Through a glass darkly – 56

Unlike Jonathan Goodall, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet [and a wholly invisible contemporary at Wycliffe Hall in the late-mid 1980s], who has just left the Church of England to join the Church of Rome,  I’ve never had any desire to be a Roman Catholic. Much as I like several Catholic priests, mainly French,  there are aspects of the institutional church that I am very uneasy with;  an underlying misogyny, an over-attachment to clerical garb, usually in funereal black with a Masonic tinge;  and a wholly inappropriate possessiveness towards [and a presumed ownership of] the sacraments.

But, as someone pointed out to me the other day, most of the Christian writers whose works I have appreciated in the past couple of years are Catholics; Hans Küng, Jürgen Moltmann, and now Herbert McCabe. I guess that my reading has always been pretty random. And/or maybe I’ve been reading the wrong kind of Protestants ?

Herbert McCabe

McCabe, who died in 2001 at the age of 74, was a Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher. After time as a pastor in Newcastle, three years as Chaplain at De La Salle College, and a spell in Cambridge, he spent many years teaching at Blackfriars in Oxford. His lifelong work concerned the study of Thomas Aquinas, and he combined a radical, left-wing approach to political questions [he was a powerful critic of the Vietnam War] with an otherwise orthodox faith. When he died the obituaries said that he was a better speaker than a writer, who produced sparkling sermons but no major books. Thanks to the omniscient Abe Books, I’ve been looking at an old copy of Love, Law, and Language, based on his 1967 lectures at the University of Kent. 

Law, Love, and Language

I didn’t know when I bought the book that it is an exploration of Ethics, based on lectures given in 1967. We did a certain amount of ethics when I was at Wycliffe, taught by David Atkinson who subsequently became Bishop of Thetford. The course, as I recall, consisted of a series of lectures, and the writing of essays on some familiar topics; divorce and re-marriage [only men and women in those days]; the rights and wrongs of abortion; work and unemployment. And the first port of call for most of these topics was John Stott’s 1984 book Issues facing Christian Today, a careful look at questions that face Christians and non-Christians alike.

McCabe starts somewhere else. He starts by identifying three ways of thinking about ethics: as a matter of loving;  as a matter of obeying the law;  as a matter of talking to people.

Situation ethics

He acknowledges that the proposition ‘all you need is love’ is increasingly popular [in 1967] among Christian theologians. Partly because Jesus makes a strong contrast between the gospel and the legalism of the Pharisees.  But, McCabe insists [following Aquinas], Jesus does not set aside the moral law in favour of love. He only sets aside the customs and ritual practices of Israel.

The moral good act is not the act prescribed by some moral law, it is whatever love demands in a particular situation’ is the mantra of situation ethics. But there are major problems with this approach: first, the situationist may be setting aside major moral issues; and, second, he may be allowing concern for people he knows to take precedence over others. “Every moral problem is a problem about who is to get hurt” [McCabe]

Ethics as Law

To be subject to law implies membership of a community. Mankind is thus constituted by biological exchanges and by linguistic exchanges. In a biological community, members seek their own survival and refrain [largely] from killing each other.  Though McCabe, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War comments: “man seems to be the only animal that goes in for infra-specific violence on a really large and destructive scale.”

In a linguistic community, things are not so clear-cut. Road signs may give information [Beware of the sheep] or commands [30 mph]. Laws exist both for my welfare and for the welfare of the group as a whole. Why should the community make decisions for me ? Is it that they are more intelligent ? Or is it the need for predictability. Hence driving on the left, speed limits etc. 

If a linguistic community needs laws, does mankind need laws ? Aquinas sees ‘natural law’ as coming from God; the Ten Commandments are both a definition of man and a revelation of God. McCabe says that natural laws help us to be the people we really want to be. He quotes approvingly [if surprisingly] DH Lawrence: man has a double set of desires, and it is the business of Chief Thinkers to tell us how we ought to want to behave.

Ethics as Language

McCabe insists that language is what distinguishes man from other animals. Communication is in essence about sharing a common life. All shared vital activity is some form of communication. In man communication reaches a new intensity, it becomes language. Learning to live with strangers is a matter of adopting the rhythms of their life. [Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”] Language is a product of the community, not of the individual. Meanings are ways of being with each other. [Wittgenstein: “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”.]

Ethics is almost universally supposed to be concerned with the difference between right and wrong; but McCabe insists that “this however is a mistake”. The purpose of ethics is about “enabling us to enjoy life more by responding to it more sensitively”. Bad cheap behaviour devalues the structures of human meaning.  [Was he anticipating the present UK government ?] Morality is rather the attempt to live our lives in meaningful, deep communication with others.

The word as love

The centre of the gospel is that in Jesus Yahweh communicates himself wholly to us. “The coming of Jesus is not just the coming of a virtuous man; … it is the coming of a new humanity.” Jesus offers himself not just as a blueprint for a new kind of society; but as the centre of this new society.

Resurrection means that, because of his link with the Father in Christ, a man can [re-] discover his identity on the far side of death. In Paul’s writings, resurrection is always about sharing in Christ’s resurrection.

In a striking phrase, McCabe insists, the business of the church is ‘to remember the future’.  The sacraments are there as symbols of the presence of Christ in a future world. Thus baptism is not about church membership; it is the sacrament of  the membership of mankind [cf Romans 6:3]. Sacraments are the intersection of the present world with the world to come. “Those who share the sacraments form a community, or better a movement, in the world.”

The Christian reaches out beyond this world, to a world of freedom  and of real communication between men. The Gospel is not about the soul, not about a private and interior world. Morality is not primarily about sex; not about whether and when people should go to bed together. For McCabe, Christianity is not about proposing a set of moral principles [although such principles are a part of our Christian faith]. “Christianity is essentially about our communicating with each other in Christ, about our participation in the world of the future.” 


I guess I’m still trying to come to terms with some parts of this quite short book.[And I am totally unschooled in both Aquinas and Wittgenstein, who are McCabe’s principal points of reference.] We are given a bigger vision here than those books which rehearse the for and against arguments of key moral issues.  Language is for McCabe clearly the distinguishing feature of humanity. We are all intrinsically in conversation with others, and ethics is what guides our actions and interactions. 

Obituarists say that McCabe was a better speaker and preacher than writer, and that his written output was quite modest. It would be good to hear more [know mpre] of his thinking on the role and nature of the church.  I am both challenged and inspired by the notion that our central business is to “remember the future”. Especially when some churches seem determined to reinvent the golden age of the past. And I suspect that his radical understanding of the sacraments would not have endeared him to the church which he served.

September 2021

Through a glass darkly – 55

Not gone to Birmingham

We should be in Birmingham. Except that we haven’t gone there. We are still in Edinburgh. My younger brother, Peter, has a 70th birthday this weekend. Sadly he isn’t very well: what he thought was long COVID turned out to be a brain tumour. He was bravely going ahead with a party beside the river outside Evesham. But his daughter, Rosie, has diagnosed positive for COVID, and so the party is off. At least for the time being. He’s feeling pretty low at the moment, probably a reaction to hefty doses of radio- and chemo-therapy. Pray for him if you will. And for his wife Alice.

Home in Edinburgh

We were going to stay with my older brother and his wife in Birmingham. But their daughter is in a bad place too, so instead we are unexpectedly at home. I realise that I am not very good at being flexible; at making plans, or in this case altering them, at short notice. But we began Thursday by walking down to Waverley Station to talk to the booking office. It seems that one of the by-products of COVID is that LNER are refunding in full all tickets unused because of illness. Even the cheapo Advance Singles that we had bought. A big Thank You to Kate, the Refund Queen.

Susie below Waterloo Bridge, Edinburgh

In a spirit of adventure we took the far back exit from the station, and came out in Calton Road with a fine view of the neo-classical Waterloo Bridge above us. The bridge was built, or at least begun, in 1815 in order to connect the previously isolated Calton Hill with the eastern end of Princes Street. It bridges what was a steep ravine and the main arch is some fifty feet above the street below.

