to be read.  St Gabriel’s was the local church in Weoley Castle where I was living at the time with my mother.  It was an absolute transformative experience.  The only way I can explain it was this it felt like I had come home.  It didn’t mask how uncomfortable and what a shock the peace was. In fact, a couple of years ago one of my cousin’s husbands died and the service was at St Gabriel’s with the wake at a local club.  As it happened the vicar who officiated at the service where our Banns were read was there.  I took the opportunity to go over and say to him I know you won’t remember me but from those few services you began the journey that has seen me become a Reader.  I hope he was happy about that.

Our minister at that time was Philip Darby, don’t know if any of you remember him, but he led me through confirmation and married us.  Another aside Janice could not vocalise the for richer or poorer bit.  She must have known something.
I continued to be member of the congregation with no real intention to take anything further.  That changed in January 2002 when my mum passed away leaving me an orphan.  Being the oldest sibling, I was charged with delivering the eulogy. Quite a nerve-racking experience.  Afterwards I felt God telling me look you have done this perhaps one of the most difficult talks you will have to deliver, you can and will lead services.

For a while I had been thinking of looking into booking on to an alpha course.  For those of you not familiar with Alpha it is built round a number of talks delivered on DVD back then they were delivered by Nicky Gumbel.  The evening begins with a shared meal and ends with small groups breaking out to discuss the material.  At that time, I worked the other side of Birmingham and caught a train to Snow Hill and walked across town to New Street.  One particular morning I was entering Corporation Street when a bus passed me with the advertisement “An Alpha Course is coming to a church near you”. Thought that interesting.  It got positively mind blowing when I got home because a church in Old Hill had organised a leaflet drop in our area that very day giving details of an open evening yes to introduce their Alpha course.  Needless to say, I enrolled and had a great experience.  In fact, I ended up helping out on a couple of courses.  The most important part of the follow up process is that the church organised Bible study groups, one of which I joined which was at the home of the woman who led my first alpha course.  Some 16 years or so later that group is going strong and I cannot tell you how important it is not just in my life as a Christian but in my life in general.  They are amongst my very best friends.  We get to study God’s word on a weekly basis but talk over issues in our lives, if anything is bothering one of us during the week, we have a WhatsApp group which enables us to give support in prayer, and have a good social life.

Also, at this time as a church Christchurch was suffering for a lack of clergy which led to us having to close the church two Sundays a month.  We were attending Holy Trinity in Old Hill at that time. 

I can’t recall who first had the idea.  It was probably Pat Hackett, as to why don’t we as a lay group put on services on the second and fourth Sunday’s so that Catshill could see that we were alive and kicking.

I can still recall making the address at the first service and people were very kind and supportive and told me how good it was.  Not so sure, but I gave it my best shot.  We continued with this service without much, if any input, from the incumbent.  It was mainly a child friendly service, the downside being we had no children.  Bev then came to us and I can remember delivering our service with her sitting at the back of church thinking she isn’t going to like this.  She was very diplomatic but gave us an alternative service which we still use and which we are all comfortable with.

Following on from these services the feeling took hold and grew that I could develop my ministry.  This began with taking part in qualifying as an ALM minister which meant I could do what I was already doing which was delivering talks within services.  This was followed by the Bishop’s Certificate course.  Upon completion of that I took soundings within our congregation as to whether they felt that I was ready for Reader ministry I am happy to say that the response was wholly positive.  From there I had a couple of exploratory meetings with the then warden of readers.  However, we had a few family issues that needed to be addressed and I didn’t feel ready to embark on something that seemed like a major commitment.  In hindsight that was a blessing because of the women I studied with and years later still meet up on a regular basis. By the time the evaluation process began the following year as a family we were in a better place and the time felt right.  Another couple of interviews and an assessment day followed with me being accepted onto the course which was based at Queens College in Edgbaston.  Things still didn’t go smoothly as in the summer running up to the beginning of the course, I was suffering a degree of discomfort with my hip, which resulted in surgery the week before the course began.  Not a good start.  I managed to catch up as course notes were emailed to me and the main problem was that I was joining a cohort that was already bonding.  The group I was in consisted as I indicated earlier of 6 women and me and they quickly took me under their wing.  At that time, I was still in full time employment, so assignments were problematic.  I discussed this with Bev, and she asked me what constituted a pass and I told her 40%.  Her reply was well anything above that appeared to be a waste of effort.

Two years later and we all passed and were due to be let loose on unexpectant congregations.  The licensing service was to take place at the Cathedral.  We gathered together before the service and was led in prayer by Graham, the bishop of Dudley.  As we left for the service, I suddenly felt I am just not worthy of this, I have been kidding everyone not just myself that I could do this.  That short walk was one of the most dispiriting and lonely that I have ever felt.  How do I back out now?  And then when we got to the end of the aisle and were making the turn to take our seats, I got the most almighty rush of the Holy spirit.  I was told by God do you think I would have selected you for this if I didn’t think you could do it.  You were chosen by me do not doubt yourself because you are then doubting me.  I cannot tell you the joy that followed that encounter.  So that was it I was in and my ministry has begun.

