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God in the Life Of Diocesan Registrar the Revd Canon John Rees

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This is a text-only version of an article first published on Thursday, 14 November 2013. Information shown on this page may no longer be current.

The Revd Canon John Rees, the Diocesan Registrar, tells Jo Duckles how his faith has affected his career as a lawyer.

John, who was named as the Times 'Lawyer of the Week' earlier this year, spoke to me over lunch at his office in Oxford.

He explained that he had grown up in a Christian family worshipping at a Baptist church, found faith came alive for him at 17, and was then baptised by immersion.

"Then I got to know a young Pentecostal pastor.

My grandparents had been very strong Pentecostal Christians, and I became fascinated by the sense of immediacy that characterises the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions," he said.

For several years, he worshipped in Pentecostal churches but in the last year of University he began to attend an Anglican Evensong "What I found there was a slower, deeper rhythm of worship that lacked a lot of the sparkle I'd become used to, but seemed somehow more sustaining," he said.

While training with a firm of solicitors in Tunbridge Wells, John ran a youth group in a church where he was encouraged to explore his vocation as a priest.

His Diocesan Director of Ordinands urged him to spend a year in a monastery.

"I didn't think that was a good idea but he was concerned that I broaden my experience of life and of the Church, and I thought the same," said John, who joined a firm of solicitors in London for a year or so, before going to Pakistan as a volunteer for a missionary society.

He ran the mission's hospital in Multan for several months.

It was a formative experience in a different religious culture, encountering dire poverty, seeing life and death in the raw in the hospital and on the streets - but at the same time having the opportunity to travel to areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that would now be inaccessible to westerners.

"It was also my first encounter with the wider Anglican Communion and began a commitment to its work that has been an enduring passion for me ever since," said John.

He found returning to England to study for ordination for three years at Wycliffe Hall perplexing.

"Perhaps I didn't have the confidence - or maybe even the language - to articulate the questions that had formed themselves in my mind.

I had been a lawyer in private practice and run a hospital in a Third World country.

So I had questions about where God fitted into the complexity and the sheer misery that I had experienced.

I had an uneasy feeling that they were preparing us to answer questions that no one was really asking. " But for all that, he found it valuable in a number of ways - Oxford's classic emphasis on study of the biblical texts, the daily routine of prayer, forming enduring friendships with fellow-students and others.

There followed a curacy in North Leeds, in a parish where a third of the population was Jewish, and where the three Anglican congregations were more than matched by the membership of the five synagogues! During that time, he married Dianne, a librarian and teacher, and together they went with the Church Mission Society to Sierra Leone, helping to set up a new ecumenical theological college.

John taught theology and ethics, and was the college chaplain.

Dianne established the library, and taught the students English and Learning Skills.

Some of their students were later killed in the civil war in the 1990s, but the majority of them are still working faithfully in parishes and circuits in that war-torn country, and one, Emmanuel Tucker, was recently consecrated Bishop of Bo in the Eastern Province.

On their return, John got a job with Frank Robson (then the Diocesan and Provincial Registrar).

"I'd felt prompted in the final months in Freetown to make inquiries about work that might combine my legal and theological experience, and made some inquiries with the Church Commissioners and the General Synod Office.

They put me in touch with Frank.

I thought I'd be here for two or three years but one thing led to another, and here I am 28 years later as Senior Partner of Winckworth Sherwood! With 200 partners and staff, we act for eight dioceses from offices in London, Oxford and Manchester, thousands of schools and academies, housing associations, and other parts of the not-for-profit sector," said John.

"I hope that what I bring to the job is of some value.

I think I understand from the inside what the clergy are dealing with in the problems they face - problems that seem to be getting ever more complex.

The Church is a massive public institution, and each bit of it (in over 600 parishes in this diocese alone) throws up legal questions. "

John is also the Provincial Registrar for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"I have been very fortunate to see the national and international scene in this way.

When I arrived in 1986, Frank Robson kindly asked me if I would deal with some of the overseas issues he was having to advise on.

I have been the honorary legal adviser to the Anglican Consultative Council since 1995, and Provincial Registrar since 2000.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be able to pursue a vocation to Christian ministry in this peculiar way", he said.

I asked him where God fits into all this.

"That's a difficult question," he said.

"Sometimes, it is very hard to discern any divine purpose in the things we are called on to do.

I try to keep a sense of perspective by beginning and ending each day in prayer, saying at least parts of the Office from Common Worship.

There's no way you can conjure up a sense of the presence of God, but I am constantly amazed by the way His presence does seem to guide through darkness and obscurity.

And tantalisingly often, but always unpredictably, we find ourselves (as CS Lewis famously put it) 'surprised by Joy'. "

Coming back to the Times piece, I asked what was the most difficult question he had been asked.

He said it was one about who had been the greatest influence on his career in the law.

He said he could have named half-a-dozen lawyers , but then thought he'd name Jesus, because "he cut through centuries of legalism" - the obfuscation that was preventing people getting to the heart of God's purpose for humanity, to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbour as yourself.

"I'm glad I answered as I did", he said, "because it's enabled so many people, some from within the firm and others who know me in other contexts, to come out of the closet and say either that they are Christians, or that they'd like to have a conversation about Christian faith.

'God works in mysterious ways'", he said, "Or at least that's been my experience".

Page last updated: Thursday 14th November 2013 12:00 AM
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