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Life on a higher plane

Growing the congregation and bringing financial stability to the church are among the priorities for the new dean of Nicosia’s St Paul’s. ALIX NORMAN meets a very driven man of the cloth

“In the Old Testament,” says Jeremy, thoughtfully, “a lot of things happened on mountains.” He settles into the depths of the sofa, navy gingham shirt fading into the shadows. Occasionally a stray sunbeam glints off his glasses; once in a while a hand appears from the gloom to grasp a teacup or gently illustrate a point. But for the most part we’re ensconced in a sfumato of drifting indigo shade. And yet somehow, even with the windows shuttered tightly against the heat of the day, Jeremy’s vitality lights the room: a man of the cloth poised to weave a bright pattern into the fabric of tradition.

We’ve been chatting about some of the more far-flung and high-reaching of his exploits, his various ascents and travels to the more remote corners of the world, and our conversation has lighted on higher planes – both literally and spiritually. Having ascended – in the name of charity – Everest Base Camp, Kilimanjaro (“I call it kill-a-man-slowly”) and Machu Picchu, the new Dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral seems captivated by the high places of this world. “I don’t know why it’s particularly caught me,” he adds, “but mountains are very spiritual. There’s simplicity in the nothingness. And, climbing them, I felt very close to God.”

Jeremy – “I don’t really go by my title, everyone calls me Jeremy” – has just landed. He flew in on Tuesday evening – after a midnight cross-country dash to retrieve an overlooked passport belonging to his mother, who accompanied him to Cyprus – and is finding his way round what will be his family home for the next few years. We’re in the cool confines of the sitting room at the St Paul’s Deanery, the thick stone walls shielding us from the noonday sun. But neither the outside temperature nor the unfamiliar surroundings appear to bother Jeremy in the slightest as he sips on his steaming cup of tea. A fact which is all the more surprising when one learns that – despite his many global jaunts – this is his first posting abroad.

For the past decade, Dean Jeremy Crocker has been the Team Rector of Elstow, Bedfordshire, in the Diocese of St Albans, overseeing the three churches of Elstow Abbey, Cardington and St Michaels. Before that he spent four years in Hatfield, following his first posting as a curate in Stevenage. And he began working life as a banker, in the City of London. All of which constitutes an extraordinarily impressive resume for someone who hasn’t yet passed 50. But then Jeremy, it transpires, always knew his path in life…

“From a very young age, I’d walk round the house with a curtain on my head saying I wanted to be the Archbishop of Canterbury,” he chuckles. “I don’t think, as a boy, I knew what this meant, and I certainly wasn’t in the sort of environment to walk round with a curtain on my head! My father was a draughtsman engineer who’d say ‘Let the boy play football!’. My mother was an occasional church-goer. There was no particularly religious bent in our family, so it was quite strange that I’d fixated on this calling from such an early age.”
Thus some weeks, Jeremy played football. And others, he went to church and attended Sunday School, for which he displayed quite a talent: “My sister would get really cross with me. She used to work quite hard to earn the end of term Bible prize by memorising particular passages. And then I’d attend only half the time and win it myself.” He pauses for thought, adding: “It’s the story of my life I suppose. I’ve been very fortunate in the chances I’ve been given.”

By the time he was a teenager – an age at which most boys are still deliberating between film star and football prodigy as a future career – Jeremy was even more certain about what he wanted to do with his life. “I grew up in Margate, and attended the local Grammar School at Broadstairs,” he reminisces. “And I remember walking round the maths department there, asking if anyone had ever become a clergyman and how to go about it…” But nobody had, and nobody knew, so Jeremy simply took the next step himself and, at the age of 18, offered himself to the Canterbury Diocese. “‘You’re too young!’ I was told. ‘Go and make your fortune first!’” he divulges, with a half-smile. And so he did, spending several years in a profession one might consider the polar opposite of his true calling, in the secular sphere of banking.

“I went to work for a couple of banks in London, Barclays at Southwark and Lombard Street and all round that bit of south London. And then I went to work for a merchant bank for a few years, which enabled me to do some wonderful travelling. And I loved it. In my life,” he adds, interrupting his story for a moment of the quiet reflection I’ve come to expect, “I’ve loved all I’ve done. Sometimes I’ve found it hard to move onto the next thing.” Fortunately for St Paul’s, Jeremy’s path had been long-ordained and despite his enjoyment of banking, a higher power was clearly taking a hand in events…

“At the age of 24, on a Good Friday, I suddenly felt the time had come,” Jeremy continues. “It was like a candle blowing up inside of me. It was a wonderful feeling. God was saying ‘Come on Crocker, it’s time now’.” We pause for a second to digest the import of what’s just been said, sipping in solemn silence. Even twenty-odd years later, related as part of a factual account, this ‘candle’ moment comes across powerfully. In other hands, the telling might be less moving, have less of an impact. But Jeremy’s description is so simple and honest, its magnitude is heightened.