Calton New Burial Ground with Arthur’s Seat behind

A little further down the street we came to the historic Calton New Burial Ground. This was built as a supplement to Old Calton Burial Ground, and sits on a steep south-facing slope. Near the entrance are the tombs of the Stevenson family of light-house builders, one of whom was the father of Robert Louis Stevenson.  In the top corner there is a romantic looking watch tower, built to deter body-snatchers. The tower was apparently occupied as a house until the 1950s, and was once occupied by a family with ten children. The cemetery offers splendid views south-east over Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament towards Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags.

Calton New Burial Ground with Holyrood behind

A walk round Loch Leven

The following day I took the  X.56 bus across the bridge and up to Kinross to walk round Loch Leven. The circuit is about 19.5kms, depending on which website you believe; plus a bit more for getting to and from the bus stop. The surrounds of the loch are a Nature Reserve, and there is a surfaced cycle path all the way.  Which means rather a lot of lycra-clad cyclists !

It’s an easy, flat walk with a total dénivelage of about 20 metres ! The RSPB information centre and cafe at Vane Farm below Benarty Hill is currently closed pending renovations. But there is a pop-up cafe, which serves excellent coffee together with a fine view over the eastern end of the loch.

Loch Leven from Vane Farm

Apple were doing one of those enormously frustrating things, demanding my Apple user name and password, and a 4-digit code [I don’t have one] before I could open my phone. Eventually I got it to work, to take a few photos and to tell Susie where I was. 

The sluice gate, Loch Leven

It was a busy day at the tiny Scotlandwell airfield with several gliders being towed into the air. I remembered how these silent, silver apparitions used to spook Gus,  our Border collie, when we walked him on Bishop Hill some thirty years ago on the way to Concern for Scotland meetings with Stephen Anderson in Perth.  It’s funny how the second half of the walk seemed significantly longer than the first half. But there was still time for a pot of tea and a chocolate brownie in Kinross before getting back on the bus for Edinburgh.

Scotlandwell and Bishop Hill behind

And I sat on the bus coming home just wondering whether to have a go at [some part of] the Camino [to Santiago de Compostella] next year. Will the daily stages be too long ? Do I know anyone who might like to walk with me ? At roughly the same pace. 

Chris Martin

August 2021 

Through a glass darkly – 54


We had an excellent early summer here in Edinburgh; dry and sunny with the temperature hovering around  23ºC.  Good weather for enjoying the garden. And also for church walks. But now it is raining again. I feel for our children who are heading for the Scottish Highlands in a camper-van. For the little girls the highlight of the week may be an excursion on the Hogwarts Express across the Glenfinnan viaduct. At home I am turning the pages of Abroad by Paul Fussell, a survey of British literary travelling between the wars. Fussell is a North American Professor of English Literature. He wrote a very good book [published in 1975] on The Great War and Modern Memory, looking at the literature of the First World War and its influence on writers that followed.

Paul Fussell: Abroad

Abroad [published 1980] is a slimmer book, a discursive survey of British travel writers between the wars, an elegy for the lost art of travel before it was overtaken by tourism. Some of these writers have more or less disappeared from public view, such as Patrick Balfour and Norman Douglas; Robert Byron, who looked like Queen Victoria and who drowned in 1941 when his ship was  torpedoed on the way to Africa, is remembered only for The Road to Oxiana; and Evelyn Waugh, remembered more as a Catholic apologist and novelist rather than travel writer. 

Fussell notes the emergence of the Mediterranean as the preferred destination for many travellers. Which involved redeeming the sun from the social stigma it had borne in the previous century. When the young Rupert Mayne went out to India, his parents told him that “the three most dangerous things I had to watch out for in the East were wine, women, and the sun.” Ironically these were the very things that drew travellers to the Mediterranean in the 1920’s. André Gide, Hermann Hesse and D.H. Lawrence all wrote of the therapeutic effect of [nude] sunbathing. Cyril Connolly created a sensation in the 1920’s by suggesting that the time for the Riviera was not, as had been previously assumed, the winter season but the very hottest summer months.

Les premiers pas

This is the time of year, perhaps relatedly, when I am nostalgic for cross-Channel ferries. Sixty years ago this month was my first venture overseas. In the summer of 1961 Paul and I spent a month or so working at Battersea Fun Fair making popcorn with a girl called Mary [Ricky Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou was in the charts at the time]; going home at 10.30pm every night when Goodnight Sweetheart came over the loudspeakers. I’ve never really liked popcorn since. And then it was time to apply for a first passport [it didn’t take so long in those days; I think our applications may even have been dealt with on the spot at the offices in Petty France]; to renew our YHA [Youth Hostel Association] membership; and to buy a train ticket to Paris. And a return boat trip across the Channel. I think we got some traveller’s cheques too. Our budget for three weeks was £15.00 each.

1961 passport

Arriving at the Gare du Nord showed the deficiencies of my five years of school French. We had done endless grammar exercises and vocab lists, dictations and French prose composition. But not spent any time on the spoken language, on speaking and listening skills. Asking the way from a man in uniform [I thought all policemen were gendarmes in those days] was met with a vacant stare.

We stayed in a UNESCO hostel in the Boulevard Emile Levasseur, down in the wilds of the 13ème arrondissement, not far from the Porte d’Ivry. The cost was 1,60F a night for bed [in dormitory accommodation] and breakfast [bowls of what was probably coffee and chicory and buttered baguette].  The exchange rate in those days was about 13.00F to the UK pound. So I guess the hostel was costing us about 15p a night ! But it was a long time ago.

On our first evening we went to a local cafe, bought two glasses of wine at the bar, and took them outside to sit on the terrasse.  Cue an angry exchange with the waiter who was being bypassed. It was a year of tensions in Algeria. The 13ème had a sizeable North African population and we were a bit shocked to see frequent street patrols of French soldiers with sten guns. [This was more than two decades before similar scenes in Northern Ireland.] We spent a day, perhaps two, with Charlie, an Austrian from the hostel, who foolishly larked about shouting ‘Je suis plastiqueur’.

Paris in the 1960s

I don’t remember having a guide book, but we must have had some kind of map. On the first day we took the Métro, noisy trains, connecting tunnels with a warm smell of sweat, dust, urine, and Gitanes, to Palais Royale, the Tuileries gardens, and Place de la Concorde.  We walked up  the Champs Elysées, took the lift to the top of the Arc de Triomphe; and then walked to Invalides. In the afternoon we took the Métro again and climbed the steps to look at the Sacré Coeur. It was a long, hot day. My overwhelming impression was of monumental buildings and very wide roads ! On the second day we did Notre Dame, the Boul Mich, and the Left Bank. Then we slowed down a bit. We spent two afternoons in the Louvre and were a bit underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa. 

Heading for the Med

One of the myths in those days was that you could search the streets of Les Halles, find a lorry with an 06 or a 13 registration [Alpes Maritimes or Bouches-du-Rhône], and secure a one-stop lift down the Mediterranean. Easy ! But it didn’t work. We spent two sleepless nights at les Halles. And discovered that none of the lorries were returning directly south.  Making that discovery cost us two nights trying unsuccessfully to sleep on Paris street benches. Very uncomfortable !. 

Les Halles, 1960s

Our first day on the road, pre-motorway [I think there was a motorway, but not for hitchhikers] took us to Fontainebleau, about 40 kilometres. Fontainebleau was the elephants’ graveyard of hitchhikers in the 1960s. In the morning there were couples and small groups hitchhiking south of the carrefour as far as you could see. A second night in the youth hostel where Paul picked up a flea. Our third night was in the hostel at Dijon. The fourth night we bedded down in a hotel garden at Tournus before the night porter invited us to sleep in the reception area. On the fifth day a young man in a Citroen DS swept us south down the Rhône Valley, round Lyon [of which I remember nothing], stopped to buy nougat at a motorway service area near Montélimar, and eventually dropped us off in Aix. From where we made our way down to Marseille. The Med at last !

