Why Me? Clive Rowe, 10 March 2019

Why me?

It used to be fashionable to begin a talk with a text, so here is mine.

In the New Statesman for 20th April 2011 Prof Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford wrote:

“To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then humans have evolved; why human beings have the opportunity to mould their character and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else. In  fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God  makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.”


So then, good to be onto a winner?  Well, that is not what this talk is about. The

Professor’s remarks do, however, encourage one to look further into the question of

one’s Faith in God. So here is the story of my personal journey.


We have heard some wonderful accounts by others of theirs, not least from my wife

Gill.  I cannot hope to emulate these. I would like to start at the beginning and then,

jumping a few years, work through some troublesome questions.


I remember kneeling at bedtime with my mother to say my prayers when very young

maybe five years old.  The content was simple as one might expect.  I remember this

continued when I went away to boarding school at eight.  It was unstructured but 

compulsory.   This tied in with the compulsory attendance at Chapel morning and

evening every day. It was from this I acquired an abiding love of the Psalms and the

chants which we still use.  The routine of twice daily services but not the bedtime

prayers continued at public school and after Confirmation there was added voluntary

Communion, for a while bringing the Sunday services up to three.  I don’t think I  

questioned anything at this time.  It was what my wife has aptly called  conditioning.

 None the less it was significant for me and my nickname was the bishop.  The

 adherence to Faith at university was strong but shyness prevented any close

 involvement. Back in London Church attendance was spasmodic; I was attracted  by

 the angry fire and brimstone style of sermon (available for a while at Christ’s Church,

 Lancaster Gate before it became a block of flats and the incumbent  dispatched to

Guildford as Provost of the Cathedral).


It is time to move forward several years by which time I was on the St George’s Church

Committee and Church Treasurer and I decided to look at many  issues in greater

depth. I was soon lost in confusion. 


I borrowed from Revd. Michael Fuller a commentary on St John’s Gospel being

particularly interested in the first section ‘In the beginning was the Word ’which I had

read at Christmas services.  On reading the Commentary it seemed to me that there

were from the start two major issues.  Firstly there were a number of  references to

earlier non-Christian texts where the religious concepts or philosophies had first

appeared. So had the  Christian religion in whole or in part been cribbed from

elsewhere and repackaged?  Secondly the whole of the first section of that Gospel had

been written after the main body of the Gospel as a sort of introduction. And this

section was not written by St John. 


So who really was the author of this Gospel or indeed of the other books of the Bible ?


I believe the Old testament started as an oral tradition or perhaps one should say

several and finally came to be recorded in scrolls in the first or second century AD. I

think who wrote what when and who translated what when does matter. The author

or translator can after all choose what words are put on the page.


Equally, I think the confusing picture given in some places is clearly unfortunate as it

suggests that you can pick and choose what to believe.  If the world did not begin in

4004 BC or if anything else does not realistically fit in, are you free to treat it as poetry

or whatever? The trouble is that if you are free to do this, there is a serious difficulty

when you are considering what you can believe.


I believe the New Testament came to be more or less settled in the time of Emperor

Constantine in the sense that it became generally accepted that it comprised the 27

books that we have today and others were dropped. However, the text was not

uniform and what was included and what not, was not all plain sailing.  For example, by

convention some letters, credited with being written by St Paul, are included even

though they may almost certainly have been written by his supporters  (the letter to

the Hebrews for example).


I had a feeling at this point in my journey that I was about to slide into a sargasso sea

where all that was clear was my confusion and ignorance. Surely it was better to start

somewhere else. In a long complicated narrative what were the salient points?


The early Church as does the contemporary Church set out some basic principles of

Belief in the Creed. The Apostles Creed originally referred to the teaching in the time of

the Apostles themselves but it has  since been modified a number of times. In 325 at

Emperor Constantine’s persuasion the Bishops met at Nicaea and produced a more elaborate version now known as the Nicene Creed.  None the less the Apostles Creed which has not varied much for some time seemed to me to be a good starting point. Here is the version from Common Worship (2000):

I BELIEVE in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by [the power of]* the Holy Spirit                         *Roman Catholic version
and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended [into hell]** to the dead                                             ** 1662 Prayer Book
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. 


