FATHER CHRIS LEE
The new Father of St Saviour's has come a long way to share the word.
I was punched once.
What do you prefer to be called?
Whatever people are comfortable calling me. Chris is fine.
What led you to the area?
Before last year, this parish was in a difficult time. There'd been no priest for two years. My wife and I were not sure at the beginning but the Bishop waited six months and asked us again. The Church has really grown. When we arrived there were only around 25 on any Sunday morning and now we have around 45. And the evening service we introduced attracts 30. The morning service is a traditional priest-led service. The evening (6pm) service is more informal – we play contemporary songs. I love both services. In the morning I'm in a collar and in the evening I'm in jeans and T-shirt.
Was your calling inspired by a moment of divine inspiration?
Up to the age of 21 I was living a regular young man's life. I had a degree (in Business Studies from Kingston University), a house, a mortgage and a job – in property selling modular homes, basically posh caravans. One day I pondered where I'd be in the future and I thought: Is that what I want to do with my life? There must be more than chasing money, living for the weekend, living a selfish existence. I started having dreams I couldn't explain. And I felt inside me a voice of love that spoke to me more and more. So, I gave that small voice some ear time and decided to do something useful. I went to Africa, initially to teach English in Tanzania, in a mission to Maasai tribesmen, but ended up staying three years, running the mission and being ordained a Deacon in the diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Is your family religious?
Not particularly. My mother was and is a regular churchgoer, but the rest of my family have all grown in faith seeing my conversion.
Were your friends surprised when you announced your new job?
Everyone was surprised. Until then I'd been on the middle-class conveyor belt: private school then university because it was expected. Going to Africa was the first real decision I made for myself.
Did anyone question your choice?
Some thought it was just a phase, but my mother wasn't surprised at all. I'm a twin and my brother and I were born on Christmas day. My mother thanked God for giving her the gift of two sons and dedicated one of us to him. She gave me back to God. She only told me this when I told her I was training for the priesthood.
Christianity encourages us to do unto others... What do you do every day.
I pray for help, not just for me but for everyone in trouble. It's harder when you have a new born – Rose, who's six months – but you learn to prioritise. Faith gives you moments of pause and an eternal perspective.
What do you avoid doing?
I sometimes catch myself daydreaming.
What's your favourite story in the Bible?
The Prodigal Son is an amazing story. I see myself in it, leaving God to pursue selfish interests, sleeping in the pigs' den. But you can come home any time.
Has being a church leader ever exposed you to danger?
I was punched once. I ran a homeless shelter and a guy got upset. And when I was in Tanzania, which is 50% Muslim, a rather aggressive preacher made threats against our faith so we were advised to lock ourselves in. Of course, the Maasai tribesmen weren't going to be locked in. They're warriors.
How can you be sure you've chosen the right God?
Because I have faith. Christianity is the way. While I respect other faiths – I have Muslim and Hindu friends – I wouldn't patronise them by pretending to agree with their choice. The Holy Spirit is the voice of God within me. His is the only voice I hear.
Are you jealous of Catholic priests hearing all those juicy confessions?
I love the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is brilliant. Their structure encourages confession more than ours, but I want people to know that they can come to me as a nonjudgmental ear. I do hear some difficult and dark things, but confession can unload the burden. I am here to help people heal.
Have you ever had a moment of doubt, for example over the death of a loved one?
No, though I understand that people wonder why God allows some things. It's wrong to think that God is testing us. Even through pain we can learn to fear no evil.
How would you advise someone who wants the reassurance of faith but just can't bring themselves to believe?
I believe in the power of prayer. If people are willing, I tell them to find a quiet place and say: God, if you are there, help me. It can take time. Nothing can prove He exists, but there are many things in life we can't guarantee that we have faith in. Faith is a choice. The Prodigal son chooses. You have to choose to believe.
Does believing make people happier?
I'd call it joy. A search for happiness will always fail because happiness is fleeting, but faith can bring peace.
How do you deal with the nerves of public speaking?
I've always been a bit of a daredevil, quite bold and confident. I'm used to public speaking. At my last church, the Holy Trinity on Brompton Road, I used to speak to 800 people.
Are you a good singer?
I was in a boy band at school – yes, I know I only look 15 but actually I'm 33 – but I'm an okay singer, not great.
How and with whom do you relax?
With my wife, Jenny. We met at Cambridge. We go on pub dates and play speed Monopoly.
Back to property and quick money?
I'm quite good at it. I'm quite competitive. I love sport. I got a hockey blue at Cambridge. And I love cricket. I was picked for the Church of England's team, the Archbishop of Canterbury's XI. We recently went to Rome to play Saint Peter's XI.
Thank you, Chris. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds May 2016