A SYMBOL OF HOPE IN TOTTENHAM JOINS THE TRIBE
John (or Father John) is way bigger than the collar he wears. Yes, he’s a spiritual, religious figure head and has chosen that path, but he’s also a very witty, clever, community minded and multi-dimensional person. When you meet him, you see John first, not religion.
He has an unwavering commitment to Tottenham. You can see the passion and sparkle in his eyes when he talks about Tottenham. It’s quite amazing.
“John Wood, Tottenhams answer to David Letterman” SHAHZAD ALI 2019
My name is Rev John Wood, and I have been Vicar at St Ann’s Church in South Tottenham since 1994, also helping run a charity called Hope in Tottenham since 2014. But the work that has been brought into Hope in Tottenham is work we’ve really been doing almost since I started at St. Ann’s many years ago. So HiT was an attempt to bring all our community engagement work into a charitable framework which meant whether you had faith or you didn’t have faith you could be comfortable working with us, which strategically seemed to work really well and opened up avenues of opportunity and funding and progression which wouldn’t all have been there if we’d kept within a more narrow, church – based focus.
Following my father’s trajectory
My father was a very high-profile bishop in the 1980’s. He was always a very credible role model for me and unlike some priests people actually listened to him when he preached! He had been a chaplain in the Royal Marine Commandos in the Second World War, so he’d come up against death and chaos and real life. He was a curate in London during the Blitz and used to lead services on the platforms of tube stations where everyone had come to escape the bombs so I often slightly in awe of his ministry. I actually decided to become a priest when I was 15 at a Confirmation retreat where they told us to pray in silence for 10 minutes (and I am not very good with silence). I just got to thinking about what I was going to do with my life and it seemed to come to me very clearly that I was going to be a priest. I then spent the next 15 years fighting against that call but succumbed when I was invited to be a curate (not a youth worker) at a church in Northwood Middlesex. To my great surprise I had a clear sense that invitation was of God as the church was white, middleclass, suburban and wealthy, the very type of church that I absolutely didn’t want to work in! So it’s been a challenging journey and I’ve found that reluctance to have entered the church has been useful in resisting your personality being subsumed by role. I think it’s also helped in not taking myself in that role too seriously.
It’s all in a name
When you’re ordained and have a collar put around your neck you are called a deacon. That means you can’t celebrate communion and you can’t directly bless people. It generally acts as a years’ probation. At the end of that time you’re usually then ordained as a priest. A priest can celebrate communion, bless people and eventually become a vicar. You can have a lot of different roles within the church but if you’re not a priest you can’t fulfil certain roles in leadership – as a vicar or a bishop for example.
Before the church
I worked on an NHS cancer ward as an auxiliary nurse and then travelled around colleges and universities in the UK working with Christian student groups to giving money to subsidise Bible purchases by people who couldn’t afford them otherwise. I got 500+ students to join something called the Bible a Month Club, so that people whether in Cambodia, Guinea-Bissau or Honduras could afford to have a bible in their own language, an early experience of fund – raising and advocacy. After going to university myself I went to Uganda in 1981, then in the middle of a very nasty civil war, where over 400,000 would up lose their lives. It was a life – changing experience, teaching History and English in a large mixed co-educational boarding school where I was the only English person! After 5 terms I went to work for Scripture Union, a youth and schools movement where I was asked to visit and support Christian student groups in around 50 Kampala secondary schools. We had our own gospel band made up of students from the national university who I used to drive around at weekends to perform big gospel concerts for 700 kids at a time. It was a lot of fun but also a bit crazy, running Army road blocks of unpredictable soldiers and being paid £4 a month. Unforgettable, seminal and life – changing.
An entrepreneur at heart
I think that I enjoyed teaching and I love Christian ministry even more, but since coming to St. Ann’s I’ve also had to learn how to be entrepreneurial. I really love making things happen and generating the money needed to maintain projects and start new ones. I was quite attracted to the possibility of going into business when I was young and after Uganda being in the NGO world, anything to do with people and projects and making a difference and making things happen. I’m not a bureaucrat and I’m not a bean counter but at the end of the day probably a people person more than anything else, even entrepreneurship. Then you’re back full circle to Christian ministry.
This amazing house
I’m about to leave St. Ann’s Vicarage for something much smaller, but since 1994 it’s been quite strange living in probably the biggest non – multiple occupancy building around until you reach the next vicarage in the area! I’ve had a 5 – bedroom house with a huge half – acre garden in one the most deprived socio-economic parts of North London. I have enjoyed being here hugely and your (Agenda’s) dad helped make the garden beautiful, but it has felt odd having people living next door in flats with no garden whatsoever, often in temporary or privately – rented accommodation they can barely afford. It’s not my house as John Wood, but it was my house as Vicar of St. Ann’s and so important to have local people coming through house and garden without totally destroying the privacy of my own family. When Rina and I we had our wedding party there it was so great inviting everybody from those flats next door to join our family and church guests, and many joined us. In the Summer we’ve often had 30/40 kids from Sunday school coming out of the church hall to play parachute games on the lawn. Despite that hospitality (and many other clergy are far more generous with their homes) I have still often felt uncomfortable about the accommodation I have enjoyed being part of a church institution needing to appear and be relevant to its local community.
