Hatherleigh’s ‘Hairy Vicar’ Uncovered

Eric Partridge

By Peter Embling

Leigh Winsbury arrived in Hatherleigh with his wife Lynn, about a year ago as our new vicar. He arrived to great excitement and not a little apprehension. Who would they send us? What would they be like? Well, he didn’t disappoint.

This huge stack of hair with a man underneath arrived to look after: Meeth, Jacobstowe, Northlew, Exbourne, and Hatherleigh. The buzz around the villages soon gathered momentum: he’s got long hair, doesn’t wear a dog collar, he’s got tattoos, he rides a huge motorbike, he plays guitar and fiddle … all true, but of course, there’s more to the man than this.

We opened up talking about deadlines and which issue this ‘chat’ was destined for, “That is a bit tight,” he said, “I have enough trouble
writing something for The Pump each month.” [The Pump is the
Parish Magazine for Leigh’s area and works as a general what’s on diary and a place where events, local news etc, can be reported.]

“Do you find that a struggle?” “Not yet, when something is new then everything’s new to write about, but in five or six years it’s going to be hard; ‘oh, it’s March again, what shall I say this time’. What’s quite nice is to farm bits out so that it’s not all from me. For me it’s a big opportunity, you can say something to all those people and put things out there. It’s a useful thing, it goes to all the right places, everyone gets one through the door in my parishes, so if you want to say something to everybody, it’s ideal. So when someone says, ‘well no-one told me’, I can say, ‘it’s in the Pump!’”

Over the years that I’ve lived in the area we’ve put the odd event on, for one cause or another, or just for doing it, and getting people out to events is really hard work, especially if you’re charging for it. If you can hang a charity hat on it, it’s not quite so bad because then you get the people involved and their friends and families and chums, but beyond that it’s a real struggle. I get the feeling that if someone put the Rolling Stones on still no-one would turn up.

Leigh giggled at that, “Do you reckon? Well I’m doing alright then, the new Sunday four o’ clock service  is going quite well, we had a good one this week with a lot of people in.”

Leigh’s new Sunday afternoon service is very much geared toward the people of Hatherleigh and nearby and incorporates music, craft, discussion. It’s how he understands what Hatherleigh focuses on. Leigh commented, “Well it’s very rewarding but a lot of work. Mornings are a bad time for families. Churches often haven’t kept pace with society culturally. People often can’t connect easily with traditional services. But if that’s what people like and have grown up with, it’s unfair to expect them to change, that’s why I’m doing both.”

Speaking of the changes that have occurred in church services, Leigh says, “Until they brought out the new liturgies in the eighties, everything in the Church of England had been the same for five hundred years, and unless you’re comfortable with Shakespearean English or have been raised in it, bringing new people in is nearly impossible; there are so many cultural hurdles that you’re asking them to jump before they get anywhere near meeting with God.”

I asked him whether, in the older days, in the pre and post-industrial revolution really, was religion used as some form of control? “It has been for sure, yes, the social structure was such that church was considered by most to not be an option. The sixties completely changed that; we can’t carry on like the sixties didn’t happen. All authority structures have been challenged.

‘You can’t wander out and say, well I’m the vicar, do as I say. Before then, people would naturally have a sense of respect for the doctor, the vicar, the schoolmaster, policeman and such, and if the vicar said you should be in church you went! That doesn’t happen now and it’s not likely to happen again. We have to win hearts one at a time, the old fashioned way as Jesus did. Without that, we’re going nowhere.”

We discussed this and then the relevance of the Thatcher years. Leigh said that he blames a lot on the Thatcher years, “Our materialism, obsession with money, our broken families culture, because it was all about getting both parents out working, about making money (rubs his hands in a comical manner) and forget God, and that was a massive mistake.”

About his Christian beginning, and becoming a vicar, Leigh described his introduction to the faith. “I came to my faith in my late teens, I was in the biker scene in East London and thoroughly enjoying the wild living, and there were these three blokes that were Christian Biker Evangelists who used to come round the pubs and clubs and it was their authenticity that won me over. Their real love for God and for each other and for anyone else.

‘They came to be the most fun people to be around, but then after a couple of years of knowing this was kind of special but not wanting to be one of them because it wasn’t cool, I had an encounter with God. I realised that He was real, that He’s big and He’s powerful and He was listening to me! – that was good enough. That was the point when I thought, right okay, I’m one of yours then.”

