City's loss as 'Nick the Vic' moves on
FOR those who aren't regulars in a congregation, the Church of England is still the go-to place for most Britons if religion is required.
When Christmas comes around, a wedding happily intervenes or the death of a loved one stops us in our tracks, the occasion is given meaning by the reassuring mark of the CoE.
The Minster Church of St Andrew is the building which serves that purpose for a city which does not have a CoE cathedral.
And as the team Rector of St Andrew's, Nick McKinnel is the most obvious human manifestation of the state religion in Plymouth – the "go-to" vicar.
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To many, especially those who are not religious, he is "Nick the Vic".
I've even heard one belligerently atheist critic of all things religious refer to Nick warmly as "the acceptable face of religion, a nice bloke".
He has a calmness that offers reassurance. I can image that if your world fell in, he would be the perfect person to go to for help to get your equilibrium back.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that his world once fell in on him – the spire crashed through the roof of his church. More of that later.
It's the city's loss, then, that Nick is moving on after 18 years in Plymouth and at St Andrew's. He is to be the next Bishop of Crediton.
He will be consecrated as a bishop in Southwark Cathedral in November and will take over from Bishop Bob Evens,who is retiring.
The affection in which he is held in the city is reciprocated by Nick.
"I will be leaving a lot of friends and a lot of people, in churches and across a range of organisations, who work enormously hard for the good of the city," he says. "I have enormously enjoyed my ministry here."
His job as Bishop of Crediton is to assist the head of the diocese, the Bishop of Exeter, the Right Reverend Dr Michael Langrish.
Nick's patch covers most of Devon beyond the Teign river, a huge patch extending west to Hatherleigh and north to Hartland Point.
There is another assistant, the CoE Bishop of Plymouth, the Rt Rev John Ford, who covers this side of the Teign. Bishop John is another highly regarded figure within the city. But Nick's status as head of the team at the "mother church" of Plymouth has given him a higher profile with the public in his time in the city.
He jokes that he had to get a map out to try to get his head around the size of his "patch".
But in fact he is back on familiar territory. He grew up in Bradninch, north of Exeter, and before Plymouth he was Rector of four parishes in the rural heart of his new area of responsibility, Hatherleigh, Meeth, Exbourne and Jacobstowe.
Although he grew up in rural Devon Nick could call himself a scouser if he wished. He was born in Liverpool and spent his first three years living in a house in Huskisson Street. Appropriately for the boy who would grow up to lead a diocese, he was a stone's throw from the seats of the two bishops of Liverpool, the city's Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals.
His father, Bob, was a dentist who moved the family to Devon where he set up a practice in Exeter.
Nick is the oldest of four sons and a daughter. All moved away for education and the early part of their careers but like Nick have moved back to Devon. Simon is a dentist, Charlotte a doctor, Jonathan a surveyor and Toby is a vineyard owner.
Nick boarded at one of the UK's leading independent schools, Marlborough College in Wiltshire. He grew up in a church-going family but it was at Cambridge University, where he completed a degree in law, that his belief grew.
"It had always been there, kind of in the background," he says. "At Cambridge I came across other students who took their faith seriously and heard some preachers and decided that the Christian faith had answers to lots of questions that I had about life, and that Jesus was somebody to be followed."
After graduation he worked for Tearfund, a Christian overseas relief and development agency, based in London.
"I was kind-of thinking of carrying on with law as a career or becoming ordained as a priest – that became a growing conviction."
He studied theology at Oxford University and was ordained as a curate in 1980.
At Oxford he met his wife to be, Jan, who was training to be a midwife at the John Radcliffe Hospital. They were married in 1981.
His first parish was St Mary's, West Kensington, "which sounds grand but wasn't. It was quite a rough patch of Hammersmith; good experience of urban living for a young curate. It was bedsit land, with a very mobile population." After three years there it was back to the city of his birth from 1983-87 as the Anglican chaplain to Liverpool University. "It was a bit edgier there with some big urban issues.
"It was very ecumenical, quite creative; a happy time.
"I'm still in touch with some of the people there."
Then came the complete contrast of a rural parish in Devon, the move to Hatherleigh.
"We spent seven great years there," he says, fondly.
"Country ministry is a real joy. You are really in the community. You get to know everybody. You have time to visit and meet.
"The church is really part of the community, even to those who never or rarely go to church."
That point was illustrated perfectly when disaster struck Hatherleigh Church. In a fierce storm on January 21, 1990 the spire was lifted off the tower and crashed through the church roof. The 15th-century, Grade-1-listed church was devastated.
"It was terrible," says Nick. "It was a massive re-building job costing £750,000.
"I appreciated then just how much a part of the fabric of life the church is in small community.
"I had people come up to me who never went to church and were in tears.
"It was a real privilege to be a part of that community and to see how everybody came together."
The church's historic importance, and the safety net of half the repair cost met through insurance, meant abandonment was never really considered. A huge fundraising project followed and by 1994, when Nick left for Plymouth, the church was fully restored.
