That would be an ecumenical matter

Small personal update. I’ve just spent two days on a bid-writing retreat, organised to support people working in Humanities departments at my university – criminologists (like me), sociologists, linguists, historians, geographers and a lawyer or two. ‘Retreat’ was the operative word – it was a very quiet two days, rather solitary in fact. This was very much thanks to the venue, a huge Victorian house run since the mid-70s by a Christian community. One door had a sign saying that the room beyond was reserved for quiet meditation; it turned out to be a large, light and well-furnished living room, in which I could have meditated quietly for hours or more. The atmosphere was scarcely any less tranquil when the room had been occupied by five people staring at laptops.

I had a bit of trouble with my bid. I got a permanent position in 2010 and applied myself fairly concentratedly to teaching for the next couple of years. Now that I’ve cleared a bit of time and headspace for research, I keep finding I’ve had a brilliant idea which somebody else has already researched or written about – very often within the last two years, infuriatingly enough. (Or, most infuriatingly of all, a brilliant idea which has superficial but obvious similarities to part of a research project that somebody else has carried out within the last couple of years. Not that I’m bitter.) Anyway, I ended up essentially ripping up my original idea and starting again – a productive but difficult process which can’t really be done while sitting in front of a laptop. Standing up is involved – pacing, ideally; there is generally speech, also, or muttering at the very least.

In search of a room to pace and mutter, I found myself in a sunroom on the first floor. I did some quite useful rethinking, then looked around and noticed the books. I’d seen a couple of bookcases around the place and taken a vague bibliophilic interest in the religious texts in them, but the books in the sunroom were something else. There were books in that room I hadn’t seen in five years – ten, even: books that I’d last seen on my parents’ bookshelves. (My father died in 2001, my mother in 2006; they were both pillars of the local church and had been all my life.) Then I noticed the chairs – two in particular out of the many armchairs in that one room (that house was extraordinarily well upholstered). They were old-style high-backed armchairs, well-used, in covers with a light-coloured William Morris-ish floral pattern. I’d seen chairs covered with that particular material before – specifically, I’d seen them in my parents’ living room. When we’d set about clearing the house there had been some discussion with a Christian group, although it didn’t come to anything (fire regulations); I wondered for a moment if some less discriminating charity had come back later and scooped up chairs and books and all. They would then need to have transported them to the other end of the country, though, which I realised was unlikely. It was an odd moment. At the end of the first chapter of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The unconsoled (very minor spoiler), the narrator looks around his Central European hotel room and is reminded momentarily of his boyhood bedroom, before being struck by the realisation that it is his boyhood bedroom – the room he remembers so fondly has been rebuilt in this distant city, especially for him. This was a bit too close to that scene for comfort.

But of course (I reminded myself) there are lots of armchairs out there covered with Morris-esque florals. And, when I really looked, it turned out that most of the books I’d recognised actually weren’t books I’d seen on my parents’ bookshelves – not within the last ten years, at any rate. They were books, and authors, like these:

Michel Quoist
Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)
Paul Tillich (The Courage to Be)
Don Cupitt
Rollo May’s Love and Will
The Truth of God Incarnate (this stood out a bit; it was written as a riposte to The Myth of ditto, which would have fitted much better but wasn’t there)
Bias to the Poor
Colin Morris (Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor)
The ‘Honest to God’ Debate (although not John Robinson’s Honest to God itself)
The New Inquisition (a critical commentary on the excommunication of Hans Küng)
a book taking a positive view of Taizé
a book taking a positive view of Pentecostalism

And now the trapdoor of memory really opened. Never mind ten years, these were books I hadn’t seen in thirty years or more; many were books I hadn’t even thought of in thirty years. They were still instantly familiar: they gave me the same kind of jolt of recognition that you get when you dream of meeting someone who’s died – “why did I think I’d forgotten you?”. (Even as I write it I’m struck by how eerie the simile is, but it is apt. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, and I think books are particularly rich in them.) Some of these were books that my parents had had in the house where I grew up, and turned out when they moved to Brighton in the mid-1980s; some were books that had been on the lending shelf in our local church, or on the freely-lent-from bookshelves in the Rectory, where the Rector’s wife used to keep open house for artists, musicians and local kids.

In short, as I looked around that room I was breathing the air of a certain kind of church in the 1970s (where ‘church’ means the community more than the building). I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. As well as being ecumenical as regards other Christians, being a Christian in a church like this meant being non-literalistic and generally non-doctrinaire on the Christian story itself. (When David Jenkins said that the Resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”, he was very much talking our language: as if to say, we’ll concede the flesh-and-blood resurrection if that means we can talk about what the Resurrection actually means. Shame it didn’t come across like that.) It meant not believing that you, or your church, had all the answers, or that anybody did (apart from God); it meant not worrying too much about being saved but believing that there was work to be done in this life (in the words of the Christian Aid motto, “We believe in life before death”). More specifically, it meant taking Jesus seriously when he talked about the eye of the needle and giving away your coat and the sheep and the goats. The Christians I met when I went away to university were all about Biblical literalism and accepting Jesus as your personal saviour; it was like going from seminars on number theory to being drilled in multiplication tables, badly. I never really went back to the church after that; I visited my parents’ new church in Brighton a few times and got to know the vicar (he preferred ‘priest’), but it wasn’t the same kind of church – higher, quieter, more doctrinally orthodox, less radical politically.

All of this is, of course, rather a long time ago; when you’re looking back at the age of 52, the people you had around you in your teens are often not there any more. Around 1979, the Rector moved on and was replaced by a new Rector (who didn’t much hold with the intellectual stuff and certainly didn’t hold with the ‘open house’ thing). Around 1984, my parents moved to Brighton. In the 1990s, the Rector died (fairly young, unexpectedly), and the new Rector retired (I don’t know who replaced him). The years since 2000 have seen the deaths of my father, the vicar in Brighton (who also died young and unexpectedly), my mother and the Rector’s widow. (My entire academic career to date has taken place in the same period, and most of it since my mother died – a disjuncture in time which made it particularly poignant to be faced by those books in that setting.) It’s as if the books had outlived their readers. Michel Quoist and Teilhard, Honest to God and Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor: names like these make up a picture, for me, but it’s not a picture I can easily check out with anyone else. Memory can be lonely, even when it’s supported by tangible things; perhaps especially then. Maybe that’s another, not too strained, reading of sunt lacrimae rerum – “these are the tears of things”: tears which the things keep to themselves until somebody strikes the rock and draws them out.

All this in a few minutes – it was a dense experience as well as an odd one – in between pacing and muttering. As for my bid, having abandoned something about subjective experiences of procedural justice, I came away with an idea about subjective experiences of the rule of law – much more exciting. (It actually is much more exciting as far as I’m concerned, which hopefully will make for a more persuasive bid; I should certainly be able to dedicate more of myself to it.) It would make a better story if I said I would now be conducting research on the inter-generational construction of non-denominational religious identities, or something, but reality is obdurate. Besides, I need to keep something for the blog.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 28 April 2013 at 05:28 | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for that post Phil.

    The memories you brought back brought many memories back for me, and the names of some familiar tomes. A time when ecumenicalism was an ideal, a pinnacle to be climbed; without thinking too much about some of your sisters and brothers in Christ in some of the more distant denominations and how they really thought.

    Your phrase, “it was like going from seminars on number theory to being drilled in multiplication tables, badly,” is going to stay with me for some time.

    And good luck with that bid on experiential,client-centric criminology (rule of law) or however it shapes up.

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