Andy Rider, Rector of Spitalfields
This is Andy Rider sitting peacefully under the Mulberry tree with Archie, his golden retriever, in the garden of his eighteenth century rectory in the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields. I was delighted to have the opportunity of tea with Andy at the rectory one afternoon at three o’clock, because, as the one who has been given the “cure of souls” in this parish, he is the man with professional responsibility for my soul. Yet, although Christ Church is one of London’s grandest churches, Andy’s style is a little more relaxed, as signified by the blue jeans in the picture above and the huge dog basket almost filling the hallway, which is the first thing you see when you step through the door of the magnificent rectory.
“People ask if it makes me feel small, living here,” he declared, as we strolled through the elegantly proportioned rooms, which seemed a strange question to me since Andy is a tall man, distinguished by a certain physical confidence revealing he is comfortable in his own body and at home in his rectory too. I suppose I had not expected someone whose primary concern is with spiritual life to be so present in the material world, possessive of a strong handshake, an easy smile and a clear blue-eyed gaze. Taking his London A-Z from the shelf, Andy outlined the geography of the parish and listed the various services that he presides over each week, describing the particulars of his employment in exercising the “cure of souls” in Spitalfields.
Andy’s explanation of the tangible nature of his job made me realise that it was the intangible that I was interested in. “I chose to walk away from the church for ten years,” he admitted, lowering his voice,“but then through a series of events and co-incidences I found answers to the big questions, ‘Who am I? What is life about?’ and ‘Does God exist?’ These were answers that I accepted within my heart, in the knowledge that God is divine and He rose from the dead. And when I was nineteen, about seven months after that experience I found God calling me to become a full-time minister.”
Baffled by this statement, I asked, “Are you talking literally?” “Yes,” he replied at once, speaking openly, without a glimmer of uncertainty, “I actually heard God speak to me. I was camping in Devon with a group of young people from the church. It was late in the evening and I went out to check the guy ropes of the tent in the dark. I was standing alone looking across the fields and marvelling at God’s creation, and then it was as if somebody was speaking and I remember looking around to see if anyone was there. It was a voice quite unlike a human voice, neither a woman nor a man. In the scriptures, the prophets describe God speaking as being like ‘the sound of many waters’ and that was how it sounded to me.” Then Andy looked at me with a shy smile, momentarily self-conscious, before clutching his hands to his head and confessing, “I can’t remember what He said exactly!’
My thoughts were racing in astonishment. Just minutes earlier, he had been searching his A-Z and we were discussing the new ipad, but now our conversation had entered another realm, yet a realm which for Andy carries equal reality. I do not know why I found his testimony shocking or why I was surprised to hear a priest tell me he believed in God. It appears that my personal perception of religion as moral belief, rather than as acceptance of supernatural events misses something fundamental – while for Andy this distinction does not exist. Returning to the bible, he described how the apostles were offered “a glimpse of glory,” a phrase that he applies to his own revelation too. “Most of us don’t look further,” he suggested regretfully, spreading his hands and explaining that he sees the modern day in direct continuum with the biblical world, in which God’s wonders are literally manifest and miracles are possible. “I haven’t seen an angel,” he added with a tinge of disappointment, yet with the undeniable implication that it could happen at any time.
Andy possesses a light touch, talking open-heartedly about big subjects without being borne down by them, while I was perplexed by his declaration. Yet I appreciate it is in the nature of faith to be inexplicable, and so I did not wish pursue my enquiry disingenuously, challenging what is sacred to him with casual scepticism. The world was still the same world to me, except now I knew that Andy embodies his role as rector, not just as the caretaker of a building but as a man with faith in the divine, inhabiting a spiritual universe that defies reason. I do not entirely accept the language of rational science myself, though I cannot make the leap of faith which religion requires either. God has not spoken to me yet. I must admit that as I listened to Andy describing his strange revelation, I envied the consolation that his belief has granted him just as I also know that such credulity is beyond me. Let me say, I was amazed to meet a man who believed in angels.