The Dean of Derby

PUBLISHED: 14:28 19 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:27 20 February 2013

The Dean of Derby

The Dean of Derby

Pat Ashworth talks to the Dean of Derby, The Very Rev'd Dr John Davies DL. Photographs by Ashley Franklin

The Dean of Derby was vicar of Melbourne for over 10 years, somewhere he acknowledges was a very lovely spot to be. If a sermon wouldnt come or he needed to think something through, he could walk around the lake or mow the grass on his terraced garden, putting the stripe on, doing the edges, and by the end of it the matter would be resolved in my mind, he says.

He has cherished memories of Melbourne as a lively, enterprising, forward-looking parish with lots of people coming to church. But thats the immediate past, he says briskly: done that. When he took up the post of Dean in October 2010, Derby Cathedral had been without consistent leadership for seven years and its troubles were well known. It needed love, attention, vision and determination, he says, putting a closure on those years and adding firmly, Thats my job. And it meant there were acres of possibilities.

Born in Bolton, Lancashire, where his father was a deputy head teacher, he grew up in the green part of the London-Essex border and went to school in Brentwood, a place he still thinks of as home. Im proud to have a Lancashire lineage and to be a Bolton person, even though I have no Bolton memories of my own, he says. School did me proud and got me into Oxford. They just took what we were good at and helped us to be better at it. He studied at Keble College, where he was later Chaplain and taught theology, trained for the priesthood at Westcott House, Cambridge, and was ordained in 1985.

But he is no stranger to city life. At Cambridge, would-be curates were instructed to leave their comfort zones, and when a curacy came up at Liverpool parish church right by the Liver Building, he says fondly and under the supervision of Canon Donald Gray, he knew it was a job he wanted. Manchester-born Gray was Rector of Liverpool (and later Chaplain to the Queen) and knew what he was about, he says with huge respect.

His first memory of the city was walking with a host of other curates, into the vastness of Liverpool Cathedral to be ordained. He remembers, A finger came out from the crowd and said, I think that ones ours. And I thought, Im somebodys! Gosh.

In a small slice of his parish, there was over 50 per cent male unemployment, a lot of domestic violence and levels of poverty and distress that I had never seen. But it also had an amazing sense of community and warmth, he says. I was told, Go and do some visiting, go door to door, get out and about thats what clergy should do. So I did, and people invited me in, 80 per cent of the community were Roman Catholic but delighted to see a dog collar. He was chaplain to an eye hospital and a department store, paving the way for the work he still relishes, as Chairman of Industrial Mission for Derbyshire.

After a short spell in Peterborough, he returned to spend five years as parish priest in Anfield, the really inner city bit of Liverpool, tough and hard but with a very strong sense of loyalty to the church. People from Liverpool parish church and from St Margarets Anfield came to his installation in Derby Cathedral last year, which tells you something about loyalty and connection, he says: As soon as I heard the Liverpool voices, I knew they were there.

He describes his first year as Dean as tiring but very fulfilling. There have been very encouraging indicators, not least that Derby, in line with other cathedrals, has seen attendance rise. He regards the 15 per cent increase in regular Sunday churchgoing as one positive indicator that the cathedral is back to itself: another is certainly the big increase in visitor numbers. The appointment of a Visitors Officer has helped the figure climb to 110,000 a year, making the cathedral one of the best visited free attractions in the Midlands.

There is quiet satisfaction too that after the troubles and turmoil of the past few years, the cathedral will be able to report a small operating surplus, thanks to good management of money by the financial team and to more people coming to the cathedral. The lifting of the financial situation has brought what he describes as a gentle sense of release and uplift. Money will soon need to be spent on essentials like rewiring, to refresh and enhance the light, spacious feeling that is the glory of Derby Cathedral.

The deans of all the cathedrals in England will gather here in 2013, when Derby and Southwell will host a Deans Conference billed as ancient and modern: the medieval foundation of Southwell Minster joining with this contemporary cathedral in its contemporary setting Im rather chuffed with that, he acknowledges.

He saw his job first and foremost to be here... just being here, around and as affirming as I possibly could be. He pays tribute to the cathedrals new administrator, Jackie Croft, who is helping us to be smooth and elegant in the way we do things, and above all to the staff who have kept going the massive programme of special services. The Dean recognises and affirms the strong desire in city and county to mark particular themes in life, to find cohesion and strengthening at key times and to ask a blessing for particular causes and endeavours.

Describing himself as, a parish priest in my guts, he says it is when he stands at the cathedral door to see people out that he can tell something positive has happened. Derby has said, We want events in our Cathedral. Its hugely encouraging, he says. Its said that this generation is not a believing generation but I dont believe thats true. Its a believing but not belonging generation, and I think cathedrals are picking up on that. Derby Cathedral needs to have its doors open, inclusive and welcoming to the public.

Civic connections arent enough, he emphasises: it is not enough just to keep inviting people to come here. So he is out and about, making himself known to the local media, business and industry, talking together about the challenges Derby faces. Like Liverpool, its enterprise city and hurt city, he reflects, taking the words of the former Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard.

There are daily reminders of suffering in the present economic climate: prayers left in the Cathedral are increasingly about unemployment and housing and homelessness. He came into the job in the midst of what is happening at Bombardier where Canon Ian Winterbottom has become chaplain to the workforce and sees the job as a real piece of work to do but finds some optimism in the rising number of Rolls-Royce apprentices, the increase of car production at Toyota and the flourishing of small or niche businesses such as Royal Crown Derby.

He pays warm tribute to Marketing Derby, an organisation of which the cathedral is now a bond-holder because, We all want Derby to flourish. We want to put our money where our mouth is. And he is warmed and encouraged by the place the cathedral holds in the lives of its citizens. A Sikh taxi-driver taking him to the building from the station and not knowing who he was, commented, Were very proud of Derby Cathedral in our city. Such recognition on the landscape of the mind pleases him enormously.

A toe dipped into inter-faith relations, in a city more religiously diverse than he had first realised, has brought the appointment of Professor David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam at Birmingham University, as Honorary Canon Theologian. His initial public lecture on the history and prospects for Christian-Muslim relations drew a large mixed audience to the cathedral and Muslims present agreed, You gave a fair account of our faith. The Archbishop of Canterburys groundbreaking walkabout in Normanton High Street on his recent weekend visit to Derby Diocese, further strengthened relations in a place of many faiths.

A cathedral brings a diocese together, symbolically round the cathedra, the Bishops seat: something the Dean enjoys explaining to the growing number of school parties on a visit. Its all about embedding the cathedral in peoples minds... They can see how lovely it is, he reflects, finding it very heartwarming that people have caught this vision for the cathedral and seem to want it to happen. He feels honoured to have been made Deputy Lieutenant of the county and pleased to have been invited to be a member of the University Court.

Spare time is precious: he needs and values his day off and relaxes driving a really cracking car, his Golf GTi. Christmas is coming and he is hugely looking forward to that, especially to the two carol services on Christmas Eve. You get the feeling that The Very Revd Dr John Davies DL is very much a man in the right place at the right time.

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