Why Me? Lenten Talk by Richard Davenport-Hines, Sunday 19th March 2017 at St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road
Why Me? Lenten Talk by Richard Davenport-Hines, Sunday 19th March 2017 at St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road
I was brought up in the most Godless of households. My father disliked to think that anyone or anything might be more omnipotent, more all-seeing or more eternal than he was. He was capable of idolatry – Field Marshal Montgomery and Enoch Powell were among his totems – but not of worship. Although I attended services at an Anglican school, they left no spiritual traces on me: partly because children are terrific snobs, and all the smart boys at my school were godless and sneered that only drips were religious; chiefly because as an adolescent I was irredeemably self-absorbed, and could think of nothing much outside myself.
I am going to talk tonight about the process that led me to seek baptism and confirmation, and to attend services in this church with a grateful heart. I speak from the perspective of someone who has spent forty years writing history books, and will sketch how Christianity and my working-life have interwoven themselves together. And I am going to mention that strand of Anglican behaviour that shames me, and sometimes creates in me regrettable awkwardness in professing in public, to friends or colleagues, the Christian faith.
I know exactly the origin of my Christian interest. It began when I was an undergraduate reading the poetry of W. H. Auden. The decisive moment came when I was reading Auden’s sequence of eight poems about the Crucifixion, each of the poems marking the canonical hours. I reached lines in which Auden describes Christ’s substitution for the thief on the Cross. Christ, Auden says, ‘on whose immolation … arcadias, utopias, our old bag of a democracy, are alike founded: │For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.’ At the age of twenty I was unbelievably shocked, and uncomprehending, that a great Christian poet could write such lines, could say that the shedding of innocent, human blood was what held secular societies together; but in deliberating those lines I was set on new courses. Certainly, forty years later, I have no difficulty in believing that the suffering of innocent humankind is what binds secular society and makes the Christian message so urgent.
In the early 1990s I wrote a biography of Auden. It was influenced by the preaching and ritualism of Father George Bright, who was then the incumbent of this church, which I began attending, I think, in 1986. George Bright is a wonderfully inspiring man, who exemplified the importance of playfulness in sacred matters, who taught that one should be happy about pleasure, that joy is not shameful, that frivolity must be part of the most solemn ritual. His message distinguished between a Godly sense of our fallen nature, and merely social, reductive senses of secular shame.
Auden had two visionary experiences which were central to his life and to his poetry. The first, in 1933, occurred on a summer’s evening, when he was sitting on a lawn with friends. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he felt invaded by supreme joy, by what he called agape, by what psychologists call oceanic feelings, which made him feel in total unity with the universe and for the first time in his life know what was meant by loving one’s neighbour. Although I am shy of calling any experience of mine ‘visionary’, I used when younger – without benefit of drink or drugs or sex – to feel this same exultant unity with landscape and natural elements: it leaves a glorious, abiding memory of loving peace.
As to Auden’s second vision, it occurred in 1936, at a whaling station in Iceland, where he saw a seventy ton whale, alive and gentle, being torn apart by winches, cranes and bellowing labourers. This cruel horror gave him, Auden said, ‘an extraordinary vision of the cold, controlled ferocity of the human species.’ It sent him as an appalled spectator to the atrocities of Sino-Japanese war and to the Spanish Civil War.
Auden wrote, as I believe, that unless you love someone, nothing makes any sense. In one’s personal life, one can be redeemed from utter rottenness and futility, as I have been, by the reciprocated love of a good person. Still, there is no heroic effort or trial to be undergone in loving someone who provides emotional succour, sexual joy, laughs at one’s jokes, forgives one’s irritability: that’s a complacent, easy form of love. One must try to practise a higher Christian expression of love, extending to people are unruly, disobedient, unfamiliar, discordant and disruptive – just utter pests. We are enjoined as Christians not only to love our neighbours, but to welcome, respect and understand those who are far from our own social set, remote from our own experiences or opposed perhaps to our interests.
It’s not just about love, though. Auden believed, as I do, that unless one acknowledges the living, palpable existence of Original Sin – of Adam’s fall from grace and of humankind’s innate impulse to do evil – nothing makes any sense. I come to this church each week to strengthen my love, and in communal unity to wrestle with Original Sin, and the badness that one sees everywhere. If it is impossible to match the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, one can try to, consciously and daily, to be part of the never-ending skirmishes against Original Sin.
When Christ speaks of mercy, of giving comfort to the grieving, of peace-making, of brotherliness, or when he denounces ill-will, group persecution or individual vendettas, he is giving, I feel, the paramount Christian message. ‘Better to be a broken man than in the full tide of your well-being to find yourself in hell,’ says Christ; better to be submissive and unwanted than proud and assertive.
And now I turnto my experiences as a historian. In book after book, I have studied and analysed the decline of faith in the twentieth-century, and recounted some of the dismal consequences.
English Christianity after 1918 had the spiritual equivalent of a vitamin deficiency: after the Great War parishioners were numbed in their reflexes, and enfeebled in belief. In the 1920s 90,000 people panting for the kick-off at the Wembley cup final might sing ‘I need Thy presence every passing hour’, but they did not mean it. Church-going declined. There were 28 million baptised, 8 million confirmed and 2.75 million communicant members of the Church of England in 1927. Fewer people found the Incarnation and the Resurrection credible. Polite agnosticism characterised the decade as much as muscular Christianity or evangelicalism had been the previous generation’s orthodoxy. ‘Sin’ became a joke-word for many. Hell and theories of eternal punishment were dismissed as inventions to frighten people into behaving well. Prophesies and miracles were treated as if they were fungoid hallucinations. ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’ became merely the supreme example of a good man. This change in attitude was as momentous as any event in English history since the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. It resulted from the convergence of several influences: eighteenth-century scepticism; nineteenth-century Darwinism; disbelief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible; a new materialism which discredited ideals of personal service; and the bellicosity of many clerics during the 1914-18 War – their collusion with unethical, corrupting political leadership – which seemed to deny the gospel of the Prince of Peace.
