'Quite exceptional priest' looks back on 40 years' service
Father Ian Grieves is retiring as parish priest for Gainford and Barnard Castle. He will be remembered for switching from Anglicanism to Catholicism and taking nearly all of his congregation with him. Editor Trevor Brookes spoke to man who was once described by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as a “quite exceptional priest”.
WHEN he was training to be a priest, Father Ian Grieves was told he needed to see “real life” before the church would let him go any further.
Its something that still rankles today. Being brought up in Trimdon Grange, he reckoned he had seen enough of life already.
At the time, Fr Grieves was teaching RE and music at a boys prep school in East Grinstead, West Sussex, after studying at Durham University.
He said: “The church called it privilege. But it was not privilege. My mother took on a corner shop so she could look after my father who had multiple sclerosis. She worked incredibly hard – my late mother was a great inspiration. We just got on with it and did not mope and moan. That’s what annoys me today – people don’t take responsibility.
“So they sent me off to learn about real life which I knew all about already.”
That meant working for £10 a week at a seaman's mission in Swansea.
“I enjoyed it – it was great fun – but it just confirmed what I knew,” said Fr Grieves, who turned 65 last week and held his last last service at St Osmund’s, in Gainford, on Easter Sunday.
His retirement brings to an end nearly 40 years of being a vicar and priest.
Fr Grieves, whose father died when he was young, was born a twin.
Taught to to play the organ by his late aunt, who he credits as inspiring his motto of “pass it on”, Fr Grieves went to Ferryhill Grammar School before university and then theological college in Chichester.
“I spent two years there – it was an absolute scream,” he remembered. A book of 200 old photos given to him by the congregation in Gainford at his last service gives ample evidence of the fun he had.
Fr Grieves’ first parish was at St Mark’s Church in Darlington, before a move to Whickham, in Gateshead. He remembers a gruelling schedule of mass, baptisms and evensong – and a church packed with hundreds of people.
“It was a young man’s game,” he said.
The parish newsletter once recorded: “In the time he as been at St Mary's, he seems to have touched for good just about every aspect of Whickham's life. His flair for good liturgy, good food and good wine, his passionate concern for priestly life and his deep pastoral concern for everybody (not to mention his energy and very particular taste in pictures) have made him a household name.”
Fr Grieves arrived as vicar at St James the Great, in Darlington, in 1988, where he spent 23 years. The appointment involved a visit to Downing Street.
St James the Great took elements of both Anglican and Catholic worship and his lively services were a regular feature in the Northern Echo’s At Your Service column, written by journalist Mike Amos.
“We had mass and it was in the paper the next day. They used to wait for it at the shops just to see what was written,” Fr Grieves said. “The church was packed with joy, colour and music – big music. You couldn’t see the church for the amount of incense.”
One church official once asked Fr Grieves: “What have you done for mission?”
His response was that he had put a tuba on the organ.
A mystery worshipper wrote on the Ship of Fools website: “There must have been the best part of a hundred people waiting to get into the church. Darn it, I’d move to Darlington for this church, if I could figure out a way to make a living there!”
In his time at St James the Great, Sunday and daily congregations increased five-fold, a well-respected choir was established and the relatively small parish was being served by four priests.
But, as Fr Grieves pointed out, nothing lasts forever.
Traditionalists in the Durham diocese felt unable to remain in the “anglican family” after a dispute about proposals to allow women to be bishops.
Fr Grieves said at the time that he felt he was being pushed out of Anglicanism by “this politically correct church and liberal agenda that grinds on and on”.
In 2012, most of the congregation at St James the Great in Darlington joined the Ordinariate of Our Lady in Walsingham, which was set up to allow former Anglicans into the Catholic church.
“I could have stayed in the vicarage in Darlington rent free with pension until I was 70 but I gave all that up to become a Catholic. I built the church up from nothing,” said Fr Grieves, who sold his furniture so he could afford to make the change.
There was a poignant twist at his last Anglican service.
Justin Welby, who is now Archbishop of Canterbury, once spent eight weeks with Fr Grieves on placement, living under his mother’s roof, while he was studying at Cranmer Hall theological college.
In a public act of friendship, Rt Revd Welby, who was then the Bishop of Durham, preached at Fr Grieves final mass at St James the Great.
“He handled it all very well,” remembered Fr Grieves. “He let me stay at the vicarage and gave me some financial help.”
After being ordained as a priest at St Anne’s Catholic Church, Darlington, Fr Grieves took up an appointment at St Osmund’s, in Gainford. Many of his Darlington congregation went with him a few even moving to Gainford.
“Over 100 people came over to the Catholic church. Some came but didn’t become Catholics at the start but they couldn’t resist it in the end,” he said.
Fr Grieves’ vibrant style continued at St Osmond's with an active social life, pilgrimages, and choir performances at masses in St Peter’s, in the Vatican city, and other basilica churches.
Covid-19 has had an impact but Fr Grieves hopes normal services can be resumed soon. But he won’t be taking them.
“All priests should retire – they shouldn’t go on and on. I want to go out on a high. It has been a full-time life of service. In the past nine years, I’ve never missed a Sunday. I’m not saying that's heroic but it's what a priest does. I want opportunities to take up things like music again, go to the theatre on a Saturday night, and catch up with family and friends because time passes.
“It’s been a wonderful life of faith, food, friendship and fun. I have been with these people at their births and marriages, failures and disappointments, when their husband ran away and then came back.”
Fr Grieves will leave his home next to St Osmund’s next month to return to Darlington.
As a parting gift, the congregation Gainford gave him £5,000 with a further £1,000 from Barnard Castle.
“One of the most moving things for me was a card I received. I cried when I read it,” he said.
The person had written about her confession: “Thank you for being my light in my darkness and not my judge.”
“That’s what it’s all about – setting people free,” said Fr Grieves as he closed the woman’s card and a life of priestly service."