I would like to tie this little talk up by telling you about an experience I had last Easter.  A Christian theatre group called Salt Mine received permission from Birmingham City Council to stage the Passion Play across three days in Holy Week.  Auditions took place one afternoon in Birmingham for what was referred to as the community cast, or crowd scenes.  I was pretty confident that if you turned up you were in which proved to be the case.  How I became involved is an interesting story and one I believe God was involved in.  May 2017 saw me retire from working at npower.  For a while I had been thinking about what came after regular work and the thought had crossed my mind that it would be interesting to get some work as an extra on film or TV.  It just so happened that Janice and I were shopping at Tesco and I was reading the Evening Mail when I came on a piece that said a company called Casting Collective were looking for people to appear in a film called Olly and Stan, which is excellent by the way.  As I was still working, I couldn’t work on that project but joined the agency anyway.  I am sorry to say that three years later I am still “resting”.  In fact, I am beginning to develop a complex about it.  The object of the story however is that a friend of mine who is now Birmingham Diocesan Secretary no less saw this advertised and being aware of my Thespian ambitions alerted me to it.

The Passion play experience began with 8 weeks of rehearsals, starting with such simple things as being able to walk around without bumping into each other.  We always began with vocal and physical warms ups.  I believe my singing has gotten better as a result of the guidance we received without being something you would be desperate to listen to.  The BBC took their cameras into one of our sessions and Gareth Malone the choir guy gave us some advice.  When he had seen the footage, my brother said I looked like Corporal Jones out of Dad’s Army as I was that beat too late which I thought was a bit harsh.

For the sake of this talk I will assume a basic knowledge of Birmingham city centre.  The journey began in the Bull Ring at the bottom of New Street with a couple of buskers singing a song called you got the love which might not mean a lot to most of you. A council official tries to move them on but Mary Magdalene intervenes and we as a crowd join in with the song.  At the same site we then move to Palm Sunday, and because of the logistics Jesus does not use a donkey but instead takes Possession of a bicycle.  He then leads us up New Street and Mary Magdalene leads us in a number of chants of joy and support for Jesus……. Luke and Janice came to see the play on the Wednesday and Luke took a video of the crowds that followed us, and I was astonished at the sheer number of people.  We also had folk looking out of office windows and interrupting their shopping.  When we reached Victoria Square the action moved to the Last supper.  This was my big moment.  The scene was rehearsed at Salt mine offices and the director asked for a volunteer as delivery boy for the Balti meal.  There was much nervous shuffling and looking at feet and before I knew it, I had volunteered.  In fact, at the last rehearsal I produced my mobile and asked one of the disciples to sign for the delivery.  I was told that was terrific improv.
From there we moved to outside the Town Hall singing that lovely Taizé song O Lord hear my prayer, and the scene where Jesus prays for the burden to be lifted and where the disciples cannot stay awake.  This culminates in Judas Iscariot’s betrayal.  There then ensued the Trial scene which took place outside of the Council House.  As a result of the rhetoric from the religious leaders we turned as a group from the people who loved Jesus into a rabid mob howling for his blood.  We even managed to paraphrase Brexit by chanting Death means Death. Now a number of the extras had a problem with this, but we had to convince them that it was only acting.

When Jesus is found guilty, he is frogmarched down New Street and Needless Alley finishing up in Pigeon Park.  His journey is accompanied by football chants such as “Where’s your Daddy gone!”  We were told after the event that the noise was almost bloodcurdling.

Then we come to the highlight for me of the whole event the crucifixion.  Three crosses were hoisted onto a stage with Jesus played by a fella name Marcel in the centre.  Now I must say that it was such a pleasure to watch and interact with professional actors witness their talent and accept their generosity.  The atmosphere changes again as we realise that this truly is the Son of God and we had watched and encouraged his death.  From there we move into the Cathedral up into the circle singing “Were you there” continuously until given the signal by the Director to stop.   On the Tuesday the cathedral was full which was gratifying in itself.  However, on the Wednesday and Thursday we had to perform the resurrection scene twice.  At our rehearsal we were warned that this might happen, but my lack of faith was saying Nah that won’t happen. It was humbling on 2 counts one that there were that many people and that the second crowd had waited around for their turn.

The idea behind the play was to introduce the Lord to people who had never encountered God or who had lost contact.  As a family we met up for lunch on the Wednesday and Lauren Luke’s then girlfriend said she would love to be involved if it was repeated.  The conversation moved onto Easter presents and Luke expressed a desire for a bible.  That was my personal experience and I guess we will never know the full number of people who came to or who looked further into a faith.
An update is that I have heard that Salt mine cannot repeat the experience in 2020 because of the extensive work that is being undertaken in the city. I would have no hesitation in repeating the experience in 2021 and would recommend it to anyone.  Apparently, Worcester are putting a Passion Play on Good Friday. I have gone on to appear in a riot scene and part of a crowd scene at a political rally for a company called Odyssey pictures which is run by the director of the Passion play, who are planning a film or serial based on a dystopian future in Britain.  So, in short still waiting for my undoubted talent to be recognised and appreciated.

Thank you for asking me to talk to you and for listening to me drone on.

David Ford, 31/05/2020