The rhythm of prayer that is part of the Revd Canon Dr Peter Groves’ daily life helps sustain him in his busy and varied ministry.
A cradle Anglican, Peter was baptised as a baby and taken to the family’s church in London. Peter went forward for confirmation and joined his school Christian Union in his mid-teens. A sense of calling to fill a vacant Sunday School teacher’s post marked the start of his ministry.
“It was wonderful because I had a real sense of this being what I was supposed to be doing. I was getting more and more interested in faith questions and the big questions of life, the universe and everything,” he says.
His interest in the big questions inspired Peter to study theology at Oxford University’s New College, first as an undergraduate and progressing to complete a doctorate.
“I wasn’t thinking of ordination when I started,” says Peter. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Everyone assumed that theology students wanted to be ordained.”
Peter was inspired by his university lecturers, who included Tom Wright (also known as the prolific writer, NT Wright) and a 38-year-old professor named Rowan Williams.
“I started to think about ordination, but I was young, and it was early,” says Peter, whose passion for theology had grown and grown. Back in his home diocese, Chelmsford, he put himself forward for ordination and was sent straight to Westcott House theological college in Cambridge. “I knew about academic theology and nothing about anything else apart from football,” says Peter. “I gained practical and pastoral experience for three exciting months in a church in the centre of Manhattan, in Times Square.” This placement was followed by a stint in an urban priority area in Salford, before ordination and a curacy in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex.
“It was a terrific curacy church. The church and clergy were very involved in the local schools and the hospital. During this time I’d gone from being in middle–of–the–road churches, which were on the cusp of evangelical, through to high churchmanship. I’ve stayed in the catholic tradition ever since.
“I like the experience of worship and also the connection between worship and theology, seeing them as one thing, not two.”
Moving back to Oxford, Peter worked in chaplaincy and began teaching theology for the university. He was also licensed to serve at St Mary Magdalen’s Church (Mary Mags) in the city centre. When the vicar retired, Peter stepped into his shoes. He combined university chaplaincy with parish ministry for a while, but eventually, the incumbency became his main job.
Peter now teaches theology as a sideline. “Being a theologian makes you a better parish priest and being a parish priest makes you a better theologian,” he says.
Peter first became the Acting Archdeacon of Oxford when the then archdeacon, Martin Gorick, who is now the Bishop of Dudley took a sabbatical a few years ago. When Martin left his role at Christmas 2019, Peter once again became Acting Archdeacon.
He praises his clergy team for helping make the dual role possible and feels it is wonderful serving in Oxford, where there is so much going on.
“Even just within the Church of England, there’s such an extraordinary range and breadth of activity. There’s a wonderful ministry to students and young people who are full of enthusiasm and inquiry.
“It’s now rare for people to come to university with any real, existing religious background so there’s a lot more sense of people encountering something entirely new and much more diversity in people’s Christian experience.”
It’s also common for younger people to worship in the high church tradition at St Mary Magdalen’s, as well as at the more charismatic, evangelical St Aldate’s.
What Mary Mags and St Aldate’s have in common is the city centre location with very few people living within the parish boundaries.
“It’s an odd life for a parish priest. We have ‘gathered congregations’ which gives the churches a particular dynamic. The people have to travel in from somewhere, and there can be a tension between ‘gathered congregations’ and the wider community.
“And of course there is an enormous turnover of personnel. It’s refreshing because there’s a consistent flow of new people and frustrating because you are building a leadership team, find someone ideal for a role, and suddenly they are going off to a job in North Carolina.”
Mary Mags is opposite city centre bus stops, with many people popping in to pray on their way to and from work.
“There are a lot of people from European Catholic communities. They’ll come in and light a candle or two, or three, and say their prayers
“What’s nice is that when we chat with them, they become part of our community. We also offer the chance for people to make confession and they appreciate that.”
Even stepping into the role of Acting Archdeacon, Peter continues to draw from the pattern and rhythm of daily prayer and worship. “My life is still surrounded by the pattern of prayer, together with others. We do Morning and Evening Prayer and we celebrate the Eucharist every day. There are two Eucharists every day at Mary Mags. I don’t think it’s excessive because of our city–centre position. There are always people coming through. Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’, he didn’t say ‘I am the cream doughnut of life’.”
“When I think of God in my life I think about the fact that each day I try and centre my life on God through prayer whether I‘m an archdeacon, an academic or a parish priest,” adds Peter.
Peter’s other passions are football – he supports Queen’s Park Rangers, as well the music of Wagner and opera in general. He describes his love of pub quizzes as a vice. “There’s an Oxfordshire Quiz League, and when it’s reported in the Oxford Mail, there’s a participant called The Vicar. That’s me.”
Peter is married to Beatrice. The couple have two sons, Michael and Edward.
24TH FEBRUARY 2020