But the turning point, I suggest, came in 1921 – and came as a revolt against the blatancy of Christian sexual hypocrisy and bogus moral scolding. How else can one explain the success of the two bestsellers of 1921, Robert Keable’s novel Simon called Peter and Somerset Maugham’s story ‘Rain’? Keable was a Cambridge graduate who had resigned holy orders to write his autobiographical novel. It describes a prudish army chaplain who loses his faith in the carnage of trench warfare, visits a brothel, and eventually goes to bed with a nurse who gives renewed meaning to his life. The book sold 600,000 copies during the 1920s, and had over sixty reprints. Comparably, Maugham’s ‘Rain’ gives an unforgiving picture of what was to become a stock type, a sexually repressed, punitive Protestant clergyman. In this case, a self-deluding vicar cuts his throat after raping the prostitute whom he has been persecuting with callous moralising. The story resonated with readers, for it was inspired three Hollywood film version between 1928 and 1953, with Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth cast as the persecuted harlot.
Few clergy, it seemed, preached against national pride, social injustice, economic disparity and backward thinking. They fussed about ‘necking’ in shadowy ‘cinema palaces’ or fulminated over mixed swimming in the Serpentine, but from the great issues of the time they fled.
In the 1980s I worked as a volunteer in a Notting Hill hospice called the London Lighthouse for people with AIDS. This was one of the great formative experiences of my life. I decided to write a history of sexually transmitted diseases, focussing on religious and social attitudes to syphilis and HIV, after reading an editorial in the Daily Express of 1986 which began: ‘Yesterday an 89 year old grandmother from Solihull rang us. She said: “The homosexuals who brought this plague upon us should be locked up. Burning is too good for them. Bury them in a pit and pour on quick-lime.’ And then the Daily Express editorial writer added: ‘The majority of Britons would appear to be in agreement.’
In my book I investigated how the Christian churches reacted to such unchristian ideas. I found that decade after decade Anglican clerics had prevented the provision of medical information on how to avoid venereal diseases, because they feared without the fear of retributive venereal infections, fornication would flourish. I found endless examples of an unchristian desire to punish rather than of a Christian desire to save. I found the Church of England making itself absurd, as when Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, told the House of Lords in 1934 that he wanted to make a bonfire of all the condoms in England and dance in jubilation around it.
We are no better now. Sexual policing is so little a part of the Christian message, and yet it is the only one that is heard in the nation. A month ago the Church of England Synod was dominated by the dispute about the status and value of same-sex relationships. This embittering controversy is increasingly all that non-Christians know of Anglicanism. And yet, at this time more than ever in my lifetime, more than at any time since the saturation bombing of Germany and the nuclear bombing of Japan, we need the Church of England to be giving ethical and spiritual guidance to our national leaders. Spiv politicians and editorial writers sneer against the Church playing politics, when it is not politics but Christian ethics, Christian decency, Christian decisions that we crave clerics to promote.
The Church of England has never been needed more in our national life. At the very time of the Synod, The Times reported that David Davies and Boris Johnson were mooting to the governments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Hungary that large chunks of the British government’s aid budget to Asia and Africa would be diverted to those central and eastern countries if they were amenable to British interests in the Brexit negotiations. I have hitherto voted Conservative, so I am not making a party point, when I say that this is the most unchristian, the most unconscionable proposal – that Original Sin rampages like a murderous ogre in the Cabinet – and that every Christian voice should be raised against such wickedness – against the xenophobia, the aggressive nationalism, the rejection of Syrian children – against the absolutely unchristian temper that denies mercy, or the possibility of sincere repentance, and scoffs at loving one’s neighbour.
At the time of the Synod, too, the Home Office announced that it would not give asylum to gay men who had fled for their lives from Afghanistan. These men were told to return to Afghanistan, and given the unforgivable danger that they were not be in danger ‘if they were not too obvious.’ The Anglican leadership stands complicit in such attitudes. The story made me think of a slender, delicate, effeminate Iranian, aged about twenty, who some years ago was welcomed to our services in his church. He was lonely, scared, depressed; told me that he was in England because the religious leaders of his district in Iran had told his father that unless the boy left at 24 hours’ notice & never returned, he would be tortured and put to death. This is a case where Christians should side with the persecuted, but instead seems with genteel casuistry to side with the persecutors.
I come to this church not to worry about how other men and women are messing about with their private parts, but because James Heard, with clarity, decency and resolve, gives Christian leadership, and represents Christian truth and not heathen post-truth. I pray that the Church of England, and our united benefice, can muster the power to resist the harsh and indeed infidel temper that has overtaken our world.
I end with a passage from Auden’s Christmas oratorio ‘For the Time Being’. It contains many glorious things, including a speech by Herod, in the smooth, cultivated phrases of a liberal rationalist, regretting the necessity of the massacre of innocents. The Narrator then intones, ‘To choose what is difficult all one’s day │As if it were easy, that is faith.’ And in the Chorale addressed to God, Auden describes the flawed ways that Christians use God’s teachings and reaffirms the supremacy of the Divine Purpose.
Though written by Thy children with
A smudged and crooked line
The Word is ever legible
Thy meaning unequivocal
And for Thy goodness even sin
Is valid for a sign.
Inflict thy promises with each
Occasion of distress
That from our innocence we
May learn to put our trust in Thee
And brutal fact persuade us
To Adventure Art and Peace.