We had three days along the coast in La Ciotat, trying hard not to notice the shipyards, followed by two nights in Cassis. On the road we had lived exclusively as I recall off ham sandwiches, made with crisp baguettes and what is now called ‘artisan’ ham. At La Ciotât we lay on the beach every day, all day, covered in a generous layer of brown Ambre Solaire. In the evening we bought eggs in a paper bag, butter cut from a slab and wrapped in grease-proof paper, and giant, mis-shapen tomatoes from a little old woman in an alimentation générale, and ate tomato omelettes. In the evening we played ping-pong in the hostel. Every night we shed a few more layers of skin. Before returning to the beach in the morning.

Cassis was different.The youth hostel was out on the cliffs, quite isolated. It seemed to attract amorous young men with guitars and girls of assorted nationalities. The whole thing was like a prequel for A nous les petites anglaises. We were a bit out of our depth.  There was a long, stony descent to the sea and glorious swimming.

Cassis youth hostel

Homeward bound

Getting home was a bit of a struggle. After nearly three weeks we were seriously short of funds. A couple of guys from Manchester had offered us a lift back north from outside Nimes. We spent an evening at a bullfight at the amphitheatre in Nimes with a predatory gay [the word hadn’t yet been invented], and stayed with him overnight. It was a troubled night, and next day the promised lift didn’t materialise. We made a swift Plan B decision. We bought the cheapest railway tickets that we could identify, took the train to Marseilles, and boarded the express to Paris. Without tickets. It was a very hot day and a very crowded train [French army reserves had been called up because of a crisis in Berlin]. For which reason there were no ticket collectors. Many hours later at the Gare de Lyon we were stopped briefly but made a run for it.

The next day we hitched back to the coast. Our last night in France was in a cinema porch somewhere up the N1. It was no more comfortable than the Paris bench. But the very kind cafe owner next-door brought us coffee and ham sandwiches [again] in the morning, without any suggestion of payment. Later that day we were home in south London, broke and hungry and flea-bitten{Paul] – but happy.


The trip seems a long time ago. I have forgotten a lot, and I remember mostly trivial things. The sound of flipper machines in French cafes. Early Shadows records on French juke-boxes. The idiosyncratic suspension of the Citroen DS. Long straight French roads with three lanes [… one lane in the middle for idiots to kill themselves]. Roads with steep cambers and a mass of loose chippings. The heat of the Mediterranean. The smell of Ambre Solaire. Putting big plastic bottles of Coca Cola in the edge of the sea to keep them cool. The distinctive blue overalls of French railways workers.

We have lived in France twice since then; in Paris in the 1970s, and more recently in Lyon. I’m sorry not to be going back there just yet.

August 2021

Through a glass darkly – 53


We are officially in transition. Blustering Boris has rolled the dice and, under pressure from libertarian back-bench Tory MPs, has decided to scrap all domestic COVID restrictions; goodbye to face coverings, and hello again to indoor gatherings and night clubs. Unsurprisingly COVID infection numbers are doubling every week or so. The numbers of those pinged to self-isolate is going through the roof, and it now includes Boris and Rishi Sunak since the new Health Secretary went down with COVID.  Sajid Javid was an odd appointment: he seems to know [and care] more about the state of the economy than the nation’s health. The general consensus is that hapless Hancock’s very public fall from grace lets a lot of people off the hook. Boris can now blame bad decision making throughout the epidemic on the departed Hancock. While not having to summon up the strength to fire him. And Hancock himself, now said to be living in a very small bubble on the South Coast with Mrs CocaCola, may no longer have to answer questions about cronyism, and the way that contracts for PPE were awarded to his family and friends [and local pub landlord].

Domestically transition has not made an enormous difference to us. We have had Susie’s cousins to tea, new friends to dinner, and an old friend from Balliol and his wife to lunch. Much of the eating taking place in the garden. Summer has arrived with long days of sunshine and temperatures climbing steadily to around 23ºC. Since the tempestuous rains that have devastated parts of Belgium and West Germany have not [yet] arrived, we are into regular watering. I see that the German floods are described here in the press as ‘biblical’, a word otherwise not much in use.

Outwith the house I have been out a couple of times with a walking group from St Peter’s. The first outing was to a corner of the Pentlands that was new to me;  a circular walk from the bus terminus at Torphin, across the former golf course, round Torduff and Cubbiedean reservoirs, now both disused, and back again past Torphin quarry. Then last week we walked on the south Fife coast, from Elie to St Monan’s. It is just over two hours on the X60 bus to Elie, across the bridge and through a succession of little Fife villages, but thereafter a glorious walk by the sea.

Elie beach

Elie is a distinctly classy place, full of dignified, second homes for Edinburgh folk. More than a decade ago I applied, thoughtlessly, for a post-retirement job there, as non-stipendiary Rector of Elie and Pittenweem. We had been ten years or so in Lyon, and thought that this might be a way of getting back to Scotland while Susie’s Mum was still alive in Edinburgh. We came over from Lyon, and were graciously put up in a B&B and taken out to dinner by a couple of families on the Friday night. That was the best bit. The following day we were shown the church at Elie, a tin tab dating from c. 1908.

Elie church

There was a harmonium played by the last Rector but two. His wife turned the pages, but “he wouldn’t play any of those modern choruses”. They couldn’t remember when they last had a baptism. The subsequent interview went badly wrong. I did a presentation on how to grow a small congregations. Which didn’t provoke much interest. They asked if I would be bored there. I think I said that I would enjoy walking the coastal path with a dog. They asked about midweek activities. I suggested maybe a prayer meeting  No great interest. Then a Midweek Communion. No real response. With a bring-and-share lunch to follow. Hmmm. Finally I suggested that we might have a midweek group on How to die graciously ?. That was really the end of the interview. And I went home, chastened but happy, to Lyon. With hindsight I think that was ‘failed transition’. 


In his On being a Christian [see TaGD 47], Hans Küng suggests that novelists and poets often have a deeper insight into Jesus’s person and ministry than theologians. In this connection one of the books that he mentions is Barabbas, a novel by the Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist. I had never heard of the book nor of its author [the book won the Nobel prize for literature in 1951]. But thanks to Abe Books I was able to track down a second-hand copy in North America. Barabbas is the notorious prisoner released by Pilate at the demand of the crowd [Matthew 27: 11-26]. Lagerkvist tells us the story of the man whose life was exchanged for that of Jesus, and begins with the crucifixion which Barabbas witnesses with his own eyes on the hill of Golgotha. It is quite a short book, written [or at any rate translated from Swedish] into uncomplicated English.

Barabbas is quite simply a man condemned to have no God.  Although, as Christian readers of the book, we might feel that God is calling him directly on numerous occasions. His response to the crucifixion is to get drunk with strangers in a tavern. One of the women speaks of the crucified man, who mixed mainly with the poor and promised to open the kingdom of God even to harlots. And she recalls him telling a story about people invited to a big wedding feast. The following day he meets a big, red-haired Galilean man, who speaks of the coming of a new age, and of his guilt about having fled the Master in his time of trial. But Barabbas is recognised and driven away.

Anthony Quinn as Barabbas, 1961

The next day Barabbas witnesses the stone rolled away and the now empty tomb. He encounters a girl with a hare-lip who was evidently a follower of the dead man, who whispers to him ‘The saviour is risen’. And of his injunction ‘Love one another’. A few days later he sees the same girl down by the Dung Gate, her sallow face turned to the light, witnessing to her Lord and Savour. The girl is prosecuted for blasphemy, and Barabbas watches with horror as she is led to the stoning pit. After dark he retrieves her lacerated corpse, and carried it across the desert of Juda to lay it, guided by the old man hermit, in the grave  beside the body of her dead child.

The following years are uncertain. Barabbas is a changed person. No longer the bold, reckless leader of a criminal gang. Now he is given to just sitting, staring into space. And then he disappears.

