Marlborough.News is picking up again on our occasional series of profiles about people and their roles in the life of the Marlborough Area – taking our cue from the book published for the Millennium: MARLBOROUGH PEOPLE
If, while you are out and about, you fall into conversation with a female mountain biker wearing specs, a hi vis jacket and a dog collar, you could be in for a thought provoking, wide ranging chat about ‘life, the universe and everything’ (as Douglas Adams put it). And all delivered in a light Dutch accent at a fairly rapid speed.
For you will have had the pleasure of meeting Janneke Blokland, Team Curate of the Marlborough Anglican Team; physicist, educator, ‘vicar in training’, tennis playing, rather impatient (her own words), highly independent, very articulate Belgian beer lover.
She has been here for two years and absolutely loves it: “If I stayed in Marlborough for the rest of my life, I could be happy; but I also like change and in any case, I would have to move on if I was to step up to the position of vicar.”
With a PhD in physics and an MA in theology, this dynamic 34-year old has spent much of her life wanting to know how things work and believes that science and religion have many similarities.
They both produce theories that you need to have faith in, she explains. You can gather evidence in support of a scientific theory but are unlikely to prove it 100 percent.
Religious beliefs also must be taken on faith. “There is always an assumption. The important thing is to keep exploring and asking questions.”
She was born in a village near the Dutch town of Tiel to non-religious parents. The village was highly polarised between church-goers and those who stayed away.
Nevertheless, she took herself off to Sunday school and her Christianity grew organically from this experience. “I enjoyed it so much I stayed on to help teach the younger kids. There was no real reason to keep going other than that if felt right,” she says.
At 18 she was baptised and went to study physics at the University of Nijmegen, 30 kilometres away: “I found I loved learning about the world and its beauty. I enjoyed the maths, the logic and the puzzle of how everything works together. I also liked the practical experiments. I’m good with my hands and I can fix lots of things.”
She had stints in Geneva at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) and the High Field Magnet Lab in Nijmegen. While completing her physics PhD she studied for a BA in theology in Utrecht – and for fun she took and passed her motorcycle test.
In 2010, while working in the molecular physics department at Berlin’s Fritz Haber Institute, Janneke joined the city’s Anglican Church. She experienced such a sense of homecoming that she decided to make her career in the church.
Two years later Janneke moved to Cambridge and completed her BA in theology at Jesus College, topping it off with an MA through Nottingham University.
Her desire to achieve, she says, gave her freedom to discover herself. She is, however, aware that her need to be free could, unless she is careful, make her overlook present happiness in the rush to be always doing things. She tries to allow herself the time “to just be”.
Moving to England, however was not about putting distance between herself and her former life, but about wanting to work within the Church of England: “I love the C of E and its parish system. I love the fact that it is a church for everyone. Whether you are atheist or from other religions, you are always welcome. We try to be broad and open.”
Her role, she explains, is basically a C of E apprenticeship: “You learn on the job for three years and then, if the church decides you are ready to be a vicar, you are given a year to find another post.”
Janneke took up her post in July 2014 and as sidekick to Team Rector Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, she says no two days are ever the same: “I start my day with Morning Prayer in St Mary’s; then we are off, visiting schools, nursing homes and individuals; doing some preparation for Sunday service, carrying out baptisms, weddings, funerals and more.
“To be a good curate I think you need to enjoy being with other people; talking to them and learning from them. You should be resilient for when others need to lay their emotions on you. And don’t take yourself or things that happen too seriously.”
Unless it’s conducting a funeral of course. “Conducting a funeral is such an intense moment it can feel surreal,” she says. “I am leaving someone in God’s loving care, doing the last thing for them in this life – and yet often I don’t know them. It is incredibly moving and a huge privilege.”
While Janneke has turned her back on a career in science, she hasn’t abandoned it completely. Communicating ideas is hugely important to her and once a week she visits female students at St John’s Academy to eat cake and discuss physics in the hope that they too will seek answers to the bigger questions of life.
She and the girls are making a book of physics experiments and cake recipes called ‘Science: a piece of cake’– to go on sale in October, online and in local bookshops and other outlets. Profits will go towards projects in The Gambia, with which the school is linked through the Marlborough Brandt Group.
Janneke has also given physics lectures at Marlborough College and is a lively participant in the occasional pub theology discussions instigated by Andrew.
She says she wants to become a vicar, but would be happy to stick at that level as she’s not keen on bureaucracy and the many meetings that inevitably come with promotions. She hopes to end up in a community the size of Marlborough or slightly bigger, and not too far from London so she “feels connected to the rest of the world”.
It’s probably just as well that, for a woman who says she can get lost at the drop of a hat – or “take the wrong turn four times at a crossroads”, Janneke is happy by and large to let her future find its own direction.
Serving God brings her peace. “My feeling is that while I don’t know what will happen, or where I will be in say five years, I know it will be right. God knows, and it’s liberating.”