‘Rocking vicar’ looking forward to switching to rural, five-parish role

Photo Neil Cross'New Fellside Team vicar, Rev Garry Whittaker and his wife, Deborah
Photo Neil Cross'New Fellside Team vicar, Rev Garry Whittaker and his wife, Deborah

Former plumber - central heating engineer - driver and handyman - school caretaker; the Rev Garry Whittaker would have described himself as “non believer” until he experienced a life changing moment more than three decades ago.

Due to be inducted as “team vicar” for the Fellside Team covering the parishes of St Hilda’s, Bilsborrow; St Lawrence’s, Barton; St Eadmer’s, Bleasdale; St Mary’s, Goosnargh and St James’, Whitechapel, next week, Garry describes that moment.

“Basically up until my early 20s I would have said I was an atheist, so obviously something happened.

“My married sister was rushed off to hospital in the early stages of pregnancy and the doctors said she had miscarried and lost her baby.

“I actually prayed for the first time in my life and then thought, ‘hang on a minute, atheists don’t pray, what is going on here?’”

Also, his prayer was answered.

The baby survived and his nephew Mark is now in his 30s, leading a full and active life.

“And that was the start of my spiritual journey, which resulted in me asking Jesus to be part of my life,” says Garry.

Together with his wife Deborah, who hails from Lancaster, the parents and grandparents are now settling into their new home at St Hilda’s vicarage, where Garry says they have already received a warm welcome, and are looking forward to getting to know the parishes and their people.

Originally from Leigh, Garry served his apprenticeship in his father’s plumbing and central heating business before moving to London for a while.

“Then I came back and worked for Wigan Council as a driver - handyman and was a school caretaker at an infant and junior school in Atherton... and it was quite unusual for someone so young because I was only in my 20s... and then it gets to the bit of what I am doing now.”

After his prayer was answered, the lifelong rugby league fan and supporter of Leigh and chaplain of Rochdale Hornets Rugby League until the end of the season, started going to church; first with the Free Church and then the Church of England.

“I felt what could only be called a sense of calling to full time ministry which was the result of people at church recognising certain gifts for preaching and taking study meetings and things like that,” says Garry, who eventually went off to St John’s Theological College, Nottingham for two years.”

Ordained at Manchester Cathedral in 1991, Garry has since served as curate at Christ Church, Denton before being appointed vicar of Holy Trinity, Waterhead, Oldham, where he spent nine years.

After more than a decade as team rector for the Bacup and Stackstead’s Team, Garry says he was attracted to the Fellside team because it is such a lovely area to live and because he had “a real sense it was God’s calling to leave the towns and do something different in a rural area”.

Garry says he will observe what goes on to begin with, but describes himself as “very community minded” and wants to be involved in the community as much as possible, also making contacts with businesses and getting to know the area really well. He is also interested in making contact with Myerscough College and is looking forward to his work in the primary schools.

He will have a special responsibility for John Cross and Whitechapel and possibly Bleasdale schools and pastorally will be responsible for weddings, funerals, etc at St Hilda’s and St James’, although he will be taking Sunday services at all five churches.

“And I was made aware of the big distances between the churches when I first enquired,” he quips, adding he has also been told to have patience when stuck behind tractors when rushing between parishes!

Garry and Deborah enjoy listening to music, particularly rock and Garry has played base guitar in a church group, even being known as “The Rocking Vicar”.

The induction takes place at St Mary’s this Tuesday, August 8 at 7.30pm.