Some years later Barabbas is a slave in the Cyprian copper mines, a hellish existence that only the toughest survive. He is chained day and night to a tall Armenian with protuberant eyes. Sahak is a follower of the crucified rabbi. He is astonished, and envious, to learn that Barabbas had seen God and witnessed the events at Golgotha. He secretly shows his slaves’s disc to Barabbas, inscribed with the sign of the crucified one. And he engraves the same symbols on Barabbas’s disc.

Now Barabbas knows that he too is God’s slave. But it is not a straight-forward journey. The two slaves are released from the darkness of the mine to work in the fields. They have escaped from the hell of the underground. But they are no longer able to pray together. As they had done down in the mine. One day they are summoned by the Roman Governor. Sahak refuses to renounce his God and to swear allegiance to Caesar. Barabbas equivocates. He is commended by the Governor for his good sense. But he is also forced to witness the crucifixion of his [only] friend.

The story ends in Rome. The governor retires and takes certain slaves with him. Barabbas gets to hear of the meetings of the brethren, the followers of the Master. One night he gets lost in the darkness of the catacombs. The realm of the dead. Out of the darkness come tongues of fire. Is it the Master’s return ?  The book ends in the prison under the Capitol. The Christians who have been accused of starting the great fire are prisoners, and Barabbas is with them. In the prison he meets again the now white-haired Galilean, to whom he tells his story. The older man senses his unhappiness and refuses to condemn him for his lack of faith.

And they are led out to be crucified …

I have always been a bit dismissive of historical fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels have never attracted me.  And back in the 1960s. I never wanted to read Morris West’s The Steps of the Fisherman. But I am glad to have discovered this book. The biblical background is accurate. Lagerkvist’s account of Golgotha and of the empty tomb sounds right. The red-haired Galilean is clearly Peter. The fate of the girl with the hare lip is similar to the story of Stephen’s martyrdom. The mysterious gap in the history of  Barabbas recalls the period of three years [Galatians 1] that lapsed between Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road and his going up to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples.

The dominant theme of the book is Barabbas’s equivocation. Is Barabbas a man condemned to have no God ? Christos Iesus is carved on the disc hung from his neck, but at key moments he cannot affirm his faith. Once released from the darkness, he cannot pray. He can only say ‘I want to believe’. Which in my experience is the situation of many people in our world today. And I would want to be guided by the aged Peter’s refusal to condemn him. André Gide, who contributes a preface to my Vintage paperback edition, finds an ambiguity in the final words: “To thee I deliver up my soul”. To darkness ? Or to Christ ?


Barabbas, the 1961 film

It seems that there is a 1961 film of Barabbas, with a screenplay by Christopher Fry and [uncredited] Nigel Balchin with Anthony Quinn in the title role. And Harry Andrews as Peter. It might be fun to track down a copy somewhere. But meanwhile I am going back to Musselburgh for another dental appointment, and then to have lunch with David Smith in Glasgow, and to walk from Haddington along the river to East Linton. All while the sun is shining !

July 2021

Through a glass darkly – 52

Hebridean diary

Starting with the full Scottish breakfast

Huge skies and a constant driving wind. We have been in the cottage for four days. Leurbost feels a long way from Edinburgh. The Outer Hebrides, Na h-Eileanana in the Gaelic, are a 130-mile long string of islands off the north-west coast of Scotland. They were once known as The Long Isle. But they comprise, from the south, Barra, then South Uist, Benbecula, and North Uist, which are connected by causeways, and finally Harris and Lewis, two parts of a single island but with separate identities. We arrived by boat on South Uist from Mallaig.and then drove north.

Arriving at Lochboisdale

After a night in Lochboisdale we didn’t really do justice to the Uists. The main road up the spine of the islands is the least interesting feature.The more attractive part is the machair, the strip of grasses and wild flowers along the western [Atlantic] coast. But we pressed on, heading for the CalMac ferry across the Sound of Harris from Berneray to Leverburgh in South Harris. Leverburgh is named after the English William Lever, the first Lord Leverhulme, who bought the South Harris estate in 1919 with ambitious plans to develop a major fishing centre. But after Leverhulme’s death from pneumonia the project collapsed and the village and production facilities were sold. From Leverburgh the road runs up the west coast of Harris, past the word class beaches of Scarista and Luskentyre. But our glimpse of enormous golden beaches was cut short by lowering, dark clouds and driving rain. Tarbert, the biggest township on Harris, is closed on Mondays. Or it may just have been that everyone was watching Scotland v. the Czech Republic. [For Scottish soccer fans, it’s the hope that kills you.] Beyond Tarbert the road climbs through the mountains of North Harris with spectacular views of the sea loch below before the long descent into Lewis

Callanish is a dozen  miles away.The standing stones at Callanish are a major attraction. The main site comprises a stone circle surrounding a central monolith, flanked by an avenue of parallel standing stones. All this is set on a shallow hill overlooking Loch Roag. The stones may be contemporaries of, or possibly, predate, Stonehenge. 

Stones at Callanish

It is thought that the stones were erected roughly 3000 BC, possibly for ritual purposes; but the site was abandoned between 1000 BC and 500 BC. The stones were only discovered in 1857 when more than a metre of peat was excavated.  We were pleased to walk some 5 km to the nearby sites, Callanish II and Callanish III, before the rain came down. Happily the Visitors’ Centre serves excellent coffee, as well as bacon and black pudding rolls and haddock goujons.

Callanish stones

Half an hour away, down a long single track road are the famed beaches of UIg. This is where the Uig chessmen were found in 1831; a hoard of some ninety artefacts, mostly chess pieces carved from walrus ivory.  There are differing stories of how the hoard was discovered. The majority of the pieces are now in the British Museum, which believes they were made in Trondheim, in Norway. A smaller number of pieces are in the museums in Stornaway and in Edinburgh. A hitherto unrecognised piece emerged in Edinburgh in 2019 and was sold at auction for £735, 000.


From the postcard I had imagined that they were about 2 metres high. But in reality they vary between about 4 and  10 centimetres. The wind blew mightily as we walked by the sea. Outside the community centre there is a bust of Leif Eriksson, a Viking explorer who reputedly sailed to North America in the 11th century, several centuries before Christopher Columbus. The community cafe has a good reputation, but is open only at lunchtime on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We were there on a Wednesday ! And there is an attractive, new fish restaurant with views out across the sea. But it is only open in the evenings, and when we called was booked for the week ahead


On the west coast, driving north from Callanish, we visited the Gearannan Blackhouse Village. Lewis folk lived in these long blackhouses for centuries, stone walls and thatched roofs, heated by peat fires. It was a primitive existence, without running water, based on subsistence farming and handloom weaving.  The crofting community at Gearannan survived until the 1970s, and the houses are now maintained by a charitable trust, who run a small museum and cafe, and have restored some of the houses as self-catering accommodation. 

Gearannan Blackhouse Village

A few miles up the road is the Dun Carloway broch, built on a small hill overlooking a sea loch. Brochs are mysterious phenomena, circular, windowless drystone towers  built in the iron Age with a double skin of walls rising to 8 or 10 metres. They may have been defensive structures offering protection against [Viking] raiding parties. It is thought that there might have been several hundred brochs scattered across Scotland, particularly up the west coast and on the islands, but many are in a very poor state of repair.. Dun Carloway is one of the better survivors, though necessary restoration work means that the walls are currently encased in scaffolding.

Dun Carloway broch

On our last day in the cottage we drove to the northernmost tip of the island, to the lighthouse on the Butt of Lewis. According to the Guinness Book of Records this is the windiest place in Britain. The 37 metre red brick lighthouse , designed  by one of the Stephenson family, stands 52 metres above the sea, as waves roll endlessly in from the Atlantic. 

