IThe Reverend Canon Charles Rycroft Smith – Ryc.
I blame Canon Ram, for he it was who took the trouble to speak to a small boy who had appeared alone at an evening service on a winter’s night in the parish church in Winfrith, Dorset.
I do not recall any particular reason why I should have started going to an Anglican church. My father had been a Quaker by conviction, my mother through education and I and my two younger brothers had been christened as Unitarians, living as we did in Hyde, Cheshire, between Manchester and Stockport and something of a stronghold of Unitarianism. We had moved to Dorset in 1953 where my mother had decided that she was going to start farming following the death of our father earlier that year.
So the kindly old Canon took me under his wing and when a farm had been bought the following spring and we went to live in Cerne Abbas, it seemed quite natural to go to church there and I joined the choir in which I remained until I was seventeen.
In Cerne Abbas I encountered another formative figure, for the parson was one Cyril Taylor, a keen musician and writer of hymn tunes. He would bring his compositions to choir practise to try them out on us. To be fair it must have been agony for him because we were probably closer to Hardy’s Melstock choir in “Under the greenwood tree” than that of Salisbury Cathedral to which he eventually went as Precentor.
Nearby was the village of Hillfield which has a large and very active Franciscan Friary and to which I was much attracted as a youngster. So, the foundation stones were laid – pastoral kindness and human warmth, the dignity and order of Anglican liturgy, the role of choral music and the spirituality of the Franciscans. These have remained at the heart of my ministry.
However, leaving school at sixteen with a handful of “O” levels was not a foundation for very much. I turned to agriculture and after a year’s practical work on our own and a nearby farm went to what was then The Dorset Farm Institute, now Dorset College of Agriculture, for a year. I returned to farm work but was restless and needed to spread my wings. After six months as a hotel porter on the edge of Lake Constance in Switzerland I came back and joined the Army.
This was quite the most significant decision of my life to that point. After basic training with the Royal Armoured Corps at Catterick I spent the following two and a half years in London doing ceremonial duties in The Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) Squadron of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. Hard work, long hours and strict discipline was probably just what I needed.
The bonus was that Trooper Smith 006 met a physiotherapy student, Pauline, who was training at the Middlesex Hospital. By this time it was clear that a Field Marshall’s baton was not to be mine and so I decided to move on and went ‘into the City’, joining a firm of Commodity Brokers. It was a fascinating world in which such things as rubber, sugar, vegetable oils, spices and cocoa were traded. During this time Pauline and I married and as she was now qualified and working in a children’s hospital in Carshalton, Surrey it made sense for us to make our home nearby.
After a couple of years working in a branch bank in Sanderstead a friend asked me to join him in his accountancy firm in Sutton. We moved to a little community on Epsom Downs called Langley Vale. It had a modern church with a delightful curate. Our new next door neighbour, who was on the PCC, said that they needed a Treasurer and after some persuasion I agreed. By now I was about twenty seven and that knock which had started so many years earlier was growing in urgency. We had one child, Philip and another was on the way when I made the first tentative steps towards offering for ordination.
To a degree I suspect I could not believe that ‘I had what it takes’ and wanted to settle the matter once and for all. Step by step I moved closer towards the selection process which in itself proved to be harrowing and then, to my surprise and delight I was accepted for training. It was just before Christmas in 1975.
We sold our home and moved to Salisbury where I did my training and then came to Hereford where I was ordained and to the parish of St Martin’s / South Wye in 1978 with its mix of urban and rural ministry to serve my Title. It was during that time that our third child and second son, Alexander was born.
That appointment lasted for three years and from there I went to a parish in Southampton in the Diocese of Winchester for a second curacy. In 1983 I became Rector of the Candover Valley which comprised four rural parishes southwest of Basingstoke and in 1990 became Rural Dean of Alresford which involved me in various aspects of the life of the diocese as well as the care and support of the clergy and their families in the Deanery, an appointment I was to hold until the 1999 when I was asked to go to St Andre de la Pommeraye in Guernsey. (The Channel Islands are part of Winchester Diocese).
This was an incredibly varied job divided between a parish of two thousand souls and responsibility for co-ordinating the hospital chaplaincy on the island. The parish was home to the island’s hospice and also an ecumenical chapel dedicated to the ministry of healing where I conducted weekly services. I was also chaplain to the Guernsey Police and Vice Dean. We enjoyed a glorious old seven bedroom Rectory in which I was able to give full rein to my passion for DIY.
Helen, our daughter was married in 2004 at St Andrews to a soldier who happens also to be a Blue. With the prospect of him going to Afghanistan it made sense to return to the UK in order to be closer to support her and their family. This we did in 2007 to the Benefice of Beaulieu, Exbury and East Boldre in the New Forest and it was towards the end of my time there last summer that I was installed as a Canon of Winchester Cathedral.
Little did I know when entered that church in Winfrith, that I was beginning such a journey. It has been a great adventure and one for which those excursions in to the worlds of farming and the military, the city, banking and accountancy were part of the preparation. Right now I am trying to improve my appalling French and I note that in French people who are retired are ‘en retraite’. So perhaps, rather like a retreat, the best use of this next phase is to take the opportunity to reflect, to pray and to re-orientate our lives in the light of the wholly new situation in which we find ourselves.