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Rev. Hilary Geisow , Colsterworth Priest-in-charge

Rev Hilary Geisow

I am Hilary Patricia Geisow, which is my married name and comes from an area near Maastricht on the Dutch-German border. I was born a Fuller in Twickenham in Middlesex. I was always enormously proud at school because we passed Fuller's cake shops and there was also Fuller's Ales which was the big brewery, now part of Watney's. I was the eldest of three children. My father was a draughtsman technician with some electrical engineers. He actually got called up into REME during the War but then it was discovered that he was of more value as a civilian. He spent his wartime designing bits for tanks. My mother trained as a nurse and she went back to work, because of the polio epidemic in South-West London. She had specialist training in iron lungs and she used to bring us home stories of the children she was nursing at the time. I remember going into the ward which was at the South Middlesex hospital - no longer there - and we painted the windows with water paints at Christmas, huge round Christmas puddings and that sort of thing.

I went to Twickenham Girls' Grammar School, single sex, and had a very happy time there. I thought that I would like to become a doctor. I had this strong streak of wanting to serve others. That wasn't to be and eventually I went to university to read Bio-chemistry and Physiology as Joint Honours. Subsequently I did research on enzymes at Warwick University. When I was a child I went with my best friend to Twickenham Congregational Church. It was a Free Church and it had a huge Sunday School. I am enormously grateful for that because every year we did Scripture Union exams. I have no oral memory but we did always learn a piece of text and a psalm.

When I was about sixteen or seventeen, there was a group of us likely to go away to college and we formed a young persons section. We took turns to go to a different church every fortnight and report back. I went with a friend to her Anglican church. I enjoyed the service enormously and reported back. Subsequently I had a boyfriend who belonged to an Anglican Church two bus rides away. He said to me that I could see him at their Church Youth Club on a Sunday evening after Evensong. The deal was that you went to Evensong and then you were allowed to go to the Youth Club. So I duly went along. The vicar, Church of Ireland, said that it was the last call for people wanting to explore what the Church of England was all about. I had a word with him, thinking that that might be useful. I tell you they had got right to the end of the Apostle's Creed in their group so I didn't have much of an introduction to the Church of England. But I did in fact go on to be confirmed and that meant making a break with the Congregationalists. I am sorry in a way that it caused some hurt. But I have remained friends with the pastor's daughter. She is still my best friend over in Aberystwyth.

So I became an Anglican at about seventeen. It turned out that the nearest church to home at that stage was of a High Church persuasion, what they call Anglo-Catholic. I had a very happy time there and I explored what I saw as my vocation of service by asking the vicar if I could perhaps get in touch with some religious orders. I did that and in the end went to stay with the nuns at St Mary the Virgin at Wantage. I think I slept most of my stay there and that is not so unusual. I did come away absolutely convinced that whereas I could probably accept vows of poverty and chastity, there was no way I could accept obedience. I was far too wilful, and I still am. This was my first foray, as it were, apart from the fact that at this young people's group in the Congregational Church, we sometimes took services.

I do remember on one occasion preaching on what was meant by the Lamb of God. I don't think I had any understanding of it at all but what I said was obviously overseen by the pastor. The day was memorable because I had prepared the prayers and the readings and when the young man, who sat in the pulpit area behind me, stood up to read them he dropped the marker out of his Bible and read an extremely salacious piece from the Song of Solomon! There was much tut-tutting in the pews.

My very perceptive vicar said that if I were not to become a nun I would get married and when I got to be doing my post-graduate research, I met one of the undergraduates and eventually got married. He went off to do his doctorate at Oxford and I went down to Oxford Poly, which is now Oxford Brookes University. I lectured on degree courses there including half my time in the Catering School. I saw some wonderful things going on there. The grass was always greener elsewhere for my husband so having got his doctorate, we moved off and he got a post-doctoral job at Hatfield.

We worked our way round the Home Counties, in Hertford, Hatfield and St Alban's. At that stage he was the Director of Students for the Medical Research Council in London. From St Alban's we came up into the East Midlands where he joined Bass, the brewing company. Bass was having trouble getting rid of used yeast which has an extremely difficult and hard-to-break-down coat. So they were stock-piling it. They did turn some into animal food but frankly there was a yeast mountain building up. Someone came up with the bright idea that if they could alter the genetics of the yeast, it could turn into something useful after the brewing. And so it proved. The genetics were changed, the yeast would brew the beer, the beer would be drained off and some new nutrients put in with a key marker. Then the yeast would make useful medications.