Butt of Lewis

The township of Nis, at the northern end of Lewis is the setting for Peter May’s Hebridean trilogy; the community where Fin Macleod grows up with his first love Marsaili and his schoolfriend Artair; and the community to which Fin returns after the death of his child in Edinburgh and the breakdown of his marriage. May writes convincingly both of the harsh nature of the Hebridean landscape, and of claustrophobic relationships within the small island communities. So I had assumed that he was a Lewis man. But, as we discovered from staff at the Stornaway Museum, that is not the case. Peter May, who has lived in France for many years, was a journalist, born in Glasgow, who first came to the Hebrides as a writer on Machair.,  a highly successful Gaelic language television series. It is difficult to understand that The Blackhouse, the first book in the Hebridean trilogy, was initially turned down by a variety of British publishers and was first published in France in a French translation, in 2009. The two following books were published in 2012 and 2013.


I began writing this in the cottage at Leurbost. On our last morning, amazingly the wind died down a bit, and the sun came out, and we had breakfast on the table outside the backdoor. On what you might almost call a patio.

On the Ullapool ferry

And for the crossing back to Ullapool the sea was totally calm, and we sat on deck in the sunshine as if returning across the western channel from Brittany.  Then I was savaged by a bloodthirsty mosquito in Poolewe. But that is another story …


June 2021

Through a glass darkly – 51

Letter from Leurbost

I am writing this on my knee in the cottage. On Tuesday afternoon. Outside the skies are grey and there has been steady rain since lunchtime. We are in Leurbost, a scattered community on Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, twenty minutes south of Stornaway.

Leurbost cottaage

We arrived here yesterday afternoon, driving up from Leverburgh in South Harris. I booked the cottage on-line a few months ago, but Google maps did us no favours. After what started to feel a long drive their instructions led us only to the garage and the school. Three people in the garage consulted their mobile phones to point us us in the right direction; on the left of the road on a right-hand bend after the church.

This occasional blog has never been a diary. And I am aware that I haven’t written [posted] anything for about three weeks. Partly because all the family came up to Edinburgh the week before last. It was excellent to see them. We saw Jem and family last summer, but hadn’t seen Joanna and Craig and the little girls for over a year. Amazingly it was dry and sunny, and unusually hot, all the week.  Jem assembled the new flat-packed garden furniture very competently, and we ate more in the garden than in the house. We did Edinburgh Zoo on the Monday, along with a lot of other families. The new giraffes haven’t arrived, and we failed to find the tiger[s], but there were lots of very entertaining penguins and good ice-creams. Tuesday we went to the beach at Gullane: younger family members went in the sea, we had a carry-out picnic from Cherish, those who didn’t use sun protection got a bit burned; and we ended the outing with more ice-creams.

Ice-creams at Gullane

Later in the week we all went our separate ways.Joanna and Craig and the girls went over the bridge to Fife to see Craig’s Mum. Jem and Anna went to Stirling because either Freya or Oskar is doing a school project on castles. We haven’t been to Stirling for years, but I always remember the castle there being used to stand in for Colditz in the 1955 film with John Mills and Eric Portmaf. Susie and I went down to Berwick for the day and met up with John, an old school-friend whom I hadn’t seen for about thirty years. He is remarried after his first wife died very young of leukaemia. The media is full of stuff about the importance of friends in a time of lock-down. I am grateful for an easy rapport with people I knew at school some sixty years ago.We walked a bit on the town ramparts, and then had lunch at The Maltings, the arts centre with a fine view of Berwick roofs. 

Kung: Why Priests ?

Back in Edinburgh I read Han’s Küng’s slim volume on the priesthood. I haver always struggled with the word ‘priest’, and am sceptical about the traditional Anglican dogma of ‘the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons’. Küng starts by suggesting that we no longer know what a ‘bishop’ or a ‘priest’ is. Is he primarily a liturgist ? Or a preacher ? Or an organiser ? Kung explores what he calls the ‘constants’ and the ‘variables’ in ministry:

  • administration in the Church is not necessarily a full-time ministry
  • the ministry of leadership in the Church is not necessarily a task for life
  • the ministry of leadership in the Church is not a social position
  • the ministry of leadership does not necessarily require a university education
  • the office of leader in the Church does not require celibacy
  • ecclesial minsters should not be exclusively masculine

It is radical stuff. We need, he argues,  a radical rethinking of the concept of ordination. The calling must not be confused with nomination by the Church to a specific community. Ordination is rather a general call to ecclesial service. It does not take away the humanity and frailty of the individual. Küng does not make any distinction between the ordination of bishops and of priests. He criticises the Catholic emphasis on being ordained “to offer the sacrifice of the mass”; and, equally, the Protestant emphasis on obedience to fixed and polemically oriented confessions of faith.

Kung envisages church leaders being elected by the community. The election of priests and of bishops would be for a fixed term with an obligatory age limit. Local communities are valid churches; subsidiarity means localised decision making, but equally a commitment to solidarity with other communities. “The old, sacralised image of the priest, inherited from the late Roman Empire … is no longer viable, either in theory or in practice.” The job of the leader is edification. Specifically preaching the word. And this may involve posing big questions rather than supplying all the answers. As I read the book I recall the late Colin Bennetts [subsequently Bishop of Coventry] saying to me before a Biahops’ selection conference: in the Church of England, you’re not being ordained to the priesthood [whatever that means]; you’re being ordained as a leadership resource within the church. Quite so !

Hebridean Journey

We left Edinburgh on Saturday morning in bright sunshine in a hired VW Golf. After a few more days we shall probably have mastered the electronic brake. First stop was coffee in Callander, full of cafes and Edinburgh Woollen Mills and shops selling home-made fudge. Readers of a certain age may want to know that this is where, once upon a time, they filmed the television series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Second stop was The Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum, basically an up-market chippie which does excellent haddock and chips. The Rumanian waiter talked us through the complexities of ordering on-line in a time of COVID. Apart from fish they do excellent cake, but … no.

The weather darkened a bit as we climbed across Rannoch Moor and descended through Glencoe. Our first night away was in The Old Library at Arisaig, close to the sea and under new management. Arisaig is where Susie camped as a child with her family, on Alistair’s croft at Port-Na-Doran. The wife of the couple now at The Old Library is the daughter of Peter, Alistair’s cousin. It’s that sort of community. We had dinner with our good friends Mike and Wendy, who were staying in a cabin just up the road. 

Camusdarach beach

Sunday started anxiously with a text from CalMac [the ferry company] saying that, “because of inclement weather conditions …”, they reserved the right to amend or cancel our ferry booking ! Fortified by a substantial Highland Breakfast we walked by the sea at Morar, on Camusdarach Beach as featured in the film Local Hero. And, as England’s Euros campaign was getting under way against Croatia, we were sitting in the car in driving rain at Mallaig waiting for the boat.

The crossing from Mallaig to Lochboisdale in South Uist is three and a half hours. The wind and rain ruled out spending much time on deck. I watched the second half of the England game. And we worked through the Saturday paper and slept in reclining seats, peering briefly at the Isle of Rum through the mists. The boat arrives on time. Lochboisdale is small and undistinguished. Rupert, our host in a very comfortable B&B, is an academic who used to lecture at uni in Aberystwyth, an expert on birdsong and bird communication.

Lochboisdale hotel

There is time to walk into town, deserted and shop-less, for a drink at the Lochboisdale Hotel, a splendidly old-fashioned establishment overlooking the harbour. Tomorrow we continue north, towards Peter May country, to Harris and Lewis.

June 2021

Through a glass darkly – 50

The business of safeguarding

About a year ago I wrote a blog about sexual abuse, mainly of young boys, in [mainly] the Roman Catholic church. The blog was triggered by watching rather half-heartedly the film Spotlight, which focussed on the unhealthy goings-on in the Catholic Diocese of Boston, and then reading the book of the same name. The book rather left the story hanging, but church spokesmen, and they were all men, were keen to say that “lessons have been learnt”.

