John Whitney was eyeball-to-eyeball with me in a Cranmer kitchen. I shoved him away. In a flash he’d dumped me on the floor. “Ah”, said John, “now you see why that’s not a good maneuvre. When a thug eyeballs you, he wants you to attack him first – and you’d be very vulnerable in pushing him away, as you’ve just found”.
This was a lesson in self-defence – and another chapter in the life of John C. Whitney, with whom I am doing a two-week block placement in inner-city Newcastle. He’s a larger-than-life character, as might be expected from someone who was brought up in a ballet school, spent some years as a Buddhist, before a conversion experience that has ultimately led to his training to become an Anglican vicar.
He has spent much of his life “playing with trains”, as he normally phrases it with people he meets. If pushed by fellow Cranmerites, he’ll explain that he handled multi-million pound safety contracts working on the East Coast Main Line. He has a natural ability to connect with the people he meets, as soon becomes apparent when one wanders around a new area with him, like inner-city Newcastle. Small boys rapidly recognise that he is one of them: at a barbecue this afternoon, he was frequently summoned away to extract a tractor which had been driven into the bushes.
Nevertheless, John undoubtedly has a hide as thick as a rhino’s. He’s not shy of expressing his opinion, and he’s probably crossed swords with most people in the college at one time or another. However, he is irrepressibly cheerful, so that it’s hard to dislike John for more than about 5 minutes: for him the glass is not half-full, but half-way to completely overflowing!
I appreciate John particularly because he is the other full-on charismatic at Cranmer. He became a Christian some years ago: Jane, his wife, was doing an Alpha course and complained about being lonely on it, so would he give her some company? He later discovered this was cobblers as she had plenty of friends there, but it was a life-changing event for him. Today, he has an expectation of the Holy Spirit’s activity – not least because of healings he has witnessed while serving on “Healing on the Streets” teams.
If there is a typical Anglican vicar, John Whitney most definitely does not fit it. The Church of England needs people like him, for whom moulds were made to be broken.
After an intense week in Newcastle, I took advantage of the weather yesterday and headed to the Lake District. I love this area: I’ve been many times before but not for some years, so it was brilliant to re-acquaint myself – and yet also to see it with new eyes. It was a most refreshing experience.