The Very Rev Nicki McNelly was installed as Provost of Oban Cathedral on Friday 31st August. The Bishop of Argyll and The Isles, the Rt Rev Kevin Pearson lead the service of collation and installation in a packed cathedral. Nicki, who has come from Edinburgh diocese, was welcomed by church and community leaders.
She was interviewed by Rev Andrew Swift on the evening of her installation:
When you meet Nicki McNelly, her smile is the first thing that grabs your attention. The newly appointed Provost of the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, Oban, exudes a warm, infectious humour that invites conversation and friendship. She has a gentle lilt about her accent, an indelible trace of the starting point of her journey in life: South Wales.
I chatted to Nicki, the form of address she prefers to “Madam Provost,” on the eve of her collation and installation as the first female provost of Oban, and only the second female provost in the history of Scottish Episcopalianism. The woman who is making this historically significant step has had a fascinating journey in her life, from the valleys of South Wales to the rectory on the hill, beside the Oban landmark of McCaig’s Tower.
Nicki’s journey starts in Tredegar, South Wales. She talks fondly of the traditions of that small Welsh community: “Christmas gatherings, street parties, Chapel, wash days, bath days, naturally tin and in front of the fire, and posh aunty and uncle visiting days. Those days were good, as they had a car and would take us out for a drive to a park or a river and buy us an ice cream.” Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings were spent in the local Baptist chapel.
When she was seven she moved to Ebbw Vale to be part of a new step-family. Churchgoing changed to travelling to the local Presbyterian Church each Sunday evening: although she was never allowed to go in! She describes the benefits: “Once a month, something called ‘Communion’ happened, so as we had to wait longer we enjoyed some lovely ice-cream from the local Italian café to pass the time.”
At 18 years old, Nicki joined the army, becoming a member of the Intelligence Corps. Four years later, the 22 year-old Nicola Calder met Iain McNelly, a fellow serviceman, and they were married. It was not possible for Nicki to be posted to the same unit as Iain, so she left the army and started a long, long journey accompanying her military family around the world. Moving into the rectory in Oban is her eighteenth move of house. On the journey, Iain and Nicki found themselves with two daughters, Anya (now 20) and Ceri (17).
I asked her a little about those years of life: it is immediately apparent that she is a mature, relaxed, capable person. Those twenty-five years of moving from military base to military base have been a formative journey. She had many jobs in that time, an inevitable by-product of military life. The most rewarding role, she decided, was being a volunteer development manager for SSAFA: the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. This organisation helps service families through the problems that the unique nature of military life can bring. To see families helped through incredible crises was wonderfully rewarding. I asked Nicki what had been the low point of this journey, and she was unable to suggest anything. All of her many roles have been positive and rewarding. She was even a personal trainer to the Saudi Royal family at one point (female members only, of course). The twenty-five years of military journeying were a rich time of meeting people, moving from community to community and encountering different traditions and cultures. She came from this experience valuing true friendship: a military life brings many, many acquaintances, but you leave it knowing a few deep, lifelong friends.
A change in her direction started in 2000, in Cyprus, when she became increasingly involved in military chaplaincy. She was baptised in 2001 and even became a member of the Army Archdeaconry Synod. While attending a retreat with the Synod in 2006 the Chaplain General asked her why she was being disobedient. This was a worry to Nicki, but he responded, “God has been calling you for years and you are not answering.” By 2007, Nicki had met the Bishop to the Forces, attended a ‘Bishop’s Advisory Panel’ to discern her vocation and begun her ordination training at Cranmer Hall in Durham.
I asked her about a high point of her time in Durham. She replied that it was the pattern of daily Morning Prayer and Eucharist in Durham Cathedral, right beside the community at Cranmer Hall. The hardest part had been being separated from her family. She was a weekly boarder for her two years, and had to share community with people from teenage undergraduates to mature fellow ordinands. She left Cranmer Hall a more patient person, she suggested, better able to see the value in variety of worship styles and genres.
Nicki came to Scotland in 2009 to become chaplain and curate at St Mary’s cathedral, Edinburgh. She is quick to point out that, as well as marrying a Scot, her own maiden name, Calder, has a Scottish root! I again asked her about a high point of this time in her journey. Without hesitation she replied that it was the beauty of worship in the stunning cathedral, whether with two people at an early morning Eucharist or with 1,200 people at Midnight Mass. Regardless of the numbers, in that amazing place, God feels present. She had loved the challenge of learning to lead worship in the cathedral, a steep learning curve for any clergyperson.
Nicki becomes the new Provost of Oban on the 31st August 2012. She then will be the Very Reverend Nicola McNelly, or Madam Provost, if people wish to be formal. This is not the destination of her journey from the valleys to the hills, of course, but merely the next leg of that journey.
I asked her if she could share her hopes and fears for her time at St John’s, Oban. Her hope is that the cathedral will become, more and more, a community that others will see and wish to join. The cathedral is situated centrally in Oban, and everybody in that small town knows where it is. Her fear is that the plot of overgrown land opposite the rectory may be too difficult to attack and tame, but she already has thoughts about allotments or community vegetable growing once it is conquered. She is a woman who is not afraid to get her hands dirty and achieve things!
Finally, I asked her about how she approaches journeys. She has a love of Nepal and the Himalayas, and next year will visit them for the fifth time. She is drawn by the beauty of that place, and also the warm generosity of the people who have no material possessions but will offer everything to a visitor. God is really present there, Nicki offers. For such a journey, Nicki always takes chocolate. That is a given. She also takes a sandstone heart that she holds while she prays, a smooth, continuous stone with no sharp edges. Both the chocolate and the sandstone heart bring comfort to Nicki McNelly, the traveller. I have no doubt at all that the next leg of her journey, as the Provost of Oban, will be a rich, rewarding and exciting time for her, her family and the community that they are joining.