During these damp, cold days of May, I have discovered a new occupation; filling in Church of England Safeguarding forms. Of which there are rather a lot. After a couple of hours coaxing the multi-tasking printer into life, I am not greatly advanced. And my suspicion is that safeguarding is a growth industry sponsored by Rank-Xerox and by assorted paper manufacturers. Yes, we want children and vulnerable adults to be safe in church life. And yes, we are all too aware of some significant abuses and abusers in recent decades. But I’m not sure that this extraordinary  multiplication of paperwork is necessarily helpful.

It began with a request from the Diocese to renew my PTO [Permission to Officiate] which has run out. In order to do this, I downloaded and filled in several pages of Confidential Information Form, including a list of countries that I have lived in in the past 60 years together with the dates. I sent it off in March in a manilla envelope. At the same time I was asked to undergo the initial levels of Church of England Safeguarding Training. These are done on line, in your own time. There is a lot of general information, a plethora of abstract nouns, and some quite elementary case studies, in which you are invited to respond through MCQs [multiple choice questions]. I scored 97% in the Introductory module and 100% in the Foundations module. Which is probably about average.

The problem with this material, perhaps inevitably, is that it is all a bit black and white. And there is always a ‘right answer’ which the module requires. Spoiler alert: the standard correct response is ‘Contact your Safeguarding Officer/Advisor’; and then record the details of the episode and put what you have written into a secure [locked] filing cabinet. Good sense. Good practice.

The problem is of course that in real life pastoral situations are quite nuanced. And situations often present in an unclear manner, in the middle of a sequence of events. I think of a situation in my first charge where I discovered quite by chance that an elderly member of the congregation who lived close to the church and ‘kept an eye’ on the churchyard had been informally cautioned by the police a few years earlier for behaving inappropriately with children. Was any action  required ? And I think of being asked, usually by their wives, to sign shotgun licences for men with alcohol problems. And I think of a young man in the congregation, a friend of my daughter, who was accused by anonymous letter of ‘interfering with’ young Air Cadets; and of the grossly ill-judged way that the Air Force handled the matter. [It was a malicious accusation, and the accuser, whom I was happy to identify on the phone to the police, ended up in court.]

And I think of situations in a chaplaincy in the Diocese of Europe. The good-looking young Frenchman who arrived in church life on Sunday mornings and proved to be a great hit with some of the girls in the congregation. It was all a bit reminiscent of the film A nous les petites anglaises.

A nous les petites anglaises

Was I right to ban him from church life ? And was it enforceable ? [Was I right in thinking that it was in part my job as chaplain to steer young christian Anglo-Saxon girls away from potentially predatory, lapsed Catholic, young Frenchmen ? I don’t think that particular issue features in the on-line Church of England Safeguarding materials.]

More disturbingly one of our African refugees, quite a recent arrival, accused a fellow African, an established member of the congregation, of raping the primary school age  daughter of another African woman. Who was away in Africa at the time. [After some serious praying and some discreet consultation in our refugee community, I wrote the whole episode down and hid the report in my filing cabinet. And did nothing beyond that. And I was grateful to get the seal of approval from the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor a few months later.]

I don’t want to come across as an elderly dinosaur who doesn’t take safeguarding seriously. But I have real reservations as to whether the church is tackling the question in the right way. The current system goes to considerable lengths to establish that I am who I say that I am. And to ensure that I do not have anything nasty lurking in my past. [A recent article in The Times suggests that the several hundred former sub-postmasters wrongly accused by the Post Office of fraud because of a seriously flawed computer system would not be allowed to work with children in Sunday School because they now have a criminal record.] But most of the better known church abusers of recent years were not hiding behind false identities or concealing criminal records. They were enabled to behave badly and ruin lives primarily because their fellow clergy couldn’t and didn’t believe that ‘they would do things like that’. The disease was cronyism in the church hierarchy. And their protestations of innocence were given credibility over the complaints of the individuals whom they abused. People like Bishop Peter Ball were given the benefit of the doubt by their peers. And then, as the tide turned, Bishop George Bell’s reputation was posthumously traduced by a committee of well-meaning people who clearly didn’t know what they were doing.

The Diocesan Safeguarding checks at least have some clear objective, the renewal of my PTO [Permission to Officiate]. More alarmingly, I have had e-mails in recent days from an Orwellian sounding organisation called PeopleSupport System. Written thus. Who asked me to log onto an unspecified website and upload details of my church pension. The e-mail was couched in the style of the Boilermakers Union minute book of c.1910. I replied to say that I assumed the communication was a scam devised by a Gavin Williamson algorithm. Which drew a hurt reply that the request came from a hitherto unknown part of the Church of England. Who were concerned to develop a National Clergy Register. In the interests of safeguarding. I couldn’t initially log on to the system because my allocated user name is orthographically illiterate. And anyone who imagines that uploading my pension details will help safeguard children and vulnerable adults, whether in the Church of England or anywhere else. must be totally barking.

What saddens me most about all this stuff is the disproportionality. During thirty-odd years of church ministry, no ecclesiastical line manager ever showed any real interest in what I was doing. No-one asked me about my prayer life. Or about my preaching. Or about my pastoral deficiencies. Bishops turned up from time to time [roughly every five years], and were generally friendly. But there was no serious attempt to assess what I was doing. And how I might do it better. I joined a peer group Appraisal scheme. And I eventually had a ‘spiritual director’ at Taizè. And I signed up for a distance-learning taught MTh. in Glasgow. But these were all personal initiatives. Rather than a conscious attempt by the church to advance and to improve my ministry.

By contrast, now that I have been more-or-less retired for eight years, a whole army of nice, well-intentioned people are employed to help me negotiate the paperwork of safeguarding. Two years ago Archbishop Justin told The Spectator that the Church of England safeguarding budget has increased from about £50, 000 to £7 million per year. I might write a grumpy letter to the Church Times. Or maybe I’ll just scratch my head in bewilderment.

May 2021

Through a glass darkly – 49

The great all-rounder

C.B. [Charles Burgess] Fry was the great all-rounder. He was an outstanding cricketer for Oxford University, Sussex, and England; who regularly topped the batting averages of his time, and who captained the England team without losing a single test. In addition, at football he was an FA Cup finalist and an England international; at rugby he played wing three-quarter for Oxford University, Blackheath, and the Barbarians; and he was, for a short time, holder of the world record for the long jump. After the First War he was closely involved with the League of Nations, and was a credible candidate to become King of Albania. His social circle included, at various times, Hilaire Belloc, P.G. Wodehouse, and F.E. Smith; and he worked in close contact with Winston Churchill and Louis Mountbatten. He might well have been a character in the eponymous Fry’s Magazine, a successful boys’ magazine of which CB was the founding editor.

C.B. Fry

On the debit side he contracted a loveless marriage to a sadistic and  tyrannical woman. He suffered recurrent bouts of mental illness. He stood unsuccessfully three times in the 1920s for Parliament as a Liberal candidate, in Brighton, and in Banbury, and in Oxford. In the mid-1930s he developed an admiration for German efficiency and punctuality, and was impressed by Hitler and by Baldur von Shirach, the head of the Nazi youth movement. It was unfortunate that this view of Hitler was set down in print in his autobiography, Life Worth Living. Which was published in 1939.

Repton and Oxford

C.B. Fry was born in 1872, somewhat improbably in Croydon. He came from a family of Sussex landowners, but bis father, Lewis Fry, worked for the Metropolitan Police. In 1885 Fry entered Repton, the Christian public school in Derbyshire. [Repton once produced a number of well-known cricketers; and two Archbishops of Canterbury, William Temple and Geoffrey Fisher, were successive headmasters there between 1910 and 1932.] At Repton Fry gained academic success, specialising almost exclusively in Latin and Greek. And he soon made his mark on the football pitch, as an athlete, and above all as a cricketer.

Fry’s longstanding weakness in maths ruled out his hopes of joining the Indian Civil Service. So, at the end of 1890 he tried for an Oxford scholarship, and was invited by Wadham College to become their Senior Scholar. Rivals whom he defeated included F.E. Smith, subsequently Lord Birkenhead, later described as having the best mind of his generation.