To my simple way of thinking, this Creed has, with relatively small changes, stood the test of time both in the Church of England and in other Christian Faiths.


However, there were two passages that I found particularly disturbing.  Maybe  the reference to descending “Into hell” / “to the Dead” which is difficult to grasp could be omitted. I believe also this was unacceptable to the Methodists. I mention this out of loyalty to my direct ancestor Revd John Richardson one of the senior lieutenants of the Wesleys.  Indeed he read the funeral service at John’s funeral in 1791 and is buried in the same tomb as John in the City Road in London.


The second passage relates to the belief (in the final paragraph) in the Holy Catholic Church ie the universal Church. Should the Church be protected in this way? Put another way should it be feather bedded against criticism?  Clearly it isn’t and probably like all institutions run by mankind never has been. There are, for example, differing forms of Christianity being practised today each differing in some way from its rivals. There is not just one Church.


What concerns me though is the position of the Church of England.  So for example

what of  the Church’s management or its involvement in politics.


I do think that any organisation should work well because if it doesn’t, it will

risk falling apart.  In my time as Treasurer I found myself at a special meeting of the

Deanery Synod devoted to finance. While there was a Diocesan budget, it was clear

that no one, particularly the Bishops, really adhered to it.  Financial control was far

from tight. Had things been better controlled maybe some of the financial decisions

made later might have been avoided. But did it matter to my journey of Faith?

Well not directly, but an organisation that is not run properly really damages its

chances of gaining or retaining  support.


What then of the Church’s involvement in politics?  I am sure the Church should not

see itself as another political party.  Political parties after all are in favour or out of it on

a regular basis.  No eternal truth there. However, the Church does have an important

role in public life.


For example, while it was a mistake to suggest backing one side rather than the

other in the Referendum, it would have been really  important from a long time before

the referendum was held and continuing now to give a proper lead on reconciliation

and tolerance.


Again, while it was really lame in the summer last year to approve one political party’s

proposals on education en bloc, it would be really important to make the case for Faith

schools in a world where many question their right to exist.


But does any political issue matter to my journey of faith?  Well not directly,

but the wise instruction is leave to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. Or as Jesus put it:

 Matthew 22:21 Jesus said "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."

Put more prosaically, an organisation that finds itself on the losing side of a political

discussion could prove to a section of the world at large that it deserves to be out of

favour or ignored.


Coming back to the Apostles Creed itself, it reads like a series of well crafted bullet

points. There are no cross references to the Bible nor are there any footnotes.  Happily

the world wide web (as does the wealth of literature before the world wide web came

into existence) provides dozens of Biblical cross references. I counted more than six

dozen. The totality of this evidence is convincing.  If you ask me therefore whether I

believe, I unequivocally say yes.


There are many things that flow from simplicity of belief: arguments over doctrine,

over issues from women bishops to incense and bells simply do not impinge on me.

In my time on the Church Committee every one was asked for views on doctrine from

time to time and they replied with vigour. However, to my mind the responses were

often based on a priori reasoning and suspect as a result. Be that as it may, the process

strongly reinforced my point of view that arguments over doctrine did not really

impinge on me.


So a simple Faith it is. But ah, you may say, you have not been put to a test.  That is

true and how I would stand up in a truly hostile environment I cannot say.  But shortly

after I had put this talk together, I found myself sitting next to a lady at dinner who

said: ‘you don’t really believe all that rubbish do you?’  How this question came about, I  

will conveniently forget but I do remember quietly and firmly putting her right.  The

more I spoke the more confident I felt. Not I hope confidence amounting to

arrogance or smugness, but I did feel that confidence that comes from knowing

where you are and you cannot ask for more than that.


St John the Baptist

Holland Road

10 March 2019.

Victoria O'Neill