My husband was at the forefront of working that one through. When we were in St Alban's, I did some voluntary work in primary schools as I had done elsewhere. I enjoyed that very much. I had always been interested in the educational side of science as well as being a practical scientist. I had been employed by Glaxo, when we were in the Home Counties, for nearly nine years. I went to them because of the problem with penicillin and the resistance of bacteria to it. Penicillin is incredibly cheap but absolutely useless currently because the bacteria have developed a mechanism for breaking it down. So that was the project I started on. We were pipped at the post by Beecham's and in fact if you get given Augmentin that was my drug! - but they got there first. Drug companies don't usually reckon to make a follow-up unless it is a very big seller, and in this case Glaxo decided not to follow up. So I was asked to look at skin diseases, acne and psoriasis, which I did for a short time, and then at diabetes.

Then I took on a whole new area which is thrombosis, the mechanism behind strokes and heart attacks. I completed my work there. There are two patents to which I am a co-signatory. No money in it, I might add. All the patents are signed off to the research firms of course. We lived at East Bridgford, Notts. in the East Midlands. In fact I lived there for fifteen years so I am quite used to living in a village. That village had a very active Primary school, two pubs, a shop and a Post Office - initially - and I could go out onto the street and certainly speak with about a quarter of the village, and there were around 1600 residents. I probably knew about half of them slightly.

I joined the local Anglican Church where the vicar was opposed to the ministry of women. It says something for him that although he had had a lifelong antipathy towards women, by the time I left, I was not only doing a monthly service for young children and their families, but he had accepted women as readers and intercessors and for other activities. I got voted up through the ranks, as it were, to diocesan synod and I also became what is known as the Lay Chair for the Deanery. We had 19 parish groups covering Bingham and most of the Vale of Belvoir. It was my job to listen to and represent the interests of lay people. I worked very closely with the Rural Dean. I began to explore my vocation again. The Movement for the Ordination of Women had started and I was very interested in the way that the debate was going. When the vote came through, I then approached the Vicar and he set up some sort of panel. Unfortunately he didn't take enough advice and I was roundly told that I was to speak to no-one about my application. They then judged whether I was the right person to have my name put forward for further training and they judged not. I had prayed hard for it to be made clear that it was the right thing to do and it was made quite clear that it was not. I have to say with hindsight that was true.

It was not long after that, that the marriage which had been rocky completely fell apart. I went through a period of separation and eventually divorce. That meant the loss of the family home and I moved to Bingham. During this time I retrained as a secondary science teacher, and first of all, I did cover for teachers who were on maternity leave and then I did four years at a school in Mansfield, Brunts School. I taught A-level Biology and A-level Chemistry, and General Science to all other levels. Later I was asked to teach General Studies to A-level, and that brought me to almost A-level Maths, which I had done just for a short time at school, English Language and Literature and the Arts and Logic - it was wonderful to teach. Unfortunately most of the youngsters really didn't want to be in that A-level class.

I applied again to go forward for selection after about seven or eight years. This time yes, a panel was set up by the same vicar but under a new edict. I was interviewed by them and we all had supper together and I received an overwhelming vote in favour of my going forward. Perhaps I had proved my case by doing work in the church. In Southwell Diocese, which is where I was, they mimicked the final process I would have to go through by having a group of us for a day. We each had three individual interviews. We also had group exercises. I was a little bit naughty because I had worked out you could score on a group exercise if you volunteered to take the minutes. So we had a spoof committee that was looking at a pastoral problem involving a donation to the church and the behaviour of the donors' family. I cheerily said that I would take the minutes. Anyway, I got through that all right. I felt that the school I was working at was in a very difficult position at that time trying to recruit staff. They were going to change education in Mansfield from a 3-level system to a 2-level system. So the children would do as is done in Lincolnshire, changing at 11. Prior to that they had gone to a middle school as Leicestershire did. So I spoke to the head teacher about it.

