A vision, and he jumped ship to the church

00:07, Feb 14 2013

A switch from commander in the Royal Navy to priest in the Anglican Church sounds like a leap, but when Nigel Whinney got the call it came in an emphatic way and he had to answer.

Ordained at 55, the English immigrant to Nelson had served longer than three decades in the navy. His roles included flying naval helicopters and leading a squadron of them, teaching air navigation onshore, helping to mop up after the Falklands War and being Britain's senior naval officer in Northern Ireland.

He had a two-year exchange tour with the New Zealand navy, teaching Kiwis how to fly Wasp helicopters from frigates. He later commanded a Wasp unit, Dorset-based 829 Squadron, which at one point had 48 aircraft and 600 people, including the first women in a frontline British naval squadron.

He was assigned to the Admiralty Interview Board for six months, vetting candidates for the navy.

He was posted to Hong Kong on another exchange tour where he commanded one ship and was senior officer of five - "one of the best jobs in existence" - and after that had a "staff job" in London, writing briefs on manpower for the head of the navy, the First Sea Lord, and his deputy.

He even spent a year at the Fleet Air Arm base at Yeovilton in Somerset organising a Queen's Colour Parade which was attended by the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Andrew.


Then came the switch to a job with the church.

It's not as much of a contrast as it might seem, Rev Whinney says.

Raised an Anglican, he had joined the navy as an officer cadet in September 1962. The career choice came at the suggestion of his father, who had been a fighter pilot in World War II and wasn't keen on his son following in his footsteps as a flyer - which he did anyway through the Fleet Air Arm.

Rev Whinney remained in the Christian faith throughout his naval career.

"I was brought up that way and that's the way I'd lived my life, but I never dreamt I'd end up on the other side of the altar rail," he says.

Even so, he had felt a "constant pressure" to become more involved, serving as a vestry member and a church warden in his home parish in Somerset, but feeling that pressure continue to rise.

"The crunch came when I was walking my dog down by the river and I was aware in front of me of figures in a semi-circle with their arms outstretched to a central figure."

Rev Whinney was experiencing a vision.

"I stopped. It was a summer's day. A voice said, ‘You're the guy in the middle.' It was very real."

He relayed the experience to his spiritual mentor and was told, "That's the clearest call I've ever heard for someone to go into the church."

It came as "a bit of a shock" all the same, and more especially to his wife, Harriet, and then-schoolage children Emily and Toby. But he went with it.

It was impossible to remain in the navy and train for the ministry at the same time so he cut short his military career a year ahead of when he would have been able to retire and, at 52, began two years as a theology student at Exeter University.

At a time when his peers were retiring, Rev Whinney was beginning his new career as a non-stipendiary (unpaid) minister, not tied to a particular parish and serving in what he calls "the ministry of the gaps", a bit like a doctor's locum.

He eventually became a rural dean, working with 60 parishes and 25 clergy. He also served 12 years as a visiting hospital chaplain and four as a hospice chaplain, work he describes as "a great privilege".

"Often I would leave the bedside of someone dying, thinking, ‘Who was ministering to who there?' It's not a one-way traffic, there is a communication - and, of course, when you're in that situation, it does concentrate the mind somewhat."

But with Emily living in Nelson and Toby in Canada, "we found ourselves with a large Somerset farmhouse with just our dog, and not a chance of filling it again".

Their New Zealand posting in the 1970s had provided lifelong friends and great memories. They immigrated in July 2011 and Rev Whinney quickly became established in the Nelson diocese. Licensed by the bishop, he conducts a monthly service in Havelock and from there ministers to one of the largest parishes in area, the Marlborough Sounds. He takes some services at Nelson's Christ Church Cathedral and chairs the management committee of The Mission to Seafarers at Port Nelson.

"Once again it's the ministry of the gaps," he says.

The seafarers' mission is a focus of his attention now as he tries to raise its profile. Operating from a Port Nelson Ltd building inside wharf limits, it's a multi-faith, multi-denominational and multicultural haven for visiting ships' crews.

With today's efficient cargo handling methods, ships are turned around quickly. Sometimes crew members have only a few hours ashore - time where they can get away from the noise and personalities they're surrounded with at sea and make contact with their families by phone or computer.

Rev Whinney says the mission is grateful for the building, provided free by the port company.

It doesn't meet earthquake standards but the mission has until 2027 before it must comply.

Its more pressing problems are getting sufficient funding to secure the employment of its part-time manager, and the recruitment of more volunteers to help provide the home away from home that the mission aspires maintain.

He's talking to the city council about funding and is spreading the word about the mission's needs through church groups and newsletters.

"I'm tackling it from trying to get the message right, in the hope that if we do that, the money will come and the volunteers will come."

Now 69, Rev Whinney says the move to Nelson has been "absolutely marvellous".

The shift from the military to the ministry has proved to have also been the right choice, vastly rewarding through his work with the sick and dying in Somerset, and still providing fresh challenges.

The Nelson Mail