Why Me? Lenten Talk at St John The Baptist, Holland Road, given by William James on Sunday 13th March 2016

Why Me? Lenten Talk at St John The Baptist, Holland Road, given by William James on Sunday 13th March 2016

A reflection on the influences in my life’s spiritual development

Towards the end of his speech at my wedding to Pippa in Dec 2000 my best man said something along the lines of:  One of the most important things you need to know about Bill is that he is very religious…

Which made me wonder to what extent I was defined in the minds of my friends by my regular church going. I’d always thought I’d worn my religiosity (what ever that means) lightly, but I suppose these days most people regard anyone who goes to mass each Sunday as, in my best man’s words, ‘very religious’

I think I must have been to Holy Communion most Sundays of my life; and my upbringing was steeped in the Church of England. My Father, Grandfather and Great Grandfather were all clergymen and there are numerous other forebears besides. Indeed until recently I had a portrait of one ancestor, a puritanical 17th Century Bishop of Durham, above my desk in our sitting room, but his furiously protestant demeanor so frightened the children they demanded it’s removal.

Although I was born in a vicarage my real memories start at the age of four when my father was appointed to a Residentiary Canonry at Winchester. And it was in beautiful surroundings of Winchester Cathedral that I lived most of my childhood, for although at the age of 8 my father became Bishop of Wakefield, my parents decided to leave me at the Cathedral Choir School, and it was not long after I left there aged 13 when Dad was made Bishop of Winchester that we all moved back.

So it was amid the community around the Cathedral at Winchester that my faith was nurtured.

As a small boy we lived in a house within the ancient walls so close to west end of the nave that the buttresses attached to our garden wall. Looking back I realise I must have been a total nuisance to everyone involved in the Cathedral’s life. I very much saw it as my domain – I was always bothering the Cathedral staff, manically cycling round the green, forever for diving in and out of the stonemasons workshop, creeping up into the organ loft and ‘helping out’ on the Bookstall, managed in those days by my Great Aunt - herself a clergy widow who lived in one of the Alms Houses.

It was an environment that gave me a sense of contentment and security, I know that as a young child I fully believed that God dwelt somewhere near the High Altar of the Cathedral.

As my faith grew I came to experience the real sanctity of that place - where the ancientness of the buildings, the cycle of the daily offices, and the beauty of the worship, had changed little in 100s of years.

I went on to public school in Sussex and returned to the family home in Wakefield for school holidays only.  The contrast between Winchester and Wakefield couldn’t have been more stark. Wakefield in the centre of industrial West Yorkshire had emerged from the 1970s in very poor shape, and things only got worse as the as the painful medicine of the Thatcher years saw the region’s unemployment soar and the year long miners strike and it’s aftermath bring further hardship. But amid this depressing scene I observed the church living out a vital social role. It’s mission to offer hope. The clergy of the diocese made sure their presence was felt in the middle of society’s suffering, they took an active part in many different forms of social action – organizing family support groups, setting up soup kitchens for the strikers’ impoverished families. There was no doubt I was witnessing the gospel instruction to serve the poorest in society on a very real level.

My teenage years brought little in the way of rebellion, I sometimes thought at school that I was the only boy there who actually enjoyed compulsory chapel, and by the time I came to leave was in no doubt of my desire to go on to read Theology.

At some point in my late teens my mother gave me a copy of  ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ – that remarkable 14th Century work of contemplation that is established as the foremost work of medieval mysticism. At first reading I was unsure I possessed the necessary tools or discipline to achieve the depths of self-examination that might occasionally lead me to experience a profound sense of the presence of God.  BUT It was however a definite spiritual gateway and firmly established my interest in, and love of, the writing of the medieval mystical tradition…

I don’t think any of my lecturers in the Dep’t of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol would ever suggest that I did anything more than the minimum required to get through… Arrival at University saw off my youthful earnestness within minutes – Though some things I couldn’t change. Almost straight away I sought out and found the most ritualistic of Anglo Catholic churches in the city and attended mass there most, if not quite every, Sunday for the duration of my student years.

I should say - Having fun did not completely overshadow my academic work. Mine was very much a Religious Studies course and I found learning for the first time about the religious traditions of India a profoundly joyous experience.

I had by this time read many of the major works of the medieval mystics – Theresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, St John of the Cross. So introduction to Buddhism and Hinduism coincided with my burgeoning interest in mystical interpretations of our desire to glimpse God at the most profound level. In Indian hymns, poems, and myths drawn from the earliest of days, I found areas of convergence, and particularly appreciated similarities between the journey of the ascetic along the Buddhist 8 fold path and the journey of the Soul in St John of the Cross’s Ascent of Mount Carmel.  It all heightened my interest in Christian mysticism.

Soon after leaving University I managed to get myself a job on a feature film being made in Rome, and jumped at the chance. The job didn’t work out as expected and I left it after a couple of weeks; but my experience of Rome was more than I had hoped for.

I’d done my dissertation on Cardinal Newman and had for some time been considering converting to Catholicism - so I got a job as an English teacher and stayed in Rome for about 12 months. My cousin Charles was also there, he was training for the Catholic Priesthood and was a most excellent guide, and although I came to realise conversion was not for me, he introduced me to an elderly Jesuit priest Fr Joe in who’s company I visited most of the important churches in the city and who for the first time taught and led me to a fuller appreciation of the devotion of Mary.

I felt my eyes opening to a new reality, a completely new area of truth. I came to see Mary as far more important than - as Thomas Merton once wrote – ‘The Virgin who stands above the doorways of medieval cathedrals”. My mind opened up to see her as the essential agent in my salvation. That her humanity is the whole point.  That as the woman chosen by God to bear his son she is elevated above all others. That her human perfection affirms the fullness of the incarnation.

Needless to say - There have followed trips to Lourdes, trips to Walsingham and on our very first holiday together I even managed to persuade Pippa to accompany me to the shrine of our Lady of Fatima in Portugal… an experience I found emotional and humbling.. She kept looking at her watch.

As she has done ever since… Living in London I was for 18 years a regular at All Saints Margaret Street where our three children were baptised, until a desire to find a church and community closer to home where we could worship as a family brought us to St Georges and this United Benefice.

So… No conversion experience. No specific moment of revelation. I would say that my road to Damascus started early and continues today; and it’s a road of gradual development, there are many hold ups of course, but each difficult step forward promises the glimpse of further revelation.

That famous quote of Socrates – that ‘A life unexamined is a life unlived’ is a central tenet and one I have over recent years failed to live up to;

What I believe is absolutely certain is that the more we learn about ourselves the better equipped we are to build a deeper relationship with God.
Holland Park Benefice