Tottenham, then and now
I don’t know how Tottenham used to be before 1994. I do know that the often – invisible problems of post code wars, drugs, knives, guns and deprivation are more serious today in 2018 than they were then. The built environment around Tottenham is stronger, I think the quality of educational resources is certainly much improved and I think there is a greater will in Tottenham for people to work together across historic racial and class divides. But in age of austerity I fear we have gone backwards in the human resources Council and Police could deploy to make our community feel safe and resilient. I sometimes feel we are near a return to 1994 where we rarely if ever saw a police officer or council officer on the street, and if we did rarely knew them personally. I’m worried the streets seem abandoned by those we need the most to be on them.
Politics vs Religion
Politics as a term is simply about how men and women organise themselves to enable their society to be a place of health, justice and peace. I believe the Bible has a lot to say about that too, how men and women, boys and girls, young and old should work together for mutually acceptable outcomes. The Bible has a deep vision of security where everyone has their own home and can sit under their own tree. From that point of view the Bible is a deeply political book, not a party-political book, giving a vision of the Kingdom of God where political society creates strong and mutual relationships based on compassion and fairness. As someone who is told in the Bible that ‘true religion’ is about feeding the orphans and caring for the widows I don’t see a need to make artificial hostilities between religion and politics.
Do you ever feel that the collar and what it represents goes against you in any way… does it have any negative connotations or impact?
The collar is a two – way street really. It can be a barrier but it can and does unlock doors to create extraordinary and privileged personal opportunities. There are generations of people who have negative connotations of what the collar represents – priests in Dublin are increasingly fearful to the reactions to them on the streets for a host of historic reasons. Representing the institutional church has often meant encountering suspicion, defensiveness and even hostility. Part of my job is to try and break down that reserve whilst being grateful for the access the collar can give you to people who are prepared to trust you with some of the deepest and most private parts of their lives.
“This house is not mine which makes it my duty to welcome everyone in”
Tender hearts and tough minds
I’ve experienced a lot of opposition in my life as someone who for a number of different reasons wants to make a difference to the world I live in. Some of that hostility may well have been because of how, however well – intentioned I may have been, I was clumsy in how I sought change for the churches I helped lead. Other times it may have just been because of difficult change can be for those most affected by it, especially if their own place in the scheme of things appears threatened as a result. Jesus himself experienced the most intense and destructive opposition because he taught he had come to serve, not to be served, an existential threat to the status quo and ruling order.
The way the Jesus seemed to handle bringing change was that he was truthful but also gracious at the same time, an approach as challenging as it is liberating. Martin Luther King echoed that message by calling for those engaged in social justice and community transformation to have ‘tender hearts but tough minds.’ In Tottenham I think we have some of the best hearts and minds in the business, and when you put those together with grace and truth amazing things happen. That is certainly my wish for myself and the staff and partners of ‘Hope in Tottenham’ in how we do our work.
Cut through the nonsense
If you want to try for relational, innovative and solution – based projects which are inspirational and creative due to our partnership, we’re going to be able to work together. If you’re more bureaucratic, needing total consensus from all parties in order to progress and needing your ego to be nurtured by what we are doing, it’s not going to go so well! I’ll fight to the last for a good mutual outcome whose sole focus is the well – being of Tottenham and its people. I don’t like fighting .. it exhausts me, but for that I will.
My family and Tottenham
I think they love it. It’s vibrant, it’s multicultural, it’s different, it’s challenging, it’s funny, it’s crazy and it’s never boring. My children have never asked me to leave Tottenham for a job somewhere else and in fact I’ve often involved them in my work directly. They’ve sometimes gone on visits with me, like when we went to pray for Maisie Dunner, my former Church Warden, who was very ill at home. The children held her hand as we said the Grace together and it was an incredibly special time for each one of us. They’ve never known anything else other than Tottenham and they’re happy with it despite having seen and experienced some of the more challenging aspects of life here. This is a very rich place, multicultural part of Western Europe for them to grow up in and I love that their friends come from so many different backgrounds.
My family and faith
I try to pray and read the Bible with my children, to show them how it makes sense to live life in a positive, God – given positive way particularly when you are being challenged and exposed to opposition, which they are often very aware of. I try to keep these times short, just enough to keep them interested. It needs to be a mutual interaction and if they are not up for it no problem. I long for my children to have Christian faith because of the benefits it has brought me but I am not going to force it on them. But my prayer for them would be to see them moving into communities and being used by God in relationship with people of all faith and none to change those communities for the better and not see them fail.
That’s a very good question, and I think the answer is that as a Christian you are in this challenging position of knowing Jesus Christ said ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ but you also knowing that there is truth and life in other faiths and religions. So there is this call to be open to the truth that is in other faiths and respect them whilst working out what is distinctive and true about your own. I would have to say that I have found the Christian faith has ultimately risen to every single challenge thrown at in my own life so I’m totally committed to it. But I would not want that to be at the expense of become either insular or disconnected with how other people feel and think.
How I know I am alive
As a practising Christian I know for myself that being alive is being in relationship with God through Jesus. Reading the Bible and praying in response to what I hear God saying to me gives a massive sense of my life being bound up in another, far greater one. I also know when I’m alive when meeting people both within and outside of the church who, again through God, have the common good of their communities at heart.
Working together for shared outcomes and projects that come out of nowhere and surprise you with their creative force is more than exciting. Seeing something appearing and growing in front of you in ways that you couldn’t have predicted or even anticipated makes you feel very alive indeed.
Describing myself in 3 words
Curious, stubborn, relational.
Described by others in 3 words
You’d have to ask them.