Priest says losing eyesight made her better listener

Bishop Stock with the four new canons, including the Rev Stephne Van Der Toorn, who lost her eyesight over the years

A priest who lost her eyesight is among the Christians who have been recognised by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese for their dedication and commitment to church life.

The Reverend Stephne Van Der Toorn, 60, is rector of East Bergholt and Brantham on the Suffolk-Essex border, and is founder of the organisation VICAR, Visually Impaired Clergy And Readers.

She uses a cane to get around and is on the waiting list for a guide dog which she hopes to receive early next year to assist her in her ministry.

Although she admits that losing her sight has been difficult, she believes it has made her better able to support others who are experiencing suffering.

"Going blind has been a great help in many ways oddly, because it has taught me to listen more carefully to others.

"It has taught me about the pain of a slow bereavement too. I was diagnosed in 1997 and told I was going blind, and I rejoice that I have seen as much as I can these 16 years.

"But this year my eyesight has deteriorated remarkably and I have been taught an understanding of the pain of a slow loss, which has been very helpful to those people who suffer a slow loss like cancer.

"Being vulnerable as Jesus was is no bad things sometimes. People have the impression that the parish priest is like a rock and never wobbles, and it is good to see that we can maintain a life of faith in spite of the things that are thrown at us."

She adds that fellow Christians have not always been understanding of her condition.  

"A lot of well meaning people say God will heal you if your faith is strong enough, which is unhelpful sadly. I believe God has healed my spirit and has allowed me to concentrate my energies on the areas I do well, letting others focus on other areas, growing in their ministry. I am sustained by my faith."

Reverend Van Der Toorn was installed as an honorary canon of St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds on Sunday alongside the Reverend Malcolm Rogers, parish priest at St Mary and St Peter in Bury St Edmunds, and the Reverend David Herrick, lay ministry training officer.

Reverend Rogers has served as parish priest of St Mary and St Peter at Bury St Edmunds since 2005, and the church has thrived under his leadership.

Reverend Herrick joined the Diocesan Ministry Course from 1999 and was made Vice-Principal from 2004 before later becoming Lay Ministry Training Officer.

Nicholas Edgell, Chief Executive and Diocesan Secretary of the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese, who is based at the diocesan offices in Ipswich, has been appointed a lay canon.

Mr Edgell first worked for the church in 1974 as Clerk of Works in Rochester Diocese. He moved to Chelmsford in 1980 as Director of Property and Diocesan Surveyor and then to Birmingham in 1987 to be Deputy Diocesan Secretary, becoming Diocesan Secretary for the St Edmundsbury Diocese in 1996.

He said: "Working to provide efficient administration, sound financial management and overseeing the significant property interests of the Church in Suffolk is without a doubt a privilege. Making a contribution to the mission and ministry of the church is at the heart of what I do and I was delighted when Bishop Nigel asked me to become a Lay Canon."

The four were installed by Bishop Nigel Stock in recognition of their exceptional service and will be a source of advice and wisdom for the bishop and the diocese.

Bishop Stock said: "At the core of our mission are of course those in the parishes and we have two very able parish priests who are recognised, but support of the parishes is vital.

"This recognises the contribution of a long standing diocesan secretary and chief executive, which is very right. We are also dependent on good training being given to all those in ministry and one of the canons today has been involved in many aspects of training in the diocese over the years, helping us to adapt our methods to suit the needs of the Church.

"I am very grateful to all our new canons for what they give to the mission of our Church."