I asked how that manifested itself and whether his behaviour changed. “Yeah, my behaviour’s gradually changed over a long period of time. At that point I would have called myself a pacifist hedonist; I thought the Russians and Americans would blow us all up anyway so best enjoy life! And yet I was pretty violent; a product of where I grew up so very inconsistent. Also I’d been involved in a bit of occult stuff, so obviously that all went. The big changes came a bit later on’’

I reminded him about the hedonism. “Yes, chasing pleasure doesn’t work. It’s like when someone chases money, no amount is ever enough and the pleasure’s gone. My aggression and depression were the two big things that God decisively set me free from”. I wondered whether these were big changes.

“For me yes. I was never into drugs, so I didn’t have that to give up. I married Lynn pretty early on in my Christian life, so the lady chasing stopped! I used to drink like a fish and I did give that up. Only because I was aware that it was out of control and I didn’t like what that did. It wasn’t a legalistic thing, more that it didn’t fit with who I was by then.”

I asked what he was doing for a job at that time. “I was at Art College,  did a string of rubbish jobs, worked behind a Post Office counter then as a milkman. When they were offering redundancy, I grabbed one and went self-employed, and I did gardening, house decorating, building, carpentry, wood turning, illustrating, played in a band, pest control, and in the middle of that period we started moving into a self-sufficient lifestyle…” “In East London?” “…yeah, Essex, Romford! All my life I’d wanted to work on the land. Don’t know where that came from.  James Herriott maybe at the time…”

I reminded him about John Seymour, the self-sufficiency guru,
“…yeah, absolutely. There’s not much in John Seymour’s books that we haven’t had a go at. So I went into all that stuff. We were keeping chickens, bees, raising ducks and rabbits for meat. Did that for about seven years when our kids were tiny.”

As to whether he was a vicar at that time. “No, no that was long before. But since I became a Christian I’ve always been involved in a church somewhere, very involved.”

From there we got strangely into discussing his job now and how he saw the Parishes he is looking after. Following a comment, I asked whether it was really that bad.

“I’ve walked into five churches that all have their struggles. I’ve got my work cut out to get them growing again.”

I wandered whether it might be true that older people go to church as a
swan-song or whether it was because they always have done? Leigh thought about this. “I think, most of my folks were raised in church so it’s normal for them. Probably when most of them were little everybody did. But in the sixties, that stopped happening. There was a massive culture shift. You didn’t have to do what society said, in fact you deliberately kicked against it.”

‘Post modernism’ happened, and then the teenager was invented, post-war, fifties. Before that you were at school and at some point somebody told you, ‘right you’re an adult now, you go to work’ and you were expected to act like an adult. There was none of this adolescent carry-on in the middle. Now we all rush to adolescence and stay there as long as possible because that looks like the fun bit.

‘And that’s not gone away. People don’t want to get old; they don’t want to grow up. I recognise that in myself, I still ride a motorbike, still got silly hair, I’m not acting sensible, where’s the fun in that?”

Leigh has a Triumph Bonneville, the big one, a 900 America. It looks like a Harley but it’s got a proper English engine in it, he proudly told me. “And that natural state of rebelliousness, I think, is what has become fairly normal now. The way we talk about politicians and royalty just would not have happened in the forties and fifties.”

And to get back to the story … “After seven years self-employed we moved to this place in Essex; a Christian conference centre/community. I was ten years as estate manager, starting off as shepherd. Really we were doing the self-sufficient thing there, I was growing food for the community of five families who ran the place. I had an acre of veg, used to work it all with a Shire Horse and that was just brilliant. So I clocked up a lot of skills: shearing, lambing, thatching. And from there we moved down to Lee Abbey in Lynton to be estate manager.

‘It was from there that I went to college to train to be a vicar. God had already had a word with me a couple of years before and told me he wanted me to be a vicar and I thought he was having me on. I didn’t know how that was done so I just shelved it. I decided that if God doesn’t make it happen then I don’t want to do it anyway.

‘Then pretty much as soon as we got to Lee Abbey the Diocese were scouting around for anyone who thought they had a calling, so that’s what happened. I still didn’t take it too seriously, but across the three years we lived there I went through selection and then went straight to Nottingham for two years to do the training and degree. Proper exile, I hated it. College was great and I had a brilliant church there but the city wasn’t me. It was great to get back down to Devon; a huge relief. I did my Curacy in Bideford so I was there for four years, before we came here.

I asked him why he chose Hatherleigh? “Some totally selfish reasons. I’ve always loved this part of Devon. We honeymooned not far from here, 32 years ago.  I’ve got my oldest son who’s married with two little ones living just up the road in Merton.” (He was here before Leigh and his wife took on the role and he and his family are living in what Leigh hopes will be the home they retire to in years to come.)