At Oxford Fry flourished. In his first term he won a footballing Blue and also played for England against Canada. In his second term he won a Blue for athletics, breaking both the Varsity and British records in the long jump. In the summer of 1892 Fry gained a third Blue, for cricket, taking his place in the Oxford XI which beat the supposedly stronger Cambridge side in a high-scoring game. Away from the sports fields Fry heard Gladstone deliver the first Romanes lecture at the Sheldonian; and spoke frequently at the Wadham Debating Society.

Fry at Oxford

In his second year it was in athletics that Fry made his biggest mark. In March 1893, in front of a substantial crowd at Iffley Road, Fry jumped 23 feet 6.5 inches, equalling the world record. The event was much embellished by later writers. John Arlott states that CB broke the record after a substantial lunch, having poured himself a whisky and starting to enjoy an after-lunch cigar. In the event CB had equalled, not broken, the world record; and it only stood for another eleven months. But he was a top class athlete in the prime of his life. By the end of his second year, CB had appeared in county cricket, scored a first class hundred, secured two triple Blues, won an England cap at football, and equalled a world athletics record. He also secured a First [class degree] in Classical Mods. He was just twenty one years of age.

In the years that followed Fry dominated the university sporting life. He was captain of the Varsity Soccer team, President of Varsity Athletics , and captain of Varsity Cricket. He also took up rugby and led Wadham to considerable success in inter-college matches. In 1894 he scored an undefeated century in the Varsity match at Lords. In view of his all round achievements, Wadham was now often referred to as ‘Fry’s College’, and, as the saying went, it consisted of ‘Fry and small fry’.

These achievements came at a cost. While at Oxford Fry received little or no money from his parents, but his extravagant lifestyle led him deeply into debt. Which may explain why Fry, whose good looks attracted much comment – “the handsomest man of his day, a Greek god, so beautiful in face and body that he might have been wrought by the chisel of Praxiteles”, according to F.E. Smith’s biography, accepted an offer to do some nude modelling. Occasioned more by financial need than personal vanity. 

CB’s final terms also were dogged by an unreciprocated crush on a fellow undergraduate, and by the first onset of mental illness. He was in no fit state to sit his final exams. So, after four years at Oxford, CB, Wadham’s senior scholar, ended with a Fourth in Greats and mountainous debts. 

An unexpected marriage

After Oxford CB was invited by Lord Hawke to join his 1895-96 cricketing tour of South Africa. Returning to England, he missed the 1896 Olympic Games because, according to his autobiography, “no-one told me they were on”. And his cricket career stalled as, playing as an amateur, he simply could not afford to play enough cricket to earn a place in the England side. His availability was further limited when he took up an appointment as Assistant Master at Charterhouse. The job was poorly paid and prevented him from playing in many first class matches. Which remained the case until, unexpectedly, in May 1897 CB married Beatrice Holme Sumner at St Pancras’ parish church.

It was an improbable marriage. Beatie was born in 1862 to a landed gentry family fallen on hard times. In her youth she had been a celebrated horsewoman and an acknowledged beauty. But she was a headstrong, wild child. seduced at an early age by Charles Hoare, a fellow huntsman and [very] wealthy banker. Beatie was a teenager and Hoare much older with five children. No-one knows for sure why Fry, one of the most eligible men in England should want to marry a woman with two illegitimate children, a woman whose misdemeanours had been reported in detail in several national newspapers;  she was, according to her biographer,  “thirty six, greying … with cropped hair and mannish clothes.” Iain Wilton, author of the fullest biography of Fry, thinks that he was in love. Others have suggested that Beatie may have been a replacement for the mother to whom he had been so attached. Less conjecturally, it is clear that Fry benefitted financially; Hoare had set Beatie up as Manager of the Mercury, a naval training establishment for boys aged twelve to fifteen. The school was based on a 400 ton barque moored on the river Hamble.  After their marriage Charles Hoare seems to have settled money on both of them. Eight months later a baby [another Charles] was born. But the family later confirmed that he looked more like the long-term lover than the new husband.

TS Mercury

Cricket for Sussex and England

Released from financial worries, CB flourished as a batsman. For a decade from 1898, in what some call the golden age of English cricket, he was clearly one of the best batsmen in England. In first class cricket, playing for Sussex, for the Gentlemen, and for England, he scored some 30,000 runs, averaging 50, in an era of natural wickets, mainly against bowlers of great speed or of varied and subtle spin and accuracy. From Yorkshire bowling alone he scored nearly 2,500 runs in all his matches against the county during its most powerful days, averaging over 70. In 1903 he made 234 against Yorkshire at Bradford. Next summer he made 177 against Yorkshire at Sheffield, and 229 at Brighton, in successive innings. In 1901 Fry scored six centuries in six consecutive innings, an achievement equalled only by Bradman, but across an Australian season. Fry’s six hundreds came one on top of the other within little more than a fortnight. 

Some critics thought Fry was a bit stiff, a bit wooden as a batsman. He certainly scored many of his runs on the leg side, with pulls and on-drives in an age when players were expected to drive on the off, between cover point and mid off. He was often batting in partnership with Ranjitsinjhi, the incomparable Ranji, who would have made most batsmen look plebeian. Commentators invariably remarked on the contrast between Fry and Ranji. Fry batted like a nineteenth century rationalist, exhibiting a moral grandeur, practising patience and abstinence. Ranji at the other end played like an oriental magician.

Fry’s on-drive

The criticism is made that Fry was not successful as an England batsman, compared with his performances in county cricket. That he was [like Graeme Hick decades later] ‘a flat-track bully’. Across 26 tests between 1899, when he opened the batting with W.G. Grace and 1912, when he captained England in the ill-fated triangular tournament, he averaged 32.18. Among contemporary England batsmen that puts him below [Sir] Stanley Jackson [test average 48.79] and Ranji [test average of 44.95] but very similar to Archie MacLaren [test average 33.87], and significantly higher than Plum Warner [test average 23.92]

The Great War and After

In the autumn of 1914 The Globe announced that C.B. Fry was one of many sportsmen volunteering for active service. In reality he did no such thing. While his two younger brothers, and many Reptonian contemporaries were all killed in the war, Fry accepted promotion to Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, and remained at the Mercury. After the war Fry was recruited by his old friend and batting partner Ranji, who had acceded to the throne of Nawanagar in 1907, to work with him at the newly created League of Nations. In the company of Ranji [and at Ranji’s expense] Fry made several visits to India. One visit coincided with a visit by the Prince of Wales, and enabled Fry to develop his friendship with the Prince’s young naval officer ADC, Louis Mountbatten. Whose relationship with the Mercury that lasted for over fifty years.

His work with the League of Nations, standing for parliament, and helping Ranji in India kept Fry busy in the 1920a. And away from Beatie and the Mercury. But towards the end of the decade he disappeared from public view, and saw very little of his family and his friends. Fry clearly suffered an extended bout of mental illness [there had been an earlier breakdown at Oxford], leading into several years of depression. His condition may have been accentuated by an unhappy marriage and an intimidating wife. It may have been the consequence of a highly-strung temperament, a condition that affected a number of top-class cricketers. Fry’s garb became increasingly unconventional, sometimes dressing as an Indian rajah; and he was said to have been seen trotting around the streets of Brighton stark naked. A nurse was employed to look after him [[paid for by Ranji], and electric shock treatment, in itself  traumatic, was prescribed.

Journalist and commentator

Fry’s illness began to recede in the 1930s. And it was cricket that brought him back into public life after six yeas of seclusion. In 1934, with the Australians in England for the first time since the bodyline tour, Fry became a highly paid cricket commentator for the Evening Standard. For the rest of the decade Fry was a conspicuous figure around test cricket, invariably dressed in his own version of a Norfolk jacket with extra-large pockets, a broad-brimmed hat, and a broad ribbon that carried his monocle. He was the only sports-writer to have his own limousine, formerly owned by the Prince of Wales, and his own butler-chauffeur, Wignall, another larger-than-life character, who dispensed small sandwiches and champagne from a large picnic hamper..

