Happy Ness

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WHATEVER anyone else's answer to that fashion conundrum, Ness Starkey's would always be - as it would in any situation in which she finds herself - with the help of God.

"As long as he allows me to wear sticky-out skirts and fishnet stockings on my days off, I'll be all right," she said with a big smile on her face.

Since about the age of five, this Yorkshire-raised mother of two has always known there was a deity somewhere around - and it was as a tot that she set out to find him.

"I was the eldest of three children in a vehemently atheistic family," she says. "But I somehow realised people went off to church on Sundays, so one day I just followed the crowd walking to the parish church and went in with them, found a pew and sat there with my little legs dangling."

Freedoms for children in those days were totally free, no-one worried about a small child going her own way, pursuing her own path with her friends, becoming intrigued with tombstones and their family histories, with the insects, lichens and flowers discovered around graves, as the young Ness did.

"I loved those areas," she says. "With two sticks and a couple of friends we could play any games we chose to invent, the countryside was our playground and I think God always seemed to be in it.

"My mother never understood my search, but never stopped me even though I was a bit of a rebel - I wanted to find God so I just kept going on my own.

"And those were the days when the Salvation Army would come to town and hold a mission, and we would run alongside its band playing through the streets under what seemed to be the wash of faith which would happen occasionally - and we'd always have a great time.

"In our life as a family, we moved about, I went to lots of different schools and attended different churches, mainly Church of England but sometimes non-conformist - they were just churches for me and places I needed to be."

Then life took on more of a pattern for Ness - christened Naomi Faith Ezitt, her third name being the Old English for Elizabeth and traditionally given to the eldest daughter on her mother's side.

She decided to become a nurse, joining Queen Elizabeth's training school in Birmingham and working at its general hospital.

At a party one night, having had a lively evening and ending up with yogurt poured all over her head, she met her future husband, Oliver Starkey.

"I was being given a lift home - he was a front seat passenger and when I looked at the back of his head I knew he was the man I would marry!"

They did so within the year, settling in Southampton where Ness completed her midwifery training, at the same time joining the US-formed Radical Midwives Association, successfully battling for them to be recognised as a profession, a move which led to nurses being able to obtain degrees on completing their training.

Oliver then took a job in Preston with Lancashire County Council, Ness became a radical midwife at Sharoe Green Hospital and they exchanged their terraced house in Southampton for a new home in Brabiner Lane, Goosnargh.

After her daughters, Lucy and Annie, were born, Ness became community midwife in Preston's Deepdale and Callon estate areas.

"I was working with Asian mums and families and they were lovely because they'd all get to know you, little ones called me Auntie Nessie and offered me their bottles with "d'you want a brew?" making me part of their community and their lives," she laughed.

Despite those early convictions of God and his love being everywhere, there was a time when Ness, training and busy in London when even Sundays were training days, let her quest take a back seat.

"Teenagers and twenties have to go through their own rites of passage, using their own intelligence, engaging with the world and sometimes without the church," she said.

Having her children reconnected her to that quest and, on moving to Lancashire, she decided to attend St Francis Hill Chapel, her nearest church then, before moving to Longridge and its parish of St Lawrence with St Paul.

It was there that her conviction that she should become a priest bloomed into reality, leaving her, she says "feeling very excited and full of bubbles."

But there had been other distinctive calls and markers on this path from childhood - like going to a young Pathfinders camp at Whitby and being told by a leader "you are going to be a priest"... like thinking she could be a medical missionary not long before she met Oliver... then when she went on retreat, also to Whitby, with the Order of the Holy Paraclete... undertaking an MA in comparative religion at Lancaster University where she was also the chaplain... and then going with friend Julie Rainford on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

"When I got back, I realised I could not ignore this call any more and would have to do something about it. Then at a service I heard the hymn 'Here I am Lord,' extraordinarily I realised the day was Vocation Sunday - so I then went to talk to our vicar, Simon Aiken."

That was two years ago, and Ness since then has had her vocational dreams tested to limits she had not imagined through diocesan panels, selection conferences, referees, interviews, discussions, scrutiny and her own in-depth involvement and presentations.

Now, at the lovely family home outside Longridge, still with her childhood loves of nature but now in the forms of the family's dogs, cats, sheep, goats and hens with their chicks, she recalls being told by retired Bishop Stephen Pedley after going through the many stringent hoops as a candidate for ordination the brilliant words - 'Ness, you've got there!'

"It was the most marvellous and uplifting occasion, it was on the Friday before Palm Sunday and again I was full of bubbles like a glass of champagne!"

Her ordination next Sunday, July 1, at Blackburn Cathedral almost coincides with the celebration of Ness and Oliver's silver wedding (more champagne, perhaps, as they are returning to Paris 'to extend our original honeymoon of just two days!').

Friends and colleagues from Longridge parish will be at the cathedral to support her, and a full St Paul's Church was there last Sunday to present gifts, say farewell and hear a message from her mentor Simon now in South Africa, as she looked forward to taking up the curacy at Broughton's church of St John the Baptist.

Its vicar, the Rev Dr Sidney Fox, says: "We are delighted to have Ness joining us. She will be a great asset at our three worship centres - St John's, St Martin's Church Hall in Fulwood and St Peter's School chapel, also in Fulwood, bringing with her the skills she already has and the promise of those she will develop during her time with us."

It's been quite a journey for that small girl following the crowd to her first church, determined to find God but also knowing somehow that he and his love were always around her.

Now, as part of a priesthood which has women taking up that vocation, she looks back on her journey as being blessed every step of the way and says: "We are all God's people and children and he uses our gifts, whether male or female, to work through him wherever we are."