Revd Tony Perris & Revd David Jones

 

A 14th century stone church in south-western England and an early 20th century timber church in the northern suburbs of Melbourne would seem to have little in common, but their two vicars have. And now they have stepped into each other’s shoes – and pulpits.

The Revd Tony Perris, the Vicar of St James’ on the edge of the Somerset town of Yeovil, is on a three-month exchange with his friend from student days in the 1970s at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, the Revd David Jones, Vicar of St Mark’s in Reservoir West.

“One lady said she expected that she would not be able to understand this Englishman but was surprised that I was so normal,” Mr Perris says when asked how he has been received.

Mr Perris and his wife Helen arrived in Melbourne in early August and while she has returned home for work commitments, he is here until the middle of this month.

“We felt very welcome here at St Mark’s and welcome generally by Australians. People will stop us in the streets and say, ‘Are you all right?’

“I think our services, on the whole, are surprisingly similar in both churches… I have felt very much at home in this congregation.”

The differences between Yeovil (population 38,000 and the only place in England that makes helicopters) and Reservoir West are not as vast as might be imagined, he says.

Like Reservoir West, Yeovil has grown substantially since World War II and both congregations are facing the pressures of 21st century life.

“I think in England, people are more aware that the church has been there for centuries and just a little more part of the community,” he says.

“On the whole, people are very similar. Their needs and expectations, joys and sorrows are very similar.”
While he says Yeovil is more monocultural than many other parts of England, particularly the cities, there had been an influx of Eastern Europeans, mainly Poles, seeking work. In some towns, this had caused tension. Reservoir, too, in the postwar years had an influx of migrants but Mr Perris does see a difference in Australia.
“Here, there is more space, the community don’t seem to be as divided. People live alongside each other very happily.”

Mr Jones, whose time with his wife Gretta in Mr Perris’ Somerset parish is also drawing to a close, is not new to the idea of a clergy “swap”. He has done exchanges to Barrow-in-Furness near the Lake District and another at Clapham Common in London – as with Mr Perris, involving friends from Cambridge days.

The exchange is largely a gentleman’s agreement, Mr Perris says, though their respective bishops exchanged correspondence and certain documentation, such as child protection papers, had to be completed before it could go ahead. But he was to have lunch with Bishop Philip Huggins of the Northern and Western Region, has sampled Victoria’s “established religion” (an AFL match between the Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn) and, with his wife, travelled along the Great Ocean Road.

“My wife commented how good it is to go around the world and feel accepted and part of the church. That really is a tremendous strength that the church has and something we should be very proud of, really.”


 

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