The call came to do the 3-day residential selection at the beginning of a new school term in the summer. I felt that I couldn't land the school in the lurch and so I deferred training for a year. I don't regret that. I feel it was a good time to work out what I was going to do. I went to Chester for selection. It was interesting. There were two teams; there were eight of us in team A. You saw three separate selectors, one of whom on this occasion was one of the Queen's chaplains, one was a lay person who looked at educational ability, and he asked me what I'd been reading recently. You get lots of help in preparing for these selections but I could genuinely say that I had been reading a book about how to interpret pictures, Mediaeval Art, because I didn't know very much about it. We had a fascinating conversation and the next candidate was knocking on the door and we still hadn't finished. The third selector was a woman who was looking at my personal and pastoral side, my prayer life and how I was going to cope with having been divorced and that sort of thing - not a very easy interview. Still, I got through.

Training colleges are defined by the political sides of the church. There are Evangelical colleges and arch Anglo-Catholic colleges and there are middle ones as it were. Also there was the all-male option of Mirfield. (They do now take women.) By this stage the elder of my two children had left university and come home. I therefore thought that it was important that I trained fairly locally. As luck would have it, there was St John's College on the west side of Nottingham, really quite markedly evangelical, not the theological position I came from. I had both a stimulating time there, but also a tricky theological time. I don't regret it for a minute; I would never have explored that side of the church. I would have been completely ignorant about much that they talked about. The evangelical churches deal in certainties which makes it easier for some people that want to be sure, who want to be told what to believe. I think that is not what we are called for. I come from the Catholic tradition in which you are asked to investigate your relationship with God, and that relationship may lead you down all sorts of paths. I don't know that I could argue absolutely for certainties except that I do believe we have to be wholly inclusive. God loves everybody; He doesn't distinguish between blacks and whites, poor and rich, straight and homosexual and so on and so on. Everybody is welcome, and I feel that's the very core of my being.

I belong to an organisation called Affirming Catholicism and that is part of their understanding of the Christian faith. As a non-gay person, I also support another organisation called Changing Attitudes in the belief that all people are called by God to serve in various ministries and we cannot have this situation that is current where some churches believe that certain classes and characteristics of people are unacceptable. If God has called them who are we to say that they are not called? At college I think we were probably more or less 50/50 men and women. It was riotous sometimes; I had a wonderful time. There were over a hundred children of married colleagues and so we all did youth and children's work which I already had been doing and enjoyed. While I was at college I was asked if I would join one of the staff to prepare some of the college children to receive communion before confirmation. This had been going on, with the Bishop's permission, for some years nationally but it was still considered to be quite radical. For the life of me, I can't see a problem. We enter the, if you like, Christian club, by baptism and confirmation is exactly that. We are confirming vows that were made for us as children. I do not see that confirmation should be the gateway to receive a communion. So for two years I prepared groups of children to do just that.

I was also privileged to take part in the baptism of one of these children. A young boy, aged 9, had not been baptised and it is one of the requirements that they should have been baptised. So with his full permission and that of his parents, we got in a children's paddling pool, and we had 3 buckets of water labelled Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He knelt in his swimming trunks and duly had the water poured over him. The priest who was taking the Service said the words. I shall never forget that wonderful baptism, such joy, rounds of applause. It was very brave of a youngster of that age to go forward in front of the whole of the college body. In the last year of college you start looking for a curacy. Strictly speaking you are going to be appointed an Assistant Curate. All vicars are curates; they have the cure of souls. I made some terrible mistakes. I didn't understand the language of the presentations that were available to us. They go to the colleges all over the country and you simply make applications to the person who is offering the vacancy. I have always loved water so I thought this is an opportunity to go and serve by the sea.

So I went to Norwich Diocese, to Happisburgh, only to find that the vicar was an extreme evangelical. I had misunderstood Oak Hall College to mean Selly Oak College in Birmingham. There is a big difference theologically. Then I went to look at a place in Leicestershire and really didn't feel that I would get on with the vicar there. Then I looked towards Lincolnshire and explored somewhere down in the South-east but didn't feel that was quite right for me. I was beginning to despair because all my friends by this time had got placements. I applied to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and she said that they had one left but it would not have come to the colleges because the vicar never completed the paperwork. So I came to visit and I found that the church, the parish and the vicar were just the sort of situation I felt comfortable in.

