Why Me? Sunday 18 March by Nicholas Mellor, United Benefice of Holland Park
Why Me Talks at United Benefice of Holland Park, Nicholas Mellor Sunday
Reflections on an Easter anthem in a cathedral in Malta
Last Easter, I was in the Cathedral of St Paul’s, in Malta; listening to Wesley’s Anthem ‘Blessed be[i] with its solo “Love one another”.
What a wonderful message, I thought and all around me I felt the richness of the Christian heritage; its liturgy, the sacred music and of course its architecture. It all had an added poignancy as Theo, our son was singing those words.
But going back to the Malta – which had drawn people together to die for their faiths. It made me wondered how on Earth I would describe my faith – and the limits to which I would go in adversity?
Thankfully between Malta and being asked by Peter to give this talk I went to confirmation service for my niece and nephew. Two of the young people being confirmed were asked to explain ‘why”. I listened to them and thought ‘That’s what I would have said if only I had thought of it’.
One spoke of their experience during a school exchange in South Africa. He was struck by
‘the warmth and inclusiveness of the people he met, in a region riven with division, distrust and violence’
He felt that it was the Christian ethos that had given that community, its warmth and resilience.
His friend commented:
‘It was not that I felt Christianity had all the answers, but I felt that it raised the right kind of questions’.
I don’t think I was so thoughtful at their age, but the churches of St Georges and St John’s[ii] have become a special community to me; the source of friendships spanning generations; a place for my wedding, Theo’s baptism, and celebrations of the lives of friends; and the space to explore the questions Christianity raises - in a complex, and uncertain world.
A spiritual life can seem so far away…. especially when you live in the shadow of Westfield shopping centre. But that is the wonderful thing about St John’s. You walk off the noisy, polluted Holland Road into a place of quiet, where the present and the past run together.
Patrick Leigh Fermor captures that magic in his book, A Time To Keep Silence. Initially he was seeking a monastery – I quote…“in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay while I continued to work on a book.” But he soon delights in the kindness of the monks, and their message of tranquillity ‘to quieten the mind and compose the soul.’
Curious, I followed in Leigh- Fermor’s footsteps to visit the Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes[iii]. A friend, Michele Tootah joined the Benedictine community of St Cecelia’s Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, and I use to visit her. Those visits, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh,
‘were a reminder that the world was an older and better place…..., that mankind in its long passion had learned wisdom’.
But it’s when I have left these shores that I have most appreciated by being brought up a Christian, and I would like to share two moments that brought a Christian faith into focus and relate to Wesley’s anthem.
In 1987 I travelled to Afghanistan to live with the mujahedeen. My aim was to immunise children[iv]. I hoped this would not only give the children a more secure future but provide a common ground to bring some of the different factions together …and thereby sow a seed of peace. I also hoped such goals would indemnify me from the risks of travelling in a country torn apart by war… It was perhaps also an excuse for an adventure inspired by books I had read…. growing up…... although my family would say growing up was still Work-in-Progress.
Collaborating with a French group from Marseille, I met a mujahideen and Sufi leader, Amin Wardakh who was prepared to support the venture and protect us. Under his patronage; vaccines, two nurses and myself were smuggled into the country. We embarked on our clandestine immunisation programme using his mountain hideout or Markaz as our base, walking between the villages, relying on a donkey to carry our cold boxes of vaccines, sleeping hidden in caves and sometimes in the mosques.
The days were punctuated by prayers either facing Mecca or cross-legged on the floor around the communal bowl of food. Sometimes I was invited to say their Grace. I learnt that for Amin and his mujahedeen it mattered that I was Christian, that I had a belief, distinguishable from the perceived nihilism of their communist invaders and the urban elite who had believed had invited the Russians to enter their country.
On another flank of the mountain there was a different faction of mujahedeen, supported by Wahibis from Saudi Arabia which included the young Bin Laden. It quickly became apparent that with their intolerance and zealotry they were just as much of a threat to our work – and my life - as the Communists. Often Amin’s men put their lives on the line to keep me safe, hiding from these extremists in mosques or on one occasion beneath a table of pomegranates.
It taught me that my Christian identity was more important that I had first realised, and how an open approach to religion and a love for our common humanity can bring people together in the most difficult of circumstances. It also showed me how religious beliefs can polarise and divide; and that the margin between the two can be very narrow indeed.
