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Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams guest of honour as popular Long Sutton priest Father Jonathan Sibley celebrates 21 years at St Mary's Church





Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was the guest of honour as a popular priest celebrated 21 years in Long Sutton.

Dr Williams, who was leader of the Church of England from 2002-2012 led Sunday Holy Communion at St Mary’s Church and then oversaw the renewal of marriage vows between Father Jonathan Sibley and his wife of 42 years Jeanne.

The Bishop first met Father Jonathan when teaching him theology in Cambridge in the late 1970s and they have remained friends, Dr Williams playing a part at his wedding.

Father Jonathan Sibley and Dr Rowan Williams
Father Jonathan Sibley and Dr Rowan Williams

He said: “I’ve very much valued this friendship over more than 40 years. He has asked me for advice over the years and I’ve been happy to support and it’s been really lovely to have this ongoing link with the parish, which I have visited several times now for various festivals and special occasions, plus supporting Jonathan in some of the extremely important work he has done in the community.

“I have been able to be part of the discussions during his work towards social justice and that has given me some sense as to how important his role is, not just in Long Sutton, but in the whole area.”

Friends, family and parishioners of Father Jonathan, 67, packed out the 850-year-old church and a special quarter peal was rung out by members of South Lincolnshire Bell Ringing Association, of which he is president.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams at the celebration service for Father Jonathan Sibley
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams at the celebration service for Father Jonathan Sibley

Barrister son Peter (29) and daughter Shona (26), who works in the medical field, were also present as the congregation enjoyed celebratory cake at the end of the special service.

A normal Sunday Holy Communion was led by Rowan. The couple also renewed their wedding vows after 42 years and exchange rings created by Stennetts of Spalding.

The Sibleys moved to Long Sutton on February 13, 2002 with a special service on March 8 that year, and the celebrations were all the more profound after Father Jonathan overcame serious illness three times last year. Twice he thought of sepsis before being laid low by an awful virus.”

“Through prayer, support and medical care I successfully overcome them,” he told the Fenland Citizen. “I was quite seriously ill and was twice rushed to hospital. It was life threatening. I was quite critical.”

Dr Rowan Williams and Father Jonathan Sibley
Dr Rowan Williams and Father Jonathan Sibley

Father Jonathan studied at Cambridge and Oxford and worked for the church commissioners and the library service before ordination in 1981. He served parishes in north London, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire before coming to Long Sutton, where he is also in charge of Lutton St Nicholas and Christchurch, Dawsmere.

Although his services are mainly held at Long Sutton, he conducts schools events, funerals, baptisms and weddings at the village churches, as well as dispensing pastoral advice and help.

Casting his mind back 21 years, he said: “It was an area we didn’t know but it is a town with a sense of wellbeing and a beautiful church and I was drawn into it. It is a real privilege to have been here for so long. I am very proud of the community as it has such a feelgood factor.

Dr Rowan Williams and Father Jonathan Sibley
Dr Rowan Williams and Father Jonathan Sibley

“Things that stand out for me are the warmth of the community and the fact it is such a well-used church. Before Covid-19 we had a footfall of about 30,000 people a year, historically, architecturally, for prayer or tourism.”

He said highlights of his 21- year mission include replacing the south aisle roof, and overseeing the building of the welcome area with a kitchen, toilets, running water and a heating system, to celebrate 850 years of the church.

“But perhaps the biggest highlight for me was the enormous firework display we had to celebrate the end of the Queen’s Jubilee back in 2012. That event really brought the whole of the community together,” said Father Jonathan, adding that having the Olympic torch carried through the town in 2012 was also wonderful.

Father Jonathan Sibley
Father Jonathan Sibley

He also remembered “the many individual people and families who say they have been helped during my ministry”.

“What is also wonderful is I still know the families from some of my first baptisms, weddings and funerals 21 years ago and many of them were at the service to celebrate my 21 years, which is really lovely.”

One of the changes over his time at Long Sutton has been the need for a foodbank, with Father Jonathan saying: “The need here has grown out of all proportion.

“A year ago we were helping about 10 families per week and now we are helping around 40 families. That shows the demand, the need and the economic difficulties families are facing.

Dr Rowan Williams and Father Jonathan
Dr Rowan Williams and Father Jonathan

“The team is led by Kimberley Ely. Retired doctor Chris Booth and his wife are involved, along with several teachers from Sutton St James and Tydd St Mary Primary Schools, Sally McKay and others from the community, working in a regular weekly rota twice a week.”

Looking forward, he says the main challenge ahead concerns the magnificent church spire, which is the tallest wooden one in England and one of the most impressive in the whole of Europe.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at the celebration service for Father Jonathan who has been at St Mary's Church, Long Sutton for 25 years
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at the celebration service for Father Jonathan who has been at St Mary's Church, Long Sutton for 25 years

“We have just discovered woodworm in our spire. It has only just been diagnosed so we do not yet know the full extent of the damage but we know it will be a major challenge and focus coming up for us.”



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