Wherever God takes me

25th April 2006


Diocese of Oxford

Jo Harries says that life has taught her that God is a God of  surprises. ‘I often wonder what he has for me next’, she says. And no wonder – she had early dreams to be a medical missionary in Islamic countries, but instead became the wife of the Bishop of Oxford. Her career as a paediatrician has been halted by her own repeated
hospitalisations. But as Rebecca Paveley discovered, her sense of God’s presence and his purpose in her life is unfaltering.

I meet Jo Harries on a sunny, spring day in the house that is soon to be packed away and its keys handed back. The home shows no sign of the turmoil of packing that must be going on after the couple’s 19 year long stay there.

They have until June to leave and are moving back to their own house in Barnes, south London. I ask Jo what she will miss and she says, straight away, the garden. It is beautifully laid out, well-tended and large.

But though she is sad at leaving, she is already embracing the future. Born in Essex, she was brought up with God, prayer and church at the centre of family life.  ‘I have always been somebody who has had a sense of the presence of God. When I was a child my parents used to pray in the evenings with us and we went to church. I remember I didn’t like the smell of booze after the communion!’ she recalls.

As a child, she was allowed to choose one ‘ordinary’ book and one ‘Jesus’ book. ‘I loved the stories in the Jesus book,’ she says. But at 10, she was sent away to boarding school, where she was terribly unhappy at first, before going on to Benenden.

‘There too religion was very important to me. I  prepared for confirmation though I wasn’t absolutely sure I was ready for it but I did go ahead and get confirmed at 15 or 16 and I got a lot out of the early morning church services.’

After school and before taking up her place at Girton, Cambridge, she went to Florence for a few months and was, she says with a smile, ‘quite wild’ there. But by the time she was settled at Cambridge she was determined to be a medical missionary, joining a group of fellow Christians who met fortnightly to pray for and write to missionaries out in the field.

This was to remain her ambition for years to come. But an invite to a sailing club dinner set her life going in a very different direction. She didn’t take up the invitation straight away, and by the time she did the young man who had asked her had asked several others.

‘He was bewailing the fact at breakfast at his college, Selwyn, while he was sitting next to Richard [Harries]. Richard offered to help and take me. It was the day before the university lacrosse match and I didn’t play very well in it! We saw a lot of each other that summer term and fell in love really after the exams.

‘I had already booked to travel to Greece and Turkey and Persia to see some of the people we’d been praying for. When I told my father I wanted to marry Richard he said, what has that got to do with going to Persia? So I went, and sent long letters back.’

She felt confused about what her direction should be – marriage, or a career as a medical missionary. ‘I felt very much that I wanted to work with Muslim women but I felt I was also called to marry Richard and he didn’t feel called to work in Islamic countries. I was confused about what was right but decided it would all work out in the end so I went on with my medical training in London and lived with Richard’s parents while he went to Cuddesdon [theological college, near Oxford].

Jo’s visits up to Cuddesdon are remembered by other students for her flamboyant blue MGA motorcar, given to her by her family. While women weren’t allowed to stay at Cuddesdon, the fact Richard had a room in a farmhouse rather than in the college itself meant that Jo was able to visit regularly.

They married on St Peter’s Day 1963, while Richard was serving his title in London and she was working as a house officer in a hospital. But her life was to take a quite different turn, while she was still struggling with her earlier plans to become a medical missionary.

Their son Mark was born and Jo was struck with puerperal psychosis (the most severe form of postnatal depression). It took a while to be diagnosed and then she was in hospital for a long time and was given ECT, electroconvulsive therapy. The illness was devastating for her and for Richard.

Her baby son was in hospital with her, but she wasn’t allowed to see him. Since the first episode she has been sectioned several times, usually, she says, corresponding with a crisis.

Work was difficult and the ECT meant she had to ‘relearn everything’.

Daughter Clare was born a few years later, and fortunately the illness didn’t return. Jo stayed very much involved in Richard’s parish, despite her health problems, and has stayed active in parish and charitable activities throughout her time in Oxford.

She has also explored Tai Chi, which she says brings her into a ‘wonderful position of stillness’. She was told not to meditate after trying it once while on a clergy wives retreat and having a ‘white flash – a Hiroshima moment’.

Since moving to Oxford she has been involved in circle dancing, a form of sacred dancing, and has danced in Winchester Cathedral. Charitable work has dominated her time in the diocese and she has been involved with FLAME, the Mothers Union, the Family Nurturing Network and the Red Ribbon group amongst others, as well as environmental groups and those working for social justice, like Christian Concern for One World.

She has also travelled widely with Bishop Richard, including visits to Taize and recently to Kimberley and Kuruman, our twin diocese, with a group of parishioners from the Diocese.

She hasn’t worked for several years as she has had several stays in the Warneford Hospital.

‘I don’t know what God is going to give me next,’ she tells me. I’m sure everyone in the Oxford Diocese will hope it is health, and happiness, as she and Bishop Richard enter the next stage of their lives together.

Comments (1)

SueNovember 20th, 2006 at 10:07 am

I wonder why the author put “relearn everything” in inverted commas?

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