Starting life with a wobbly wheel – interview with Alan Griggs

Members of Derby Rural Chaplaincy team listening to others under gazebo in field

Rural pioneering in context at the Brailsford Ploughing Match

Alan Griggs, studying for an MA with CMS Pioneer Mission Training

Alan Griggs proves God can turn around lives in the most challenging circumstances. He is currently a thrid year MA student and he shared with me his life story and experience of chaplaincy, along with all he has gained from Pioneer Mission Training with CMS.

As a Rural Chaplain in Derbyshire leading a team of volunteers to offer support to the agricultural community, you must have had an interesting and challenging few years through Covid, can you tell us how things have been and how they are now?

The work of the Derbyshire Rural Chaplaincy is all about connecting with people that are isolated in rural communities. So, not being able to meet people face to face during Covid was a significant challenge to our work. That said, for the farming community, life in many ways carried on as normal.

Farming does not stop and with roads clear and the countryside free of walkers and tourists, farmers could get on with the job at hand with little disruption. The fact that farmers are very familiar with isolation became a strength and the lockdowns did not radically change their routines and rhythms of life. The farming community was possibly one of the least affected by Covid and they all pointed out how thankful they are to live in the countryside.

The Derbyshire Rural Chaplaincy did what we could to stay in touch. Mainly getting on the phone and recording our key farming worship services from farms and fields across the county and uploading them on Youtube. The carol service alone was viewed over 1,500 times.

You led a very varied and colourful life before your rural chaplaincy: teaching English as a Foreign Language, University as a full-time student alongside work, studying Third World Development (where you won an award for the highest achieving student), work in the Probation Service, and training for ordination. Please tell us how all these areas fitted together, or maybe did not fit together but led onto each other?

I left school in 1986, just about passing a GCSE! I can only describe myself as way off track when I was younger and life was probably too colourful in all the wrong ways. Due to failed relationships, my home life was not easy and I reconnected with my biological father when I was 17. Not a good move! He was a functioning alcoholic and heavily involved in the criminal world and he later died when he was 56 from living in a very fast lane. Safe to say, my mum did her very best but I spent little time at home and a destructive pathway was set in motion. Eventually, to try and improve things, my mum suggested that I go to Israel to reconnect with my Jewish roots given her own time there back in the 60s on her Shanat Sharut (year of service).

So, in October 1994, I left for a Kibbutz in Israel and soon met with two Christians from Hungary working on the Kibbutz. I noticed something about them and began to talk with them about their faith. Some profound healing took place on that dusty kibbutz over the next six months, and I discovered the grace and love of God. It really was life changing and I began to see a very different world.

When I returned, I needed to make a break from all the old networks, so, I then moved from the South of England to Leicester in 1995 to start a new life and begin to get my head around church culture (not an easy transition). My first venture into carving anything that looked like a career started when I took a course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language while living in Leicester. The course helped me to have the confidence to go to university when I was 30, and after university, I successfully applied to work for the probation service in Derbyshire.

After getting married and some ongoing repair work as part of a loving Christian community in Derby, I eventually tested a call to ordination in the Anglican church at the age of 42. On leaving theology college I was nudged towards a role as an agricultural chaplain, and the rest perhaps, is history. I am also licensed to five rural parishes in Derbyshire and to my great surprise I’m flourishing in both contexts and step by step I have grown in confidence and trust in a God that I know wants the best for me.

Thank you, Alan, for sharing the difficult parts of your past. I am so glad God has been able to move you on.

When you first came to us you expressed an interest in doing more academic study, I think because you recognised the value of it, and also because you felt it would give deeper and stronger roots to your faith. Has this happened, and if so, how?

The experience of study with CMS has been overwhelmingly positive. The course has really helped me to reflect on the work of the rural chaplaincy as well as my own default theologies. I always see myself as catching up academically and it can be very intimidating for those of us that have started life with such a wobbly wheel.

I have never felt like I do not fit in at CMS and the course feels much more open to the messiness of life. The modules have been so relevant, and I have been introduced to some fantastic authors and key voices from across the world. I have been challenged again and again to see beyond my own limited horizons while also celebrating who I am and my own journey of faith and learning.

sheep in lush green field, dry stone wall, dales in background
Many lessons to learn from farming: the Derbyshire countryside is now the backdrop to Alan’s daily life

If you are willing to say more about your Jewish roots, it would be most interesting to hear, in your own words?

My family arrived in the East End of London as Jewish immigrants from (we think) the Ukrainian/Polish borders in around the turn of the 20th century. My grandparents were soon placed in a Jewish orphanage in West Norwood given the extremely poor conditions in the East End at the time. The orphanage offered a good Orthodox education, hot meals and a roof over their heads and a place where they could be prepared for life in the UK.

Here my grandparents met and eventually married, however, my mother had ‘married out’ of the Jewish community creating a fissure with the Jewish community that has never been fully repaired; yet, many of my Jewish family were shocked when I returned from Israel in 1995 as a Christian.

So, I inhabit a space between communities and never really truly belonging to either. However, my encounter with Jesus Christ has definitely been a doorway into discovering my Jewish roots. I have studied Hebrew in Israel and I have a love for the Hebrew Scriptures, and I think it is so important that the Church recognises its troubled history with the Jewish people. The flexibility of the CMS course offers a great opportunity to explore my passions and interests and celebrate my history in a way that I have never been able to do before.

In your application you said: “I find myself called to discover God in the everyday of people’s lives, and feel passionate about being ‘out there’ with people.” Please do tell us more. How have you found ways to be out there with people, both practically and spiritually?

The Derbyshire Rural Chaplaincy works in a context in which we are listening and learning from the agricultural community and in many ways, the agricultural community is a minority group that is very often undervalued and misunderstood.

As chaplains we go out into rural Derbyshire to meet with the farming community making every effort to join in with their rhythm of life and it really is an open door. The farming community have a respect for faith and the rural church, and they have a unique ‘down to earth’ spirituality that understands life and death and often understands the stories in the Bible better than theologians!

While farming is not perfect, the small family farms in Derbyshire form and shape a people that are generally very content with all that is under their feet and they do not chase material things. They often put their animals first (which can be a problem) and understand that they are caring for the land to hand on to the next generation. We have so much to learn from the way they overcome problems and take the long and patient view, knowing that we are ultimately not in control. That said, there are unique pressures where chaplains will get involved and sadly, I have had to take a number of funerals for farmers who have taken their own life highlighting the significant challenges farmers face.

How can we pray for you, Alan?

  • Please pray for the Derbyshire Rural Chaplaincy team as we discern the fine line between engagement with the community and being a distinctive Christian witness.
  • Pray for me as I juggle the demands of leading the chaplaincy team, 5 rural parishes and the MA, all of which I love doing.
  • Pray that all these things complement each other in a way that brings life and if they do not, I would know about it sooner than later!

Thank  you so much, Alan, for sharing your amazing and challenging story. Thank you for being open and honest in such a vulnerable way. I hope you will find even more fruit coming from your time of study with CMS.

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