“I eventually had to face the decision about whether I wanted to teach people about maths or about Jesus,” explains Andrew Towner. “I chose Jesus.”
And that would eventually see the former schoolteacher and his family move to the Great Border city of Carlisle, just 15 months ago. The 38 year old is now the Vicar of St John’s, Houghton, with St Peter’s, Kingmoor, to the north of the city.
Andrew explains: “My wife, Katie, and I came up a couple of days before my interview because we wanted to get a sense of the place.
“We really were not sure at that point whether it was the right thing for us to come – in fact it was less than fifty-fifty. But on the Sunday and Monday of the interview days we met lots of the people of Carlisle and that’s what made us want to be here.
“All my friends think we’ve come to be near the Lake District, but we’ve come because the people are great up here. It’s a really friendly place. God has been really kind to us.”
Andrew’s work life and early ministry was geographically rooted very much in the south of England. Prior to ordination he taught at schools in Kent and Essex. He then attended Oak Hill Theological College and served his curacy at a church plant in Christ Church in Mayfair, central London. Then it was on to a post as Associate Vicar at Christ Church in Beckenham in Kent.
But he says he can see both similarities and differences between ministry in the north and south.
“I think in London there’s a willingness to make friends but certainly in central London folk are very transient,” Andrew says. “So your friend might really be a Facebook friend rather than a ‘get up at three o’clock in the morning and I’ll die in a ditch with you’ friend. That’s a different feel to here.
“Yet there were a lot of people who had been going to the same church in Beckenham for many, many years and I’ve found that is the case here too.”
And that helps create a sense of community and identity which abounds in this small northern city which is less than 10 miles from the border with Scotland.
With a population of about 75,000, Carlisle is not a large city and there is a real mix of urban and rural about the place allied with a sense of pride in its rich heritage and history.
Andrew adds: “There is a great strength in Carlisle. The people who tamed the mountains, tended their sheep and put these roads through here are strong people. That strength can appear as either doggedness or maybe stubbornness – as any Cumbrian would admit – but they’re great folk, with a high sense of loyalty. A friend here is a true friend.”
And as a family with three young children is there any sense of feeling geographically remote or disconnected from other family and friends? Not a chance, says Andrew. With the city of Carlisle just off junctions 42 to 44 of the M6, he says you have quick access to the motorway and can be past Oxford within four hours.
“It’s always important to think Christianly when considering where we are,” Andrew adds. “Yes there may not be as many museums or classical concerts up here as there are in London but is that what discerns whether you should be in a place or not?
“My call is to be a foot washer and that’s the call of every Christian. There’s no geographical boundary on that. I mourn the fact that some ordained clergy do not seem prepared to look at jobs north of Oxford. Maybe it is too easy to sing ‘I will go Lord, if you lead me; I will hold your people in my heart’? But the going in obedience is the act of faith.
“As a Christian, and certainly when you are ordained, you give up all right to self. Jesus said ‘deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me’. Well, he walked up a hill and all we did was move to Carlisle. The two don’t compare but we came to a great city which we all love very much.”