Why Me? talk no. 2
Talk given by Angus Stirling at St John the Baptist, Holland Road, March 1 2015.
It is a great privilege to have been invited to be one of the speakers in this Lenten series of talks. The object is to give an account of personal experience of Faith, and how this has influenced my journey through life.
I was brought up in a family of Christian background. My father came from a Highland family with strong links to the Church of Scotland. Indeed, my great-great grandfather , the Rt Reverend John Stirling, was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1833, exactly 100 years before I was born. So I’m afraid there has been a noticeable fall from grace since then.
Family life was based upon strict, regular religious observance, especially in Scotland. But all did not always go to plan. My uncle, head of the family, always held daily morning prayers for the entire household in the kitchen . In due time, the large, green parrot which resided in the kitchen learnt the Lord’s Prayer off by heart. You can imagine that the parrot’s sudden, raucous repetition of “Our Father which art in heaven” was not exactly conducive to the air of reverence expected.
My father had an uncomplicated faith in God. He wrote in the bible he gave me at my confirmation : Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you.” words which still have special resonance for me. And my mother, although a more hesitant believer, always subscribed to the importance of the unquestioning, quite conventional Christian up-bringing I had.
I mention this early background, because it later proved to be at least part of a rock which enabled me to overcome a traumatic abyss into which I fell when I went up to Cambridge.
There was, in the early 1950s, an organisation called The Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, CICCU. Its practice was to arrange at the start of each academic year a series of sermons at the University Church, aimed principally at the new intake of undergraduates.
I went along purely out of curiosity to listen. It was immediately evident that the programme was designed as a cumulative evangelistic campaign. CICCU had assembled a team of recruiters, all experienced adults, , with the object of following up the sermons to “capture” as many young people as possible for God.
There was no subtlety in this approach. Everyone who attended was subjected to intense and continuing pressure to persuade them to abandon everything, including parents, family, leisure activities, (especially competitive sport), for God.
I found myself ambushed by patrols of these zealots, when returning from a cricket match, or playing tennis. They would enter my room without consent to announce a bible-reading, regardless of work, or any other activity. There was no time that was sacrosanct from these aggressive intrusions. The greater the resistance, the more intense the pressure. A number of my fellow under-graduates committed themselves , and became the most assiduous of the CICCU recruits for this campaign. It went far beyond the permissible bounds of civilised persuasion.
Even at this distance of 63 years, it is no exaggeration to describe this experience as a form of persecution. It went on for more than a year without interruption. Although appalled and upset by it, I was not good at dealing with it. There was no one, at that time , from whom I felt able to seek wise counsel. And so, depressed and demoralised by the experience, I left the University.
I began to return to anything approaching faith only when I met Morar, and we got married in 1959. My wife , who has strong, and shining Christian principles, , has been by far the most important person in returning me towards, and helping to develop our shared Christian faith. None of the activities or enthusiasms I shall come to in this talk have approached the strength and influence I have drawn from her, our children, and our close, happy and loving family.
We set up house here in Notting Hill in 1959 and it was the Priest –in-Charge at St George’s, Richard Moberly, who also helped gradually to restore my confidence and set me back on the journey I described at the beginning , a journey in which the community of this parish has been central ever since.
Although the Cambridge experience led me to have a permanent dislike of any form of coercion in religious discourse, like many set-backs which, at the time, seem to have no silver lining, it had some positive legacies as well..
I believe the most important of these was that it helped me to come to terms with that sense of personal inadequacy that I suppose affects us all at times – and indeed to accept failure. A wise, older friend once said to me “ Angus, you must learn to fail at times and to accept it.” There is in fact plenty of evidence that Jesus knew that his disciples could not always succeed , and told them, according to Luke, that they would sometimes have to “shake the dust from their feet.” ( in other words to make a fresh start).
It is not always easy, perhaps especially for men, to accept Christ’s love and forgiveness after facing up to problems as part of the Christian journey. I have found the jockeying for power and prestige I encountered in public life hard to cope with at times. Also at one stage the realisation that the balance between work and family life had become distorted, to the detriment of the latter.
After an initial, and indispensible, nine years in a city merchant bank, I have been fortunate enough to devote the rest of my working life to a management role in the arts, heritage and natural environment. This led to a number of positions where I had both the opportunity and the responsibility to influence the direction and policy of major national organisations, among them : the Arts Council; the National Trust; The Royal Opera House; The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, the Courtauld Institute of Art.
