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Church's answer is from afar

A pastor's search for an assistant leads him to a young priest near London. The new minister has already made a good impression.

By EILEEN SCHULTE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


A pastor's search for an assistant leads him to a young priest near London. The new minister has already made a good impression.

PALM HARBOR -- The Rev. Michael Branscombe was sweating under the hot lights. As a contestant on the British television game show 100 Percent, he had a tough question to answer.

What state has Santa Fe as its capital?

"I said Arizona," the British minister said and laughed. "I knew it was wrong."

He got 68 answers correct. The winner got 69 right.

Meanwhile, back in the Diocese of Lichfield near London, where Branscombe served, members of his congregation were watching him on TV and raising their glasses at the local pub. Branscombe, a trivia game addict, has been on five quiz shows, including 15 to One, a "high-brow" quiz show where the prize was a Corinthian pot from the second century.

"I love being on TV," Branscombe said.

That's the kind of spirit the Rev. Richard Lindsey was looking for when he went to fill the job of assistant rector at St. Alfred's Episcopal Church in Palm Harbor.

He had to look across the pond for the right man.

"I tried the U.S., and there weren't many takers," Lindsey said. "The Episcopal church doesn't have many (young) priests."

The two priests met online. After his former assistant moved to Atlanta, Lindsey posted an Internet ad for a replacement. Branscombe answered it.

"I sent them an e-mail; and they said, "Are you serious or do you just want a holiday?"' Branscombe said.

Through the Internet, Lindsey got to know Branscombe, 36, of the Diocese of Lichfield and the new Holy Trinity Church at Clayhanger in the parish of Brownhills. While waiting for the church to be built, he held worship services in the local pub.

Lindsey was so impressed with Branscombe's good humor and kind manner he flew to Walsall, England, to spend a weekend with him and his wife and watch him perform services.

Then he offered him a job. In March, Branscombe signed a three-year contract with St. Alfred's, agreeing to oversee the Sunday school, the youth group and new member assimilation program. In July, he moved to a house in Palm Harbor with his wife Margaret and three cats, Alex, Bizzy and Wizzy.

Branscombe wasn't always a religious man. The son of an agnostic father and an Irish Roman Catholic mother, he grew up in East Yorkshire in a typical English market town called Beverly. He didn't even attend church from the age of 12 to 18.

"I always thought God was a policeman on a cloud," he said. "And when you got to heaven, he would say. "Okay, you did this wrong and this wrong."'

Then he fell in love.

"I had the hots for a girl who belonged to the Christian Union, a school group," he said.

Eventually the girl, Margaret, became his wife. And Branscombe started changing his mind about who God was.

But he wasn't ready to go to a seminary just yet. He worked as a mailman and mapmaker for the government.

"But the call never went away," he said.

He answered it at age 27 and entered the seminary. At 30, he was ordained.

But he didn't give up his motorbike. At his final funeral service in England for a motorbike shop owner, the grieving family asked him to dress in his leathers with his clerical collar, and lead the hearse riding his motor bike.

He did.

"He fits in really well around here," said Marcia Nauman, St. Alfred's bookkeeper. "He's as crazy as the rest of us."

Lindsey said Branscombe has already made a big impact on the 1,100-member congregation.

"He's just a warm, inviting, prayerful kind of guy," said Lindsey. "People believe and trust in him as a priest. He has a natural knack with youth."

Lindsey said he wanted to hire somebody "young enough to relate to youth."

"There's not a lot of priests who want to do youth work," he said. "It's really labor-intensive. You have to be at the soccer matches, the football games. You have to be in their lives. You don't get returns right away. You don't often see results for years after the person becomes an adult."

The new minister's skills were tested when the terrorists attacks happened just a day before an evening youth meeting. Branscombe talked with the teenagers about the tragedy and prayed with them.

The other component is the two priests had to get along.

"We hit it off. We have to work together," Lindsey said.

Plus, said Nauman, "everybody loves his accent."

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