First “Why Me?” address for Lent 14th February 2016 at St John the Baptist by Charles Swallow

First “Why Me?” address for Lent 2016 at St John the Baptist by Charles Swallow

Although as a teacher, I am quite used to addressing people I have to admit that I have seldom felt more nervous than I am now before such a distinguished congregation.


I was a Munich baby. Born in the summer of 1938, I learned, later in life, that my Mother was disappointed that those close to her were apparently more interested in Chamberlain’s misguided belief that Hitler might agree to peace than the fact that she had produced her third child. There is, of course, nothing more important than creation and, despite there being about 7.5 billion of us on earth, we are all different and, so it would seem, obsessed with ourselves.

Why? This is always the more difficult question to answer than ‘How’ or ‘What’ as Richard Dawkins was to discover in his various scientific inquiries. On a purely worldly level, the answer must lie in self protection, reinforced by family and community. These priorities have been with us since time began.

Why then do we need religion? Presumably, to give our lives a sense of purpose and to explain the inexplicable. Accordingly the Greeks and  Romans invented their Gods both to protect them and to explain such things as natural disaster, the possible outcome of battle and premature human suffering. If, nevertheless, disaster struck them in whatever form, the question on their lips often would have been ‘why me’?

So it was that God appeared. As a former student and teacher of history, I am not going to subject you to a panorama of Christianity nor yet of my own unremarkable religious odyssey. Still, in trying to address the question ‘why me?’, I have to admit that I have had the luck of the Devil.

Born into a middle class cocoon,survived without major illness into my 78th year and blessed with emerging from a very happy family and helping to create one of our own, I have to acknowledge and give thanks for the fact that I was one of the more fortunate of my generation. By the way I haven't ruled out an unexpected or chance accident.  My Grandmother, an ardent Christian and mother of eight who lived in Manchester, always said that when her time came, she would like to be knocked over by a bus. She was, at the age of 70.

Admidst all the uncertainties of life, there are, of course, two facts of which there can be no doubt. We will all die and there is no hard evidence to prove what will happen to us after that. The three major world religions have all, in their different ways, tried to persuade their followers of a belief in an after life, based on the teaching of sacred texts that emerged from the sands of the Middle East.

No believer in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, I have, however, observed, during my unquestionably sheltered life, that most people’s religious beliefs are formed by their family and the culture in which they were raised. So it was with me. My Mother was a convinced Anglican and her three children were bought up to read the Bible and attend church regularly on Sundays. My Father, an agnostic, played golf. In my case, my Prep and Public schools continued this religious ritual. As an obedient 50’s child, I was duly confirmed out of a sense of duty rather than conviction. Through music and the choir I began slowly to appreciate the numinous quality of chapel services.

I was 16 when I experienced my one and only Why Me? I was told by my housemaster one day that my parents had arrived, unheralded, to see me. They told me that my brother Richard, aged 20 was dead. He was a National Service pilot officer in the R.A.F. and his Vampire jet had crashed in a field outside Cambridge. He was shortly to take up a science scholarship in Oxford. There was only three years between us and we were very close; I was distraught. As adults, we get so used to hearing about other peoples’ disasters that our feeling of sympathy for those suffering becomes more diluted in time. It is only when it hits you that the shock is real and inevitably begs the question: Why me?

In time I learned much from my parents’ respective reaction to Richard’s death. My Father, a brilliant research scientist, had led the team that invented polythene in the early days of I.C.I. He was never really able to come to terms with his son’s death which in turn, so I believe, hastened his own.  My Mother, although she had read science at Oxford, was saved by an almost mediaeval  belief in the nature of the after life in which she anticipated emerging from a Church Service, a glass of sherry in her hand, to be greeted by her son Richard. No parent ever gets over the loss of a child but my Mother went on to enjoy some 25 years of lively widow hood in Shropshire.

While teaching at Harrow, I was once asked to stand in for someone and take a Sixth Form Divinity class. A hand went up, ‘Please Sir, can you explain why it is that the Bible tells us that it is easier for a man to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? After all our parents send us to a privileged school like this, often to set us up, so we can make as much money as we can. I remember mumbling something about the parable of the talents and moving on….

 I was, nevertheless increasingly concerned about the lack of social awareness amongst many Harrovians so I introduced  the first social service scheme in a public school to open their eyes a bit. I  rather enjoyed dispatching the future Duke of Marlborough to dig a poor old lady’s garden in South Harrow.

More significantly, I was strongly influenced, as was our son Mark, by my uncle and Godfather, Harry Ree. As a much decorated war hero in the French resistance, Harry was an inspirational teacher who became a passionate advocate of comprehensive education. He found a dubious convert in me and I was to spend 10 years of my life wrestling with what proved to me, at least, to be an insoluble problem. our son, Mark is still at it although he is a prize winning novelist as well. Harry never really forgave me for, as he felt, selling my soul to Mammon when, together with my wife Susanna, we invested in and ran an indoor tennis club, The Vanderbilt. We risked everything to turn the run down 1908 White City Exhibition sheds in Shepherds Bush, housing some squalid tennis courts, into a source of great enjoyment for many.  I happen to have been born with the particular talent of being able to hit balls with an implement, mostly a racquet. It could be said that one’s youth is wasted in pursuing ball games but I have often thought it strange that many people, particularly men, seem to admire and hanker after this ability. Even  Richard Branson after his mother and I had severly beaten and his girl professional partner,  said to me ‘Oh Charles how I wish I could hit a tennis ball like you’. Yet I didn’t in any way, envy his business acumen.  I like to think that I have not wasted the skill God gave me (Why Me?) and hope it has given some pleasure to my opponents, even those that I have beaten.

Protestant doubt has always appealed to me. The apparent clash between judgement and forgiveness I can never really fathom. What on earth is the Second Coming? Why is it that so many agnostics like my Father and Harry lead morally better lives than many so called Christians? Does God love them as much, despite their apparent apostasy? Indeed, can God really love us all - even Mao Tse Tung and Hitler?

Still, unfathomable as it often seems to be, I do believe that God is love. In all its various interpretations it is the only answer that carries conviction and can often be glimpsed in such things as the beauty of nature, Beethoven’s late quartets and the laughter of children. God’s love is much in evidence in the very active community in our sister church of St George’s and the beauty of this cathedral like church of St.John’s. One feels it too,  in the joy of friendship but above all it can be found within the love of  family happily represented here tonight by our daughter Amanda and her son Redmond and by my wonderful, loyal and forgiving wife, Susanna, who somehow has put up with imperfect me for 55 years.

Holland Park Benefice