He was sent to close down St James the Great church, but 20 years later he’s still there, and still catching them young.

FATHER Ian Grieves’ 20 years as Vicar of St James the Great in Darlington are being celebrated, among other joyous ways, by planting a rose garden in his honour.

There are roses by any manner of names, and his folk have chosen carefully.

There’ll be the Claret (“Father’s love of fine wine”) and Champagne Moments because, it’s said, there’ve been rather a lot of those.

The Halle sings of his love of music, the Wainwright – after Lake District walker and author Alfred Wainwright – of his “once in a blue moon” days off walking in those parts.

There’ll be a rose called Keep Smiling, too. “Whatever happens, whatever he faces,” says churchwarden John Bowman, “Father always keeps smiling.”

We’ve written previously of Father Grieves, and of the church of St James the Great on the edge of what once was a hammer-and-tongs part of the town. It’s one of those Anglo- Catholic parishes which declines to acknowledge women priests – much less women bishops – which believes in the beauty and dignity of worship and in the importance of hospitality and pastoral care.

It is not, it should be added, everyone’s glass of best red.

When Fr Grieves arrived, days short of his 33rd birthday, his brief was to close the place down. The average Sunday congregation was in the 20s; now it tops 100.

The ethos, he says, is Christian socialist, the emphasis on pastoral care and hospitality. “We believe that the more you give, the more you will receive.”

On a different occasion, a former nurse at Darlington Memorial Hospital had recalled the morning when she tried to find a priest for a distressed and dying patient and had been referred to Fr Grieves.

“He was going on holiday, suitcase in the hall, but said he’d come at once. The man died an hour later but he was reassured, and totally at peace.”

A theological college tutor had described him as a “prissy, fussy, high churchman”; even now it prompts a characteristically uncompromising response. “I’d rather be prissy than one of those slapdash, liberal, laissez- faire clergymen,” he says.

He was born at Trimdon Grange, attended Ferryhill School and was organist at Sedgefield parish church.

After he’d expressed interest in ordination, the bishop suggested an attachment to the Mission to Seamen so that he might gain more experience of the world.

“I was expecting to be sent somewhere really exotic,” he recalls. “I ended up in Swansea on £10 a week.

In those days you didn’t argue with the bishop.”

After curacies at St Mark’s in Darlington and at Whickham, near Gateshead, he became vicar of St James’ on April 5, 1989 – the anniversary will be celebrated at the end of August because April 5 fell in Lent.

He envisages spending the rest of his working life at St James’, never for a moment regretted coming there but has been told that the Darlington deanery wants to make the incumbent’s post half-time.

“I think,” says Fr Grieves, “that the diocese doesn’t really like the success of St James the Great.”

USUALLY we’ve been there on what might be termed St James the Great occasions, days not so much high as dizzying in their panoply.

This time Fr Grieves suggests, and it’s a very good idea, that we attend a Wednesday morning “said” Mass and then continue to the nearby Gurney Pease primary school, where he’s chairman of governors and endof- term presentations are planned to both priest and pupils.

About 50 are at the solemnly-observed 9.30am service; many churches would love that many on a Sunday.

Afterwards there’s tea and toast and things in the hall and the chance – when he’s out of earshot – to ask if anyone ever gets to call the vicar “Ian”, or even “Father Ian”.

Only his mother, they say, and that’s usually when she’s cross with him.

The school, Darlington’s oldest, was opened in 1874 in memory of one of the supposedly less prominent of Joseph Pease’s 12 children. “Viewed from the public standpoint, his life was singularly uneventful and therefore deserves but brief notice,” observed the Echo, churlishly.

Katherine, his widow, thought differently.

Save for £20, she subscribed the entire school building herself.

They’ve kept us seats at the front, the bairns cross-legged on the floor.

Sandra Battensby, the present head, talks at the assembly of Fr Grieves’s ability to make people feel special.

“He knows every person by their first name. How many governors’ chairmen can say that? He tries to come here at least once a week and the pupils are always delighted to see him.

“He always encourages us to do our best and to celebrate our successes with pride.”

Nine of 180 pupils have a perfect attendance record in the previous year and are given a £10 book token.

Fr Grieves receives specially-written prayers and a set of glasses. It probably wouldn’t do for eight-year-olds to hand over a bottle of Burgundy.

He tells them that he was the Durham diocese’s youngest parish priest when he came as a 32-year-old, says that he knows he still looks 32, delivers a little homily on gin and tonic – a staple part of the vicarage diet – and promises that their gift will be pressed into service that night.

Afterwards there’s a very nice buffet lunch, a chance for him to chat with the children and with the column.

In 20 years, he says, both the community and the community feel have much changed but the need for a true parish church has remained constant.

Just about all it’s impossible to draw him on is how much longer St James the Great will stay within the Anglican communion – however semi-detached from it – before turning irrevocably towards Rome.

“It’s very hard to be part of a structure that you don’t really sympathise with,” concedes Fr Grieves. As ever, he’s smiling.

■ A Saints and Apostles flower festival at St James the Great from August 28 to 31 marks both the 133rd anniversary of the church’s dedication and the 20th of Fr Grieves’s arrival. The Mayor of Darlington opens the preview at 7.30pm on Friday, August 28, with a full programme of music, food, flowers and worship.