With the backing of his local vicar – “you have to have your vicar’s support,” – Jeremy then went through two years of testing, followed by a three-day selection conference at Ecton House. “It was like a Big Brother experience; you’re watched all the time,” he says, adding that in the clergy, this constant observation is an ongoing process. “You’ve just got to be yourself. These days I don’t even think about it, though I know it can be a challenge for the family.”

profile2-St Pauls Anglican Cathedral in Nicosia
St Pauls Anglican Cathedral in Nicosia

Jeremy’s wife, Beth, is due to arrive for his installation at the weekend, along with his two young daughters. “She’s 11 years younger than I am, a reluctant vicar’s wife who, being the daughter of a vicar herself, vowed never to marry into the clergy! She’s wonderfully supportive of me, despite having her own career in which she helps children with tricky diagnoses, such as autism,” he says. With the mention of family and children, I sense we’ve touched on an area very close to Jeremy’s heart; and my next question – ‘What will you speak out on?’ – draws an equally moving response.

“At my last place, I spoke up for the children; I fought for them, more so than other things. I believe if the children aren’t being cared for then we, the church, need to have a go,” he says quoting from the Epistle of St James (‘Faith is dead without works’) to make the point. In Hatfield, Jeremy developed a youth club for the community, for “local kids with tricky backgrounds. We put up big football posts and a big skate park round the back,” he enthuses, “the kids would play football with the bishop, and they loved it!” Similarly, in Elstow, Jeremy was responsible for raising the staggering sum of £900,000 to turn the remains of a local mansion into two community halls, an inspiring testament to his philosophy of good works.

“We can all do our bit, try and make a difference,” he imparts. “I may come over shy but I’m an extrovert, and I’m as happy to lead as to be a part of something. I’ve had to learn that you can’t be a leader and lead from behind, on the whole it doesn’t work; sometimes you have to go to the front and show a bit of sparkle. At times,” he adds with the hint of a sigh, “it’s easy for vicars to get tied up with admin. But I’ve come here to be a parish priest, to serve the community and serve the people – get to know my folk and have them get to know me. People are a priority to me. Worshipping God is at the centre. But it’s also about having a cup of tea and a bit of cake with my parishioners, spending time with them, getting out and about in the community.”

He’s already full of praise for his new parish and the warm welcome he’s been given. “I’ve met people who come from all over the world, people from Denmark, from South Africa, people who have children in America, in Dubai… it’s very international. There are expats, locals – I’ve got a bit of everything here. I’ve had conversations over the last few days that I never would have had in Elstow, where things were much more parochial; all the talk before I left was of David Cameron really!

“What I’m looking forward to here at St Paul’s,” he continues, “is that next level of learning and development. Hopefully this post will bring together all sorts of twists and turns in my life. I’ve got this new experience here, and I know I’m going to enjoy it: building up the congregation, giving the cathedral financial stability and sharing the love of God with the whole community. I think,” he adds, reiterating his earlier point on good works as an inherent part of the church, “sometimes a life of prayer is not enough. I know some people may shut me down on this, but I believe that to be a good practising Christian we need to get our finger out and do something. My contract is for three years and hopefully renewable, because you do need a fair amount of time to get things done!”

Speaking of time, I find myself wondering whether he ever has a chance to unwind – what with services and works and making himself available to all and sundry, it would be easy to forget that the man is not the job. But Jeremy, with his air of quiet determination and willingness to pitch in, seems able to find the time for everything and everyone, including himself.

“In my last parish, I used to try to get away for an hour now and then for a swim,” he reveals, “and I do love my football. And my food! I’m also a huge fan of classical music. I love the ballet – my eldest is a ballet star,” he adds with a flash of pride, “and I play the piano, as well as being a very rusty bassoonist! In fact,” he divulges, “there’s a little shipment of CDs and vinyl winging its way towards Cyprus as we speak.” Interestingly, I only discover as we wind up our chat that his one unfulfilled ambition also relates to the world of music: the desire to conduct an orchestra. One can easily imagine him, poised and spotlit, ready to inspire each section to new heights…

But then, in a way, hasn’t he already attained his wish? Surely his chosen path is a spiritual reflection of this musical aspiration; the holding together of different players to produce the ultimate in harmony? Like a conductor, Jeremy stands ready to get the best out of people, emphasising the encouragement, connection and dedication that form a true community. And always shining the light of good works wherever he goes – be it English community, Mediterranean parish or the highest points of this world.

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