I have sought to act on the principle that the higher the cards that are dealt to you in life, the more important it is to try and deploy them to benefit those less fortunate. To the question “given the scale and extent of the world’s troubles, how can I make a difference ?” the answer seems to me to be “ in the context of my profession, and of my life outside it, try and reach out where you can to individuals who need help and support.”
It is easy for those at the head of big organisations to take for granted the great majority of the work-force underpinning the management. I tried,usually inadequately, to understand, and to show that I understood,
that without them nothing could be achieved. When I retired from the Royal Opera House nothing gave me more pleasure than a hand-written note I received from one of the stage-hands thanking me for getting to know them and supporting them.
In the mid-70s, while at the Arts Council, I was given a travel bursary by the US State Department to spend some weeks in America studying the place of the arts in the education system – at that time better established in the States than here. I visited a small workshop in the poorest area of the Bronx in New York, run by an exceptionally gifted woman. She realised that the world famous artistic establishments just across the bridge, in Manhattan – the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, the Met Opera, New York City Ballet and much else – were all a completely closed world to anyone living in the Bronx. She single-handedly created a programme which developed into an inspiring , regular exchange of visits by young folk from the Bronx to the centres of excellence in Manhattan and by the artists of those institutions to fertilise the arts in the Bronx. Peoples’ lives changed and horizons were vastly opened up.
This experience had a great effect on me. I was determined to do what I could to help create those same kind of opportunities in this country. I have time to mention just one initiative, which did have rewards far beyond initial expectations:
In my time at the National Trust we launched a scheme in the inner city of Newcastle. We enabled mothers and young children living in the poorest parts of the town, with no transport, broken homes, inadequate housing, to go out into the countryside, initially to have picnics at the beautiful Wallington or Cragside estates . The children had never seen grass or trees, let alone farm animals. Gradually they became more adventurous; they mastered simple building or gardening crafts; and they learnt to play sports. We even had the Mums abseiling and climbing rocks.
The scheme was so successful that we soon established it in other cities; it is one the finest things the Trust has done , and it exemplified the attempts to enable people otherwise denied it to appreciate the wonders and healing powers of nature, and of history. Perhaps even more important, the seed was sown that vastly enhanced the opportunities for employment and adventure in the lives of these young people. If I may turn for a moment to my own faith, it is nourished by the natural world we live in; by my life-long interest in and all-too limited understanding of the cosmos; and by all
the arts , especially music and painting. Michael Mayne, in his wonderful book Learning to Dance said: “ Most of our lives are about doing: they should also be about being and becoming.”
It cannot be said that architecture, music, poetry, painting, or the wonders of nature, prove anything. But they can sometimes enhance our innermost sense of the mystery of faith, and bring us a little nearer to becoming what we are capable of .
Psalm 19 tells us : The heavens are telling the glory of God, And the firmament showeth the work of his Hands. Whatever the mind-bending discoveries of scientists about the origins of the Universe, I do not see how anyone can deny those words who has contemplated the stars on dark clear night. And exactly that same unfathomable glory is surely present, on a miniature scale, for example, in the snowdrops now in the woods and gardens.
In the early Christian era religious images, particularly icons, were considered material evidence of the existence of God. In our sophisticated, largely secular age that seems a naïve concept. . Yet I believe that the greatest expressions of human creativity are capable of awakening in us all a kind of incandescent radiance that belongs nowhere else, a recognition of the power of God’s love that cannot easily be explained in words. I will just describe one that does it for me.
There is in Florence a bronze statue by Andrea del Verrocchio of the scene when the resurrected Christ shows his wounded side to Thomas.
You do not to need to go into a room, or pay to see it. It has stood on the façade of the Orsanmichele, looking down on every passer by in the street for over 500 years. Its accessibility adds to its presence and power. I make a special pilgrimage to look at it when I am there, because it is one of those rare works of art that gives you a shiver of something beyond our terrestrial experience , as though you were in the presence of the real event for a fleeting moment. “YES, this is what actually happened.”
I have included in this talk just a few of the ways I can try and answer the key question: WHY ME? Ultimately I believe that it is the incarnation of love that lies at the heart of who we are, and that perhaps we may all be helped to discover through our own particular experiences. For love is the key to the mystery of Faith, and, although our life in this world is finite we know, as St Paul tells us : “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”