Deacon Andy Farmer talks to Claire Whitmore (Ministry Division of the Church of England) about the way God called him to be a deacon. Part of his story is due to appear soon on the new CofE website about vocations.
Deacon Andy Farmer
Diocese of Exeter
Qu: Tell me a bit about your own faith story
I grew up in South Wales in a Christian family and my dad died when I was very young. I just remember my mum – one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen – my dad had died, and she’d just got back from the hospital, she wanted to tell us straight away, and I remember her saying “it’s OK, because God will look after us”. That sense of blind faith stayed with me. When I look back on it now I have a sense of God as a very practical presence in our lives, and we were always looked after. Like everyone else I disappeared off to school and university, didn’t have any real faith, but when I got married and our first child came along I thought “wow, there must be something more”. Debbie, my wife, and I were enquiring at the same time, and as I had had a Methodist upbringing, I felt there was something there. We got involved in the church, but very much motivated by what middle class families do, going on a Sunday and being part of things, but very much based just on ‘that’s what you do’.
We moved down to West Devon about 15 years ago, and in order to get involved in the local community we went to an Alpha course together. I remember the feeling I had when I learnt “do you know what? God is a personal God and prepared to have a relationship with us”. It just transformed our faith, that sense of God loving us so much that he laid down his life for us, that sense of the practicality and prayer as conversation. That whole sense of the ability to have a personal relationship with God completely changed my faith, my faith grew, I got involved in the local church, I started learning more about Scripture, led worship occasionally, led some courses and gave talks. Over a period of time I really felt God was calling me to do something a bit more and other people were saying that too me as well.
There was a disjoint for me between being in the church community, and being in the place where I worked, where the people I spent the vast majority of my time with had no faith. For me, God was calling me to meet people where they are, to find out what God was doing and join in. My calling isn’t about expecting people to come into the church building, but to meet them where they are.
I belong to a very low church, but even in that forum, we are very far away from most people’s everyday life. There are generations growing up now who never had religious school assemblies, Christianity is just one of many other faiths, they view religion as something which has caused wars. We’ve alienated people from the Christian faith. I have a strong sense that God is saying to me to just get out there and talk to people, to listen and to join in when I see stuff.
I’ve just been ordained, and we went on a three-day retreat before. I met with the Bishop and he said I had a gift of discernment, and that I should work with that. My call to the Diaconate gives me the freedom to meet people where they are. He said, “what I want you to do, is to go out of the building, away by yourself and say two things: ‘thank you God for loving me so much’ and ‘just send me wherever you want me to go’. So, I walked out of the building up the hill, and I didn’t really know where I was going. I could see a spire, so I thought, “right, that’s what you do, head to the spire”. I went into the churchyard and found that the church I’d walked into had no roof! I’ve subsequently found out it was burned down, but still is sacred land. I went inside in that heavy mizzle that doesn’t look like much but absolutely drenches you. I had a sense of God calling me not to be in a building. God was saying “this building has no roof, but I’m still here”. I felt so affirmed.
Then the next thing I knew, a guy was walking towards me with a small aluminium suitcase. So, I’m in the middle of the moor, in a burned-out church, in the rain and there’s a middle-aged man walking towards me. I was thinking “I’m going to have to say something, I can’t just ignore him”, so I asked him what was in the case – was he a photographer? He said “no, guess again”, so I made a few guesses and didn’t get it, and eventually he asked me what I was doing there. I said, “I’m on a retreat, I’m being ordained on Sunday and I just came out to find a bit of space to pray and to be in God’s presence.” I thought that would be the end of the conversation as he seemed to be quite opposed to religion.
We had a chat and he told me he had a set of bagpipes in the case – things were getting more and more random by the minute, and I do think God has a sense of humour. He said he was in a band, and would come up here to play by himself so as not to disturb anyone. I asked him what he was going to play, and he told me “Amazing Grace.” I could feel the hairs sticking up on the back of my neck at this point, and I asked him if he knew the origins of the hymn. He knew a lot about music, but not the story of the song.