“I know what I like. You go where your heart goes don’t you? And God gave you your heart, so it’s worth listening to Him. This is my belief about God, essentially that He’s good and He puts desires in you so that He can fulfil that desire in the best possible way, and you can take pleasure in it being fulfilled and thank Him for it. But I do love Dartmoor, this middle section of Devon, the red soil, something magical about it for me. After years of working in land management, sheep, cows, growing things and conservation are very much in my blood. Livestock, farming, the land – it’s all part of who I am.

‘So to be in a place where that’s very visible, I love it! The tractors come past us every day. To have given all that up completely would have been very tough. I helped somebody with their cows the other day – fantastic. Did a bit of shearing for somebody else – yeah – love it; So that’s why Hatherleigh. I have to say that there is a bit of sadness because when we first came to look at the place  the market was still going.

‘There weren’t many posts available in Devon at the time my Curacy was ending and I didn’t want to leave. It was here or Ilfracombe and I thought we’d end up in Ilfracombe, but fortunately this one came up first.

‘They are five very different communities with five different flavours, despite being very close together. They’ve all got potential strengths and different weaknesses. My number one driver is to get people to meet God. I haven’t got any commitment to any particular pattern of worship or religious structure, I’m not a very good Anglican, I’ve been in all sorts of different churches so I’m not waving the Church of England flag particularly, but my passion is for people to encounter the real God; He’s been so good to me that I want other people to have the same experience.

‘So that means I’m doing different things in each of the different churches to try to engage with the communities that are here now. So, the Sunday afternoon service here in Hatherleigh is attempting to be more culturally appropriate to where people are, so musically it will sound very similar to the music that people are playing in the pub. And the kids who come have a great time so it all looks very positive.”

I wondered whether his other churches thought this was fair, that maybe Hatherleigh got more than its fair share of his attention. “Everybody’s been very good  and I think they’re fully aware that there’s two thousand people living in Hatherleigh and about 120 in Jacobstowe, they expect me to be doing a bit more here.

‘But in Meeth, Jacobstowe and Northlew we’re doing Plough Sunday specials in January; going over there with a plough, laying on a meal and inviting the farmers, blessing their land and work, because that’s the heart of those communities. Over in Exbourne we’re planning to start a Messy Church in partnership with the school next door, so it’s ‘horses for courses’.’’

He’s interested in doing things in the different parishes that relate to their individual world. Because, Leigh explains, that’s what Jesus did, the ‘Incarnational Principle’, when Jesus came to earth to ‘meet us where we are, not where He’d like us to be’. “So,” he says, “that’s the job of the church to get to where people are and make ourselves known and not to expect them to come to us on our terms. That’s where the church has often failed for the last forty-odd years.”

He’s trying to treat the five parishes fairly and relating the services
and sermons to them individually and it sounds as though he is
succeeding. He also has three schools that get his attention, plus just the one care home, which is in Hatherleigh.

I asked if there was anything he’d like to finish this with, a message to the nation?

“Give God a go. Never say never.” He was giggling again.
“I was really chuffed with the midnight  service here
because there were about three pews full of people who all at some point had said to me, I’m never gonna go to church. I was so thrilled that something had warmed them up a little bit to think, ooh let’s go and have a look.” He added that he found it fascinating that Easter, Christmas and Harvest services are ‘full everywhere’.

People still want their life punctuated with a little bit of meaning that takes them above just the physical, but they don’t want to put both feet in and the sadness is, he explained, that they miss out. He paralleled it with people sitting on a beach watching the surfers but not giving it a go; you go and have a look and it’s kind of interesting but they’re not taking it any further.

He says, “Life with God is like that, because you’re completely out of control in that you’ve got no idea where this is going next but wahay! It seems to be fun and people don’t know what they’re missing having their lives all buttoned down and so forth.”

We talked a lot about religion, Christianity in particular. Leigh painted this picture for me that, for the liberal wing of the church it can all be about the journey and it doesn’t matter about the destination, so many never get around to submitting their lives to God.

But for evangelicals it can be all about crossing the line, praying a prayer and giving your life to Jesus, but the danger can be that they get stuck there thinking that’s all there is to it; they’ve arrived. He thinks that both are necessary; recognising the journey, both the backstory and the adventure ahead, but not missing the moment of commitment.  Without inviting Jesus in to be your King you don’t get any benefit.

I asked that surely, if you run your life by doing right, looking after yourself and other people then surely that’s good and brings benefit. One of his philosophies is that, generation-wise, “We instinctively know the difference between right and wrong because we are still living on the inheritance of a Christian influenced culture, our ethics and values didn’t come from nowhere, they were born in scripture. We think we don’t need Him, we think we’ve worked it out on our own but we really haven’t.”

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