The Red Post priest

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It’s 30 years since the Church of England first allowed women priests. Tracie Beardsley meets the Rev Jane Williams, vicar of six Dorset parishes

The Rev Jane Williams looks after the churches and the 4,000-strong communities of the six Dorset villages making up the Red Post Benefice.
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

On the morning we speak, the Reverend Jane Williams has already helped plan a newborn’s baptism, overseen wedding paperwork for a betrothed couple and finalised her sermon for a funeral. Administrating this ‘circle of life’, her morning coffee has inevitably gone cold.
A priest in Dorset for the past seven years, Jane has been looking after the churches and the 4,000-strong communities of the six Dorset villages making up the Red Post Benefice (referring to the famous red signpost on the A31 near Bloxworth) since last September.
Under her protective wing are Sturminster Marshall, Bloxworth, Morden, Winterbourne Kingston, Winterbourne Zelston and the tiny village of Almer. Contrary to expectation, her congregations are not dwindling. There may only be eight people who attend the service in Bloxworth, but that has been the case for years.
The 58-year-old works six days a week: ‘No day is ever the same. Sunday is particularly busy with up to three services in three villages on one day.’
The rest of her week is spent supporting the community. ‘Walking with people through their lives is a privilege. There’s a huge epidemic of loneliness, and even if I can’t visit, I know how important the small act of a phone call can be.’
It seems her 30 years working in the NHS, starting at 16 in a care home and becoming a nurse at 18, have stood her in good stead.

‘I’ve always worked in a community setting, being interested in what makes them tick. As a nurse the focus was health. As a priest, it’s spiritual needs.
‘I grew up in Pembrokeshire with faith, always a church-goer, and became a Sunday School teacher. I always wanted to be a vicar, but women couldn’t back then. The eldest of four, money was tight so my parents told me to get a proper job.’
Jane was at the height of her nursing career, a highly respected local hospital matron, when she got her calling from God.
‘I remember it vividly. I was driving to a lay minister training session and had to pull over, so overwhelming was this voice in my head prompting me to pursue the priesthood. I felt like Jonah, the reluctant prophet. I just kept asking God “why now?” I know, you shouldn’t really argue with God! I promised Him I’d make enquiries, but thought it’d never come to fruition.
‘Even when I was interviewed by the Bishop of Salisbury, I thought I’d just do it part time, that it would be a bit like a hobby!’

The Bishop – and God – had other ideas. Jane was recommended to train in Oxford, at the UK’s oldest theological college. She completed her degree in just two years and was ordained in the year she turned 50.
‘It was a hard time. I was away all week studying. My husband Nigel was working full time and one of my daughters was sitting her A-levels. I also have a disabled daughter who needs 24-hour care.’
Along with her successful career, Jane forfeited the accompanying good salary. With their income halved, the mortgage was impossible, so the family moved into a smaller home.

She has no regrets. The vicarage is her home now, though it’s tied to her role. ‘Really, I see all six churches as my home here. My base is Sturminster Marshall but I feel like I live in all the villages.’
She won’t be drawn on her favourite church or village, though: ‘That would be like picking a favourite child! Each village is different, with its own history and dynamics. And, like children, sometimes one needs you more than the other.’
Even now, Jane admits to some pre-pulpit nerves. ‘During my first sermon, a friend in the congregation held up Strictly Come Dancing scorecards. And she didn’t give me a 10!’
And does a priest get time for herself? ‘There’s lots of burn-out in the clergy so it’s important to de-stress. My three daughters and my three granddaughters are the centre of my life. My guilty pleasure is going to the theatre or a concert.’
But not today. She has a village fete to help organise, plans for a new church loo to discuss and a church council meeting which she assures me has its “Dibley moments”!

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