I told him about John Newton and his history, his involvement with the slave trade and then the abolitionist movement. He was enthralled. I talked about the irony that the song talked about being blind but now I see, whilst for Newton physically it was the other way around. I could tell it had an impact on him, and he asked me the author’s name, and I said ‘John Newton’ – and he stood in silence for a while, and then he said “my father’s name was John Newton-Andrews, and he died two years ago today.” You can talk about coincidence, but for me it was an affirmation that God wanted me to be there, listening to people and trust that somehow or another God would bless them. So I left, and he struck up Amazing Grace as I walked away.
For me it’s about making myself a little bit vulnerable and letting God use me as an instrument for a connection. I’ll never see that guy again, but I hope he felt some connection with God.
As I look at my faith journey, it’s littered with those kinds of encounters. The Diaconate gives me the freedom and flexibility, not tied to being inside a Church, but instead to represent God in the work environment. Many people just want to be listened to. For me, the Diaconate is what I was made to be. I want to be that faithful servant, in awkward places like Jesus was.
Qu: Tell me about how you recognised your call
I didn’t know what the Diaconate was. We had a Church summer camp with guest speakers, and a couple of them had prayed with me and said that God was calling me to something more. At the time I remember wanting to throw myself in and get involved now, but as I look back I can see that I wasn’t ready. I needed forming and shaping. One person said he saw me as a bridge – not a steel structure, but an oak bridge, helping people move into the church. Others were saying I was clearly called to evangelism, to preaching, to relating to people. I remember signing up for a vocational course put on by the diocese. As I was leaving my wife said, “just keep an open mind, there’s a whole range of things that this might throw up, but by the way I’m not going to be a vicar’s wife”. I went along and listened to these things and I had a real sense that I wasn’t called to lay ministry, and God was preparing me for something different. Then I heard about the Diaconate, the incarnate Christ and the example of Stephen. The flexibility that sort of mission gave seemed like the right thing to do. I spent a lot of time in prayer with people at the Church, and they said they recognised this is in me. another time I was walking on the moor with the dog, spending some time in prayer, and calling upon God for some signs. I ended up in the middle of the moor on a bench in memorial of a lady called Margaret Deacon – just another of these coincidences that really spoke to me. and the sense that God wanted me to serve in an environment that I was well known and respected – and for me that’s the workplace. There is a real need, people don’t know how to share their faith in work, when to take a stand on an issue, and part of my role is to lead by example, and to be an ambassador for Christ.
Even where I work now, I’ve got feedback from people saying, “if you think there’s something in this God stuff, and you’re quite bright, maybe there is something in it after all.” And sometimes they will go off and find out a bit more.
Qu: Does life feel different since ordination?
The clerical collar is very interesting. I’ve had so many questions about when I would and wouldn’t wear it. Getting ready for work on the first Monday after my ordination, my wife asked me if I would be any different in my shirt and tie than in the robes I’d worn at Church. I said, “I will be different, but because of what’s happened to me, not because of what I’m wearing.” It’s an ontological thing, the laying on of hands, and a public declaration. That sense of being reflective about how you respond, because people have more preconceptions about who I am and what I do. What I have to share with them is my vulnerability and to show them that through Grace I am saved.
Most people in my church have been positive about my choice to wear the collar, even though it’s quite a low church, and a couple have been critical. It’s caused a reaction, and I do feel somewhat different. This has been a five or six year – maybe even a lifetime – journey for me, and through the training I’ve been prepared.
For my wife, too it’s been a change. She’s always been a background person, she has wonderful skills and is very resourceful, and it’s a real blessing to see how in some ways we are being sent out as a couple.
I feel a bit like I’m waiting to mess up – lose my temper in the shops with my collar on, or get caught speeding. You do feel different, and there is some pressure.
Qu: What do you think your ministry is going to be now?
My character is one of planning and being organised, and high achieving. Through the ordination process God has put things in front of me that are unimaginably difficult, but also shown me that it’s not in my strength, it’s through and within God that change will happen. Everyone is asking me my plans, and asking about all the things I’ve spoken about doing, but for now I’m just waiting on God. Enjoying the freedom of not having lots of training to do, and offering who I am to God. There are some places – I want to run some workshops about Christianity at work, I’d like to be involved in a Breakfast Club in Plymouth, which is our nearest city, I’ll be doing some practical things in church to help our incumbent, and we are also running some Pilgrim courses at our home. But really, I’m just looking around and seeing what is happening. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future we might find ourselves in a difficult area running a Church plant.