Second "Why Me?" address, 21st February 2016 by Jamie Priestley at St John the Baptist


I have stared at the inside of this church for a little over 50 years. I was baptised in its font as were my sister and my three children who are here this evening. My father was a trustee of St John’s, and in the 80s he lobbied the bishops of London and Kensington to keep it open. They were unenthusiastic because they found it much too frilly, and would have closed it but for him. St John’s Anglo-Catholic outlook has always made it unusual and, for me, the whiff of dissent has made it intriguing.

When I was a boy, church was part of my landscape. I questioned it like I questioned school: not very much. Most weeks we were here at 11 and by 12.30 we were back home getting Sunday lunch ready. I say 11 o’clock. It was usually 5 past, and the disapproving churchwarden would mutter something about Those Living Nearest Always Arriving Latest. Mass at St John’s wasn’t always riveting, but afterwards I would see that the rhythm of my week had shifted. I had been made to feel differently, even if I didn’t know what for. The church’s sensual pleasures have always been an important ingredient: the smell of the candles, the stone walls, the incense. The singing, and the repetition of the liturgy which I came to know by heart. The way the morning light worked its way around the church was fascinating, especially during sermons. And, always my favourite moment in the calendar, the Easter Saturday vigil which begins in darkness. That my father died on an Easter Saturday makes the day more special. I have tried less and less to fathom why the rituals of church make me feel grounded. They just do. When you come back to church you draw on your own past experiences of it, on the people around you and, crucially, on 2,000 years of wisdom accumulated in the pursuit of faith. Not easy to capture something that runs so deep.

As I grew up it was clear that both my parents believed in God, but my children have not had the same consensus. My wife is sceptical, having gone to a school run by over-zealous nuns. So, for the moment, they don’t wish to be confirmed in spite of excellent recent instruction delivered by Margaret Houston and Father Heard. Excellent in my view because they showed that confirming your faith means an agreement to keep the inquiry going. It doesn’t mean a binding contract, and when my children discovered this they were pleasantly surprised.  God can wait, of course, but their reservations make me think hard about why I want them to keep at it.

Millions find the certainty they’re after in science, not religion. We know this because they keep telling us. There are also plenty who happily embrace both, like the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, for example, or my ancestor Joseph Priestley: chemist, discoverer of fizzy water among other things, and priest. There’s a rather smug man called Alain de Botton who advises people to cherry-pick the useful parts of Christianity - like its talent for community - and debunk the rest as childish illusion. His mistake is to see faith as something akin to sleep - a holiday from normal reasoning. But faith is hard. It’s a struggle with contradictions and uncertainties that doesn’t go away. For many faith means absolute confidence that any sacred text is as true now as the day it was written. I admire their conviction, especially when they don’t subject me to a hard sell. My perspective is that faith always feels vulnerable next to our daily discourse of hard facts which assures us that human knowledge is cumulative, scientific truth ‘out there’ waiting to be found, and those who have it are immune to dogma. We all owe much to science, but I think we often settle for the appearance of it more than the thing itself. In the organisations where I work, something Foucault called a Regime of Truth is often in force, offering a miracle cure to all the complexity and mess in which companies operate, while a whole co-opted language of scientific terms works its magic on us: objective, reasonable, systematic, rigorous. But the reality falls a long way short of the Enlightenment ideal: the phrase ‘Let’s be logical about this’ usually just means ‘Let’s do things my way, not yours.’  A current fad, ’Evidence-based Management’, is an explicit homage to evidence-based medicine, even though healthcare is increasingly trying to understand things in context…much more than just the clinical evidence, in other words. All this is important, because the fantasy of certain knowledge means that senior people doubt in private only. Last year I helped with a report for Davos on 150 global CEOs. They all talked openly about the impossibility of knowing everything, but only because they were guaranteed anonymity. When they’re on record they need to sound certain and decisive and consistent - if they know what’s good for them.

Whatever our orientation (religious or secular), we’re all en route towards perfect happiness or knowledge or faith; some form of completeness anyway. I think often about the gap that separates me from where I want to get to. Sometimes I chart my progress in relation to an achievement or a failure of mine. Sometimes it’s in relation to the progress of others. All this has rich comic potential. In fact it’s the bread and butter of every humourist. A few decades before this church opened, the wonderful Sydney Smith was a favourite guest of Holland House and a vicar. Referring to Elizabeth Fry, a famous prison and social reformer of his day (whose picture is on the fiver in your pocket, by the way), he said: “She is very unpopular with the clergy. Examples of living, active virtue disturb our repose. We long to burn her alive.” False piety, on the other hand, is reliably funny because it lines up two incongruous things next to each other: the appearance of holiness and a hunger for prestige. Examples in other domains are endless. Captain Mainwaring has given joy to three generations of my family because his insecurities are universal.

My own pretensions are of course comical. Funny to others at the time. Eventually funny to me too. A few years ago I was hired by a marketing agency to work on a campaign that involved supermarkets and margarine. I knew nothing about either because my background was petroleum, and spent the first 3 months certain I was about to be fired. One day my boss and I were walking briskly along a corridor between desks in our open-plan office, while he told me everything I needed to do before the next day. I repeated each action point with a little karate chop into the hand to emphasise just how much I was master of the situation. When the conversation ended, my boss carried on walking and I paused to look across the office. To my horror I saw that one of my new colleagues had tracked the whole thing. He was looking at me, mimicking my karate chop with an idiotic expression on his face. I knew two things at once. That my pretence at competence was futile, and that I’d found a friend for life.

Human frailty keeps our comedians in business, and their scrutiny does us good. But I find myself increasingly put off by the kind that sneers. The comedian Frankie Howerd once told a group of leading figures from the new, disdainful school:  "You lot: you stand on the stage and say 'I hate you, I hate you’. The difference between you and me is that I do it with love. And my audiences know who they're supposed to be laughing at. Themselves, nobody else.”

I’m sure that God is nearby when humour exposes us, but with kindness. It’s uncompromising in the way it reveals our flaws. But it also celebrates what we are already. I see these two precious things in balance when people genuinely laugh at their own expense, or when my mother giggles as we tease her about some eccentricity, or when my children say to their mother, who demands that they only talk to her in French: Maman. Je te love.


It’s not easy to convey the full confusion of my faith in ten minutes.

As a small child I had no idea why I came here. Now I actively work on understanding it. Progress is tentative with frequent relapses. But the alternative is not all it claims to be, for all the noise it makes about being the only source of truth.

My plan is to proceed as if God exists. It avoids debates about evidence (which I find irrelevant), and I like its optimism. There’s a great deal to be said for As If. It’s the possibility, but not the certainty, that things might turn out as you hope.  It fuels generosity, dreams, art, silliness, love. All these things are fragile and elusive. All these things make life worth living.

Holland Park Benefice