By then Nick and Jan's family of four was complete. "We were all looking forward to it," he recalls. "St Andrew's is a lovely building with a great tradition in the city and it was my job to keep that going.
"We all felt quite excited to be living in a city. The children were thrilled to be moving to Plymouth. They were at the age when a city was much more interesting than the country. They were so excited that you could ring for a pizza and have it delivered!"
The move is on now with Nick aged 58 and all four grown.
Gemma, who trained as a dentist, is married and lives in Bristol. She has a son, with another child on the way. James, who is a trainee solicitor and lives in Basingstoke, is also married as is Charlotte, whose home is in Oxford. She works for Christians in Sport. The youngest, Clare, is in her third year studying biological sciences at Warwick University.
As for Nick's work, the contrast between city and country was not as sharp. "You do the same regular things: preach, pray, take funerals, prepare people for weddings.
"The congregation at St Andrew's was very welcoming straight away. One contrast is that in a country parish people are, I guess, a bit more conservative. They love the old prayer book.
"In Plymouth they wanted the church to be a bit more contemporary."
He describes himself as an "orthodox" member of the Church of England. "I think that we have got to be faithful to the scripture and the Christian message, but contemporary as well.
"I am quite happy to be a part of the historical biblical tradition. But we have to be imaginative and progressive. We have to honour people as they are. Some churches are more traditional, some are more progressive."
On gay marriage you could use the "traditional" label on Nick, while on another issue within the church, he is a progressive.
"The church upholds traditional marriage between men and women. I go with that.
"I do not think that we need to introduce gay marriage. The fact is that we have civil partnerships that give equal civil rights.
"Marriage has served us well for generations."
But without putting gay and straight relationships on the same footing, the church is surely still regarding homosexuals as less equal?
"Homosexual relationships are now honoured and respected.
"The Government is keen (to have gay marriage). I would not particularly want to change the situation.
"The church is cautious and I am personally happy with the way that things are at the moment."
As for women bishops, "in November the General Synod (the body that discusses and makes church law) is very likely to approve legislation. We are going to have women bishops.
"I would like the Church to be generous to those who are unable to accept the ministry of women bishops. Generosity of spirit and Christian thinking would not go amiss."
He supports the idea of 'flying' bishops to provide ministry to parishes that cannot accept a woman bishop.
Nick says, though, that both issues might be considered 'hot' but in reality, "in an ordinary working week I don't come across many in the congregation who are greatly concerned about such things.
"The Church is more exercised with the good news of Christ and the gospels, and how to live that out in a society that is increasingly more secular and in which the Church can feel more marginalised.
"I think that actually the Church is more respected than some believe.
"Attendance figures are not great but people are not joiners as they once were – the same applies to trades unions and political parties, although in this diocese there has been a slight increase in attendances over the last year or so." The higher figure might result from people looking for "a purpose in life" he says.
But support for the Church goes beyond attendance for services, he says. There are many that take part in "messy church", activities connected to the Church but not formal services. And many more respect the good work done by members of the Church, he adds.
"We are clearly a much more multi-cultural society. One of the great things about this country is the hospitality it offers to others.
"Why should the Church of England have historic privileges? It has to earn the right to be heard."
When not working – "It's a full life that does not allow much spare time" – he enjoys walking: Jan and Nick have Pippa, a cocker spaniel as a reason to get out. Jan retrained as a health visitor but has now retired.
He plays cricket, too, occasionally turning out for city casual club The Philanthropists and the diocesan team. He bowls "military medium" but these days "if I can just do line and length and keep the runs down I am happy.
"You have to do something to stop you being too pious!"
As for his faith, since those formative years at Cambridge there have been challenges and changes.
"Anything that does not change and grow probably dies.
"I come across a great variety of experiences and tragedies that can provide challenges" but they can also give strength: "I see a lot of people showing courage through difficult situations. They are a source of inspiration and hope."
Among the most challenging duties have been the funeral services for young men killed in Afghanistan. "It is very difficult to know what one can say. God knows the pain and the tragedy of life because he saw that in his only son, Jesus."
And on tackling the growth of fundamentalism, teachers, clergy and politicians have a role to play, he argues.
"There is plenty of bad religion around. The answer to that is to teach good religion.
"If the education system does not do that through RE, people are going to be more prey to unhelpful fundamentalist ideas.
"Education is pretty key. Scriptures have to be interpreted sensibly and that is where the clergy come in.
"There are some great churches of all traditions in Plymouth, who engage with their communities, with dedicated pastors and priests that work hard, sometimes in difficult situations.
"I have enjoyed particularly working with ex-services associations. There are some great characters among them."
There are, Nick says, many people outside the churches doing good work.
"They include people in business, the city council, the hospitals, university and voluntary organisations who work really hard for the good of the city.
"It has been great to be a part of that."