As an Anglican priest and Team Rector of 12 rural parishes in an ecumenical diocese in North Cumbria, Sarah Lunn spends a lot of her time listening to others.
This is a quality acquired and honed during her time studying music at Lancaster.
This ability to take in and to adapt to the needs of her far-flung parishioners is key to the success of her ministry. She serves a number of communities whose members are increasingly unused to going to church regularly, but who still welcome Sarah”s support at times of crisis or when there is a birth, marriage or a death.
The area Sarah covers, based from her home in Long Marton in the Eden Valley, is huge with the group of parishes the size of the entire diocese of Liverpool in geographical terms. Her parishioners are often isolated and so visits can take a long time - in both travel time and the need to accept hospitality. She says: “One of the things I acquired at university was the ability to listen to, and filter, information which is vital to my role now.”
Lectures were her principal listening ground in the close-knit music department where she thrived, also in the university chaplaincy and in the local church, which took up most of the time that she was not studying or doing her music practice.
She came to Lancaster University from the North East, already convinced from the age of 11, that she was being called to enter the church, but without any prospect of doing so at the time as a woman. In a sense she felt she was marking time until entry to the church became open to her. Her prime interest was in the academic side of music - harmony and history. She was also looking for a university offering a BMus, as was the case with Lancaster. She was also attracted by the fact that the university was self-contained but near enough to the city for her to be able to go there on foot or bicycle - few students at the time owned their own cars. Sarah says: “We all became very fit because of all the walking we did up and down between university and the city!”.
As part of a small department, headed by Roger Bray, Sarah rapidly found her feet academically, particularly enjoying the harmony and the opera courses. As a flautist, she had arrived at Lancaster as one of the top musicians in her school, but in an age dominated by the Irish flautist James Galway, was faced by eight others playing the same instrument in her year alone. She rapidly understood that performance was not her way in life.
University opened up new horizons. The concert series there offered the music students valuable opportunities to meet classical big names and to help out behind the scenes. Lunn has clear memories of Denis McCaldin arranging for her, along with others, to go to speak to legendary mezzo soprano Janet Baker in her dressing room, during her visit to the university, and the grace with which she spoke to students.
Much of her university time was spent in the music practice room and with members of her own department. Outside her studies, she participated enthusiastically in activities at the university chaplaincy. She also became involved in working with two local parishes - St Paul's church in Scotforth and in Galgate.
At the end of her degree, Lunn did not see a clear career path for herself, other than the church, so went to work in Lancaster University library and later studied for a Master’s degree in librarianship at Manchester Metropolitan University. She worked for a time at both Lancashire College of Agriculture and at Lancaster Farms Young Offenders' Institution.
Her years of waiting came to an end when the first women were ordained into the Anglican Church in 1994. At last she began her training at St John's College, Durham in 2000. Suddenly her life took off. She loved her studies and the opportunity to listen to choral evensong at Durham cathedral several times a week.
Her first job as a curate came up in a group of parishes in Kirkby Lonsdale where she stayed for five years. She moved to Long Marton in 2007, first as team Vicar designate of seven parishes. She is now Team Rector, with five more parishes than she had when she started.
Her work requires much listening. Her parishioners have suffered a number of challenges over the years including foot and mouth and serious flooding - both of which have affected their livelihoods. Respect for the ‘dog collar’ in the community is, she says, still great and she frequently finds herself called upon to advise her parishioners. Her credibility is high with her rural congregation, because she keeps rare breed sheep and also breeds cats. This counts for a lot when building up trust - her parishioners feel they are dealing with one of their own. She also collaborates with local GP surgeries, in a scheme called The Listening Ear, in which she acts as just this, to patients in frequent need of a chat with their family doctor.
She has also developed strong links with the Traveller community, whose members arrive in Appleby in their thousands every summer for the horse fair. They have learned to know Sarah and now come to her to perform baptisms. Sarah believes in the church’s need to adapt to the times - it’s one of the valuable lessons that university taught her. She says: “It was the next stage on from where I had been. I needed to make that step and Lancaster helped me to make it well.”