The second story is about finding direction in an uncertain world. Are we stardust in a fleeting and inconsequential moment in time and space? A question that raises its head when you listen to a physicist like Brian Cox. It’s also a question that stalks you when you feel the emptiness after someone you love has died. Both my father and Michele had died shortly before Christmas.
How fleeting their lives seemed, as on Christmas Eve, I walked down a wooded path to midnight mass in a small Suffolk church. I thought of the lessons they had taught me, the joys shared with them, and the challenges we had faced together. Sources of inspiration, happiness and resilience that will endure.
That took me back to a Christmas Eve 26 year ago. I was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean with my parents and a few close friends whilst sailing off the coast of East Africa in an Arab Dhow.
Just a single plank floated to the surface and we clung on to it along with the crew for hours as we drifted east - towards the coast of India - a landfall we knew we would never make. It was strange to be fully conscious of one’s imminent mortality, but not to be in pain nor feeling lonely.
By an extraordinary chance the currents that sweep along the coast of Africa, along with the off-shore wind directed us to a tiny bit of coral reef. A speck in an ocean without any sight of land. As we curled together on the angular rock, the tide rose, and the sun set. It grew dark and very cold. Our clothes were just damp rags, our skin blistered from the sun, and the only balm was the guano from the sea birds with whom we shared the rock.
Hungry and very thirsty we had much to sap our spirits, but the plank had created a particular fellowship, underpinned by an enduring love that I knew would be there to the bitter end.
A Muslim fisherman sailed by on Christmas morning, saw us, and sailed off to fetch help. At that moment the darkness and peril that seemed all enveloping during that night of Christmas Eve dissipated[v]. We were not safe, but we had real hope, and that is what I realise we are given each Christmas….and each Easter…... with Jesus’s message.
In the years since I have grown fond of the ‘Cwm Rhondda’ – ‘Guide me o thou Great redeemer’. And particularly its words ‘Lead me all my journey through[vi]’ This is important when you have married a Welsh Girl.
In Wesley’s Easter anthem the treble solo soars in the middle: ‘Love one another’. I still hear it echoing amongst the vaults of that cathedral in Malta. For me, Wesley’s message and the Christian faith, is the surest guide in a complex and uncertain world’ especially trying to follow Tom’s rather dangerous advice from last year.
‘Be wary of respectability. Be wary of conformity. Be wary of safety. Stay vulnerable. Stay fully alive. At the cusp’
Thank you for this privilege of sharing these reflections with you.
[i] S S Wesley noted in his diary that this anthem ‘Blessed be the God and Father’ was written for evensong on Easter Day at Hereford in 1835 when only a “handful of raucous trebles and a single bass were available.” The bass in question is believed to have been the bishop’s butler.
[ii] My link with the benefice and neighbourhood
My parents moved to Holland Park when I was four from Nottinghamshire, near Southwell Minister. An ethereally beautiful pale grey building with its long and rich heritage. From Sheffield Terrace we walked most Sundays to St George’s. That was in the 60s when Father Gibbs was there. Later I went away to school, where the whole community came together for chapel each evening. The passing of each feverish day was marked by the stillness of prayers and a moment of reflection. I returned to live in Peel Street on Notting Hill in the 90s during the era of Simon Acland and Michael Fuller. I married my wife in St Georges, and a few years later we christened our son, Theo, in St Georges. A few years ago, I moved down to Notting Dale closer to St John’s. For over ten years I organised a carol service at St Francis in Pottery Lane. Now our house looks out onto St James’s.
[iii] The abbey's influence was transformed in the 19th and 20th centuries by Dom Guéranger; under whose guidance the Abbey’s library became one of the most complete archives of Gregorian liturgy and chant.
[iv] I misguidedly thought I might be able to negotiate a ceasefire in order to do this. This was not without precedent. I had read about a cease-fire negotiated on public health grounds during the Gallipoli campaign by Aubrey FitzHerbert who was the inspiration for John Buchan’s character ‘Greenmantle’. UNICEF had more recently successfully negotiated days of tranquillity to immunise children during the civil wars in El Salvador and the Lebanon.
[v] The fisherman could not safely approach the reef and sailed back to the coast for help – and we were eventually rescued by a friend, Christopher Besse and then looked after by his aunt Dr. Anne Spoerry one of the pioneers of the Flying Doctor service in East Africa (AMREF).
[vi] written by William Williams, a forebear of my wife, Amanda.