"Why Me?" talk no. 1

A talk delivered by Sandra Hempel at St. John the Baptist Church, 22nd February 2015

When it comes to those occupations generally held in low esteem, journalists are down there with the bankers, the estate agents and the politicians. It's true that some of our press is characterised by triviality, sensationalism and bigotry. And the recent phone hacking scandal revealed something far worse in some of our newsrooms.

But for all that, I am still proud to call myself a journalist. I am proud of the fantastic, largely unsung work done by so many courageous men and women in exposing wrong-doing, injustice and suffering, often risking their lives in the most dangerous parts of the world.

In over 40 years in journalism, I've never experienced any tension between my work and my values (or any more than in the other parts of my life, that is to say) because I've always worked in that sector of the media that maintains high standards. I have always worked on what I consider to be serious stories that are worth the telling, and I've never been put under pressure to cut corners, invent facts or lie to people.

In fact, the opposite is true: I've often been subjected to a hard grilling and been made to justify something I've written before the decision was taken to publish. I have also occasionally had sleepless nights, worrying about whether I really could "stand up" a story, whether my checks had been sufficiently robust.

That said, I think the rough, dirty end of the business is the price that we pay for free speech. Journalism is a craft or a trade. God forbid that we should ever become a profession, required to hold a recognised qualification; licensed by the state or some regulatory body; made to behave ourselves. Journalists should be by nature subversive: challenging power and calling it to account.

When I became a journalist, I entered the largely secular world of the liberal, left-of-centre Guardian/BBC persuasion. Here the underlying, unspoken assumption was that religious faith was at best irrational and misguided, and, at worst, bigoted, narrow-minded and judgemental. Most of the friends I have made through work over the years still hold this view.

So, I find it amazing that here I am, standing in a church, speaking as a committed Christian. I should love to be able to tell you that my coming to faith was dramatic and extraordinary, but sadly not. There was no blinding light on the road to Damascus. No dark nights of the soul, wrestling with doubt and fear.

When I first read the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins I was – and still am – overwhelmed by the power and the agony of what are known as "The Terrible Sonnets". My journey, by contrast, has been more like a marathon trip to the shops on a rusty old bike, crawling along, wobbling, with constant stops for a breather.

To give you a little background, I grew up in family where we all claimed to believe in God, all dutifully said "C of E" when asked our religion and where the Church was regarded as being vaguely "A Good Thing". In day to day terms, this meant trying to be kind and honest and treating other people decently. But attending Church for anything other than weddings and funerals was seen as completely over the top, and baptism was an optional extra - my parents never actually got round to having me Christened.

For a teenager in the 1960s, it was de rigueur to denounce and ridicule all the beliefs and institutions that the older generation held dear – patriotism, the Monarchy, the legal system, Parliament and, of course, all forms of organised religion, especially the established Church.

Fr James recently quoted the splendid Ian Hislop as saying: ‘I've tried atheism and I can't stick at it: I keep having doubts.’ That struck a huge a chord with me because – for all my would-be cleverness and sophistication through years of professing atheism and patronising anyone who didn't – I don't think I ever quite believed it. God was always there, somewhere, in the background, and try as I might I never really managed to ditch Him.

I first began attending my local church near Richmond over 30 years ago because of the wonderful music. Gradually though, I found myself listening to the liturgy and the sermon, and I began to find the experience increasingly meaningful.

Later, my late husband and I decided to start taking our daughters to church because they weren't getting that level of Christian education that we had had at school. We told each other that we were doing it for cultural reasons – so much of our artistic and literary tradition is, after all, Judeo-Christian-based – but that wasn't entirely true. We chose St. George's because as a boy growing up in Notting Hill my husband had attended the then St George's primary school, and because we both loved Fr Michael as soon as we met him.

It was as a committed Christian, having been baptised and confirmed at the age of 51, with my children growing up and needing less of my time, that I turned my attention to writing a book.

A favourite journalistic device is to use a human interest "colour" story as a way into exploring a wider theme. And my first book The Medical Detective grew out of my day job because by then I was writing a lot about medical and social issues.

The book tells the story of a 19th century doctor's fight to prove that cholera was water-borne. The disease killed over 100,000 people in three great epidemics in Britain in the mid-1800s and millions across the world.

At that time, people were used to deadly diseases – typhus, scarlet fever, dysentery, smallpox, for example – but they were completely baffled by cholera because they couldn't work out how it was spreading, and therefore how to prevent it. None of the known measures, such as isolating victims, quarantining goods or setting up cordons sanitaires seemed to work.

My main character John Snow was a reclusive workacholic physician living in Soho. In 1848, he came up with a theory that explained all of cholera's bizarre behaviour and he set out some simple measures – hand washing and boiling and filtering drinking water – that would stop the disease from spreading. But because his ideas were so revolutionary for their time, no one would believe him. Only some years after his death was his hypothesis finally accepted.

During Snow's comparatively short life – he died of a stroke at 45 – he was at first ignored and then treated with mockery and contempt. Convinced that he was right – not through vanity but through the painstaking collecting of scientific evidence – Snow went on with his mission undeterred, in the hope of saving lives.

When I began researching the book, John Snow as a personality proved elusive. He had virtually no private life; all of his papers and letters related to his work. Yet as I delved deeper, an extraordinary human being began to emerge: self-effacing, shy to the point of brusqueness yet deeply compassionate and with a brilliantly original mind.

As I learned more about him, so my liking and admiration for him grew, until by the time I had finished writing the book, I loved him. I was in tears as I wrote about his death: how at first he refused to go to bed, lying on the sofa for 24 hours, struggling to get back on his feet and back to work, refusing to call a doctor because he "didn't want to trouble anyone", before finally accepting, with his customary calm, that he was dying.

Snow's patience, his dogged determination and his unshakeable belief that one day, albeit long after he was gone and he himself forgotten, the truth would emerge, I found both moving and inspiring. He came from a very religious family and, while he himself was not a regular churchgoer in adulthood, he lived by his parents' principles of integrity, hard work, self-sacrifice, care for the sick and needy and a complete lack of interest in fame or wealth.

His story is one of faith, following a lonely path, refusing to be bullied or ridiculed out of saying what he believed to be true, rejecting the comforts and honours that the world had to offer. His convictions though were based on hard fact. Everything he said was grounded in science and he had the data to prove it. He had absolutely no truck with what is known as a leap of faith, such as the one that many of us make in our religious lives.

My dear friend Kate, who died a few years ago, was a hardline atheist of the Richard Dawkins persuasion. She held that religious belief was due to childhood conditioning or genetic pre-disposition or the inability to face up to life without a spiritual crutch.

For some time, I pondered these possibilities. But God was still there, refusing to go away, no matter how hard I tried to rationalise Him out of the picture, and in the end I decided to stop worrying about it. In so doing, I've been helped by two very short forms of words. One is St Paul's marvellous reference to "seeing through a glass darkly". The other is those wonderful words from the liturgy "Great is the mystery of faith".

Sandra Hempel, 16.02.15
Holland Park Benefice