I had a very happy time at St Faith's Church in the West End of Lincoln. It was a single church, (i.e. serving one parish), a huge Victorian place. It was a bit of a Tardis and looked like a carpet warehouse from the outside. Les, the vicar, was half-time in the parish and half-time as the University Chaplain. Since I came down to Colsterworth he has become full-time at the University. He was wholly inclusive and the church body as a whole had the ethos that nobody would be turned away. The West End is a very mixed community. Some people living there, perhaps were mental health cases or social exclusion cases, many students and migrant workers, people who worked at the university and the hospitals, a very very mixed community. One of the great strengths of the church was the degree to which all were welcome. Right from the start I can remember climbing over recumbent bodies in the church porch to get in to say morning prayers. I felt very uneasy about it until an elderly lady who cleaned the church said that it was all right, they had always been there, they were given shelter over-night. The Nomad Trust, which was the only other place they could go to, wouldn't receive them if they had been drinking. So although there wasn't a lot of shelter and they only had the cold stone floor that was where they slept. If they were awake and in a fit state in the morning, we often made them a hot drink or some soup or bought in some sandwiches. Sometimes it meant cleaning away what they left behind including syringes and needles. This still goes on.

I think that it spoke volumes for that church that they could consider this on a yearly basis and still say yes and not feel threatened. On the other hand, the church had to be kept locked all the time. While we were there, we were beset by problems of vandalism and some very obscene graffiti carved into the church door which couldn't be taken out, and windows broken and so on. Because the vicar was part-time, he worked enormously hard, but I was given a degree of freedom that I think I would not have got in another parish. Right from the word go, I realised visiting was something he couldn't do very often, so I set to with a copy of the electoral roll and in six months got through it, that is over a hundred people. It paid dividends as when I went back to Lincoln to visit the Reverend Pauline Hollingworth in hospital for some weeks, every time I saw people in the street who greeted me, not necessarily churchgoers. When it came to looking for my first incumbency, I knew it was no use looking in the city. They already had too many priests there, and they were due to lose one or two through natural selection as it were. I thought that perhaps I should look for areas that were in need of people so I looked to rural ministry on the grounds that I had lived in a village for fifteen years and that is what brought me up here. I applied to the Archdeacon and he seemed to feel that I was the sort of person the local churches were looking for. I filled in an application and was lucky to get an interview with representatives from the 5 churches. Some of the questions were predictable but one of them was unpredictable. I was asked if I would insist on the shaking of hands during the Peace. For the life of me I can't think that it will bring down the Church of England if we do it. It has been reintroduced into the modern church service. It was current in the fourth century, new Christians always did it. Somehow in these churches it is all right to shake hands outside church but not inside. But anyway, we are getting there. Those who feel that they can't shake hands with me, don't.

I set out my stall right from the beginning. I knew that there had been quite a mish-mash of services in the past. In the year 2000 a form of the liturgy was issued called Common Worship, really to replace the Alternative Service Book which was always a temporary measure though it lasted a long time. In law, there are only two forms of liturgy permissible now; one is the Book of Common Prayer and the other the Book of Common Worship. The difference between them - apart from the language - is that in the Book of Common Prayer, everything is structured, leaving no room for manoeuvre. You simply follow the words in the book. Common Worship is a whole mindset away from that. It has a structure but that structure permits you to use various seasonal changes and it permits variation in what is included and what isn't. Some things have to be there but there is a great deal of freedom. It really lends itself to the pick-and-mix generation that we are faced with today. It is also in the language of today and I am passionately in favour of the language of today. I was brought up on the Book of Common Prayer, I don't have a great difficulty with it, but it is historical. I find that I really can't say the '-eth' words to young people today. For instance in the Service for Remembrance that I have just put together, we would sing 'Lord, Thy word abideth', but in fact I have just rewritten it and it is going to be 'Lord, your word sustains us'. It is the same but in the language of today.

Part of what I am about is trying to build bridges. Not just between people and the structural church, but because I believe that most people have a spirituality about them that they want to explore sometimes. I think that there are people who have a sense of God, maybe not even the Christian God. I am there to speak about the Christian understanding of God and about Jesus his Son. I am ready to go and talk to anyone. Mostly I find people want to talk about their lives and their problems. It is a privilege to listen to them. I haven't got the answers but I can give an undertaking that I will pray for them and I will walk beside them in any difficulties they are facing. If people want to come to me and talk to me and just use me as a sounding board that will be fine. I find it interesting that the country seems to think that the Church might have all the answers to the problems of today. But we are one and the same people, whether we go to church or not. We have to learn to be much nicer to each other. There is that wonderful piece in Micah about beating swords into ploughshares, actually speaking not about destroying weapons but turning them to good use. I think this is the positive thing, to try to turn all this energy and conflict into helping people live more productive and happy lives.


This page was last edited on Sunday 16-Aug-09 17:02:07 BST


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