God in the life of cadet chaplain Mark Newman

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THE Revd Mark Newman tells Jo Duckles about his career, from being a car mechanic and a builder to studying theology at Oxford University and recently becoming a Chaplain to Oxfordshire’s Army Cadet Force.

The Revd Mark Newman in his padre’s uniform. Photo: Thomas Newman.

The Revd Mark Newman in his padre’s uniform. Photo: Thomas Newman.

Oxfordshire born and bred, Mark’s family moved from Blewbury to Grove when he was very young, and then to Wantage, where he attended King Alfred’s School. Mark, who was an Army Cadet himself as a teenager, married his wife Julia in 1997.  Before meeting Julia and her family, Mark admits he had very little experience of Christianity. “There was little mention of faith at school but when I met my wife-to-be I was very open to spiritual things. It was the mid 1990s and there was plenty of New Age spirituality around, but I had never met a genuine group of Christians.”

As he dated Julia and got to know her parents, Mark learned what a genuine Christian faith could look like, which was different from anything he had been taught at school or experienced elsewhere. “It showed me that I could have a very real, living faith. Julia was going to church and it was awkward because I wasn’t, but through her family’s prayers I came to faith,” he said.
“As far as the cadets are concerned the whole of Oxfordshire is now my parish.”

Mark’s path to ordination was unusual as he left school with no GCSEs due to undiagnosed dyslexia and worked as a mechanic and later a builder. “Those jobs never stretched me academically. However, one of the gifts of dyslexia is to be creative and artistic and to think illogically. You solve problems in a different way,” he says.

He was finally diagnosed when he was 40 and at Wycliffe Hall Theological College. “I did a diploma rather than a degree. It wasn’t easy but my experience of getting support at Wycliffe was completely different from what I had experienced at school. Wycliffe was an amazing time of academic testing, being with some extraordinarily clever people as a mature student, where the other students were half my age. I was going through the whole Oxford experience of matriculation and lectures while reflecting on the town and gown element of the city.

“We had always come to Oxford to either go shopping or go clubbing and this showed me the other side of the city, which was interesting. It was a stretching time, but even though I wanted to give up at a couple of points I kept going, got lots of help and got through it.”

Pleased with the grade from his diploma, Mark was ordained into the St Alban’s Diocese in 2012, and served his curacy at St Mary’s, Eaton Socon. “It was a really great training parish. I experienced every age group, ran school assemblies, conducted baptisms, funerals, marriages and everything in between,” he says.

Mark was aware that 95 per cent of curates go on to become incumbents while some teach at theological colleges and/or write academically. Also aware that the Church of England needs younger priests to replace those who are retiring, Mark began applying for parish posts. “From January to April last year my wife and I prayed more than ever and I found myself pushing on doors that weren’t opening,” says Mark. Before he was ordained, Mark had been part of a team from St Aldate’s Church in Oxford, who ran an Alpha Course at the Dalton Barracks.

“That’s when I met military chaplains and began to think about ordination and some kind of call to military ministry.During that Alpha Course I was introduced to the Armed Forces’ Christian Union,” says Mark. The AFCU approached Mark in 2015, asking him to join them for a week at New Wine, praying for the organisation and Mark’s future plans.

This led to a number of conversations and lots of prayer. He joined them in June 2016 as a non-stipendiary staff member. “My ‘nine to five’ job is supporting military Christians, in particular chaplains. At the weekends, in the evenings and for two weeks in the summer I’m the chaplain for the Oxfordshire Army Cadet Force,” he says. “I may have given up the house and the stipend but I haven’t left the Church of England. I have just taken a sideways missionary role that happens to be in the UK. As far as the Cadets are concerned the whole of Oxfordshire is now my parish.”

Mark describes a chaplain’s role as offering pastoral care and Christian support to everybody on their patch. For him that means the Army cadets and the adult leaders, regardless of whether or not they have a faith. Oxfordshire Army Cadet Force comprises 560 cadets, aged 12 to 18, and around 180 adults. About half of those attend the annual summer camp where they are given a fictional military scenario and spend their time involved in training, tactical exercises and adventurous training.

“I work very closely with the welfare team. You, of course, get problems from home cropping up, problems on camp, problems with friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, all of the issues that come up when you put a group of teenagers together for two weeks. We have the GCSE and A Level results coming through during the camp and I have teenagers who haven’t got the grades they wanted coming to ask me “Padre, what am I going to do? These are young people wondering what their place in the world is. They bring all of these issues to the camp and you are in a position of locoparentis responsibility to take care of them.”

The adults on the camp will also look to the Padre for help and advice. “For those two weeks I’m effectively their parish priest. They can come to have a conversation with me about anything at any time. I’m available outside of those two weeks as well, but while on camp that is the main time when I’m available from 6.30am until 10.30pm. They are long hours but very rewarding. What’s extraordinary about working with the cadets is watching young people do wonderful activities together while growing and maturing, not just as individuals but as groups.

“The camp brings together young people from places as diverse as Blackbird Leys, Burford and Henley, from across the social spectrum, so it is an interesting social experiment and is about expanding horizons. My role is to be roving eyes and ears and to be constantly thinking in terms of pastoral care and support.”

Mark also presents the Padre’s Trophy each year to a detachment for their efforts during the previous year where they go out and help people in their community. This year he awarded it to the Blackbird Leys Detachment in Oxford. He enjoys seeing young people from a range of back-grounds gain life skills. “It’s not about them joining the Army; we are not a recruiting agency. It’s about giving them an experience that helps to shape them with outstanding life skills. We have a set of values and standards that are the same as in the military; selfless commitment; respect for others; loyalty; integrity; discipline and courage.

“It’s amazing to see the adults give up their time, many of them giving up their holidays for the cadets. I’ve come from a parish role leading a communion service three to four times a week to a post that’s so different in its context. This is about meeting people where they are, which is what I love. Coming from a background as a builder and a mechanic, they were not industries where you met a lot of Christians. The Army is similar.”

In his AFCU role, Mark’s role is to support Christians who are constantly moving, every couple of years, as the Armed Forces post them to different locations. “They are having to change church every couple of years and we try and provide a constant presence in their lives, by visiting, by Skype, email and Facebook, and all the time supporting them in prayer. We have weekends and conferences to give Christians in the military the chance to keep in touch and grow in their faith.”

Mark is looking for opportunities to share his work and his role with the Army Cadet Foce and AFCU. For more call 07585 446034 or email marknewman@afcu.org.uk