In early 1934 the German Nazi party sought to bring British and German youth movements together, and decided that Fry might be a suitable go-between. In consequence he made two or three visits to Germany, and was much impressed by Hitler’s skill as a public speaker. Fry had a meeting with Rudolf Hess -“I thought well of him”; and tried to persuade von Ribbentrop that Anglo-German relations would be improved if the Nazis took up  cricket. There is no doubt that Fry admired the Hitler Youth Movement. Ribbentrop organised a meeting between Hitler and Fry at the Reich Chancellery, and they enjoyed an animated, wide-ranging conversation.

In 1936-37 Fry made his first ever visit to Australia, accompanying the English touring party; his first overseas cricket tour since visiting South Africa as a promising all-rounder in 1895-96. His dress on the ship out was characteristically eccentric; one day dressed as if for a Polar expedition; another day in solar topee and short leather trousers looking “as if he was about to trace the source of the Amazon”. He held forth on a wide varietv of subjects from a deck-chair on the promenade deck and was partial to demonstrating the latest dance steps. One of  Fry’s few blind-spots was music, which put him at odds with the fellow columnist and music writer Neville Cardus. One day after a long harangue from Fry over lunch, Cardus commented that “for years they had known about C.B. Fry and now they knew all about Fry BC”. It was the end of an old friendship.

After Australia and New Zealand, Fry returned home via Hollywood, where his host was his old friend, Aubrey ‘Round-the-Corner’ Smith, another Corinthian footballer and Sussex and England cricketer. Smith was a leading light in the Hollywood Cricket Club, where fellow members included Ronald Colman, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, and David Niven. Fry’s own hopes of a profitable Hollywood career came to nothing. But he much enjoyed the glamorous company of Merle Oberon and Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich and, above all, the red-haired Mary Astor.

In 1939 Fry published his long-awaited autobiography, Life worth Living. It was largely dictated in dressing gown and bedroom slippers to Denzil Batchelor, a younger writer and wine connoisseur, now acting as CB’s secretary. The combination of famous characters and an exotic life-story, ensured that the book received instant critical acclaim. But sharp-eyed critics detected a number of inaccuracies and wondered why the book exaggerated some of Fry’s footballing and cricketing and athletics achievements. The chapter on Hitler and favourable comments on Nazi Germany read badly in 1939; and the family thought that this aspect of the book scuppered any chance of Fry receiving a knighthood or similar honour. 

Declining years

Life on the training ship Mercury continued much as before. Charles Hoare had died in 1907, but a grim-faced Beatie continued to run the ship with a rod of iron. CB was an occasional, benevolent presence. Beatie’s fear of failure, and her intense desire to prove herself in a man’s world, drove her to act like a tyrant. Arthur Ward, a former petty officer, a powerful man, was selected by Beatie to beat the boys into submission. The punishment  regime would have excited the attention of any historical abuse commission. Young boys were marched to the gymnasium and strapped to a naval gun before being publicly caned. Often “for being a General Nuisance”. Other punishments included ‘going truck till midnight”’, which involved spending the day without food or drink at the top of the signal mast; or being deliberately  mis-matched with bigger, more powerful boys in the boxing ring. Ronald Morris, who joined the Mercury in the year Beatie died, wrote a chilling but not unsympathetic account of life on the ship, in his book The Indomitable Beatie.

After Beatie’s death in 1946 [her memorial service was attended by a clutch of senior naval officers including Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville] all the family felt a strong sense of relief. Fry struggled briefly to keep the Mercury together, but retired in 1950 to a London flat within easy reach of Lord’s cricket ground. He enjoyed returning to Oxford for lunches and dinners, and any opportunity to indulge his passion for ballroom dancing. As his health deteriorated, he enjoyed translating segments of the English hymnal into Greek and Latin verse. In December 1955 he was ambushed by Eamonn Andrews for the new television programme This is Your Life. [Did I perhaps see that programme on a friend’s tv ?] He died in hospital in September 1956 aged 84.

This is Your Life


Fry received little recognition from cricket’s ruling authorities during his lifetime. He never became President of the MCC. He received less attention than [Sir] Pelham Warner, though Fry was a better batsman and a more influential journalist. But after his death the tributes flowed thick and fast. One obituary said “Undoubtedly the greatest all-rounder of sport of all time – outstanding at cricket, rugby, soccer and athletics …”. Neville Cardus agreed: “He belonged to an age not obsessed by specialism … he was one of the last of the English tradition of the amateur;”. The News Chronicle obituary in said: “CB is gone to Olympus … He was the Englishman of tradition. The Englishman we would all like to be.”

His memorial service at St Martin’s in the Fields was attended by many admirers drawn from the diverse area of CB’s interests and achievements. They included five former England cricket captains, two former Olympic champions, and representatives of the worlds of politics and journalism and literature. The address was given by Harry Altham, a fellow Old Reptonian and  Oxford man. The concluding prayers were said by Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Was it the life that his early days had promised ? Was it the ‘life worth living’, that his autobiography proclaimed ?  Doubts have certainly been expressed. There are people who ask why Fry’s autobiography exaggerated all his sporting achievements. Who say that Fry as a batsman falls short of the very highest class. There are people who are convinced that Fry’s marriage to Beatie was a loveless sham, a mercenary transaction. Who say that the training ship Mercury was an unsuitable backwater for a man of Fry’s gifts. There is no doubt that CB could be self-important and pompous. And long-winded. But there is evidence too that he was a warm-hearted and generous man. The range of his accomplishments and the diversity of his talents are still unsurpassed. He was a multi-talented sportsman and a prolific writer, whose life gave pleasure to a great many people.

May 2020

Through a glass darkly – 48

Opening Up

We have now had both our COVID jabs and the world is starting to open up a little for the first time in a long time. To be honest I haven’t been unhappy with lockdown. Perhaps I am naturally Billy-No-Mates and  self-contained ? I have enjoyed reading some serious books, and trying to write something for this blog once a week. If that sounds too couch-bound, I have also been walking round or over Arthur’s Seat most days, the volcanic plug which I can see from our sitting room. And I am on a 77-day streak learning Spanish with Duolinguo. Muy bien, gracias.

Longniddry Bents

A few years ago I decided to walk from Edinburgh to Berwick, which is about 60 mies or so. Not in a day, I hasten to add. So far I have walked from Fisherrow to North Berwick, which is about 20 miles, as much as I can manage in a day; and from North Berwick to Dunbar; and from Dunbar to Cockburnspath. Most of it is by the sea, and everywhere is accessible by bus from Edinburgh. But I am a bit intimidated by the stretch after Cockburnspath, along the cliffs to St Abbs Head and then onward through Coldingham and Eyemouth. The very fit looking ex-soldier who walks it on a Youtube video carried his tent with him in a hefty back-pack. But that’s not my style. I walked from Fisherrow to Gullane again the other day; it was glorious in spring sunshine.

Port Seton

Susie and I have also made a couple of expeditions in City Car Club cars. We don’t run a car, and I can walk to most places in Edinburgh that I want to visit. But we need to keep our hand [our eyes ?] in for a planned return trip up north in June. Our first trip was to Stenton [stane toun], a granite hill village on the edge of the Lammermuirs. Stenton is an interesting place, a medieval settlement that was once a place for buying and selling wool from the hill farms. The village has no shop and no pub.  But it does have an ancient church, now in ruins, converted into a dove-cot [doo cot], some dignified stone houses, and uninterrupted birdsong.

Susie and the old kirk at Stenton

A couple of miles beyond Stenton, heeding into the hills, is Pressmennan Lake. In a very steep sided valley a nineteenth century land-owner dammed up the stream to create this narrow lake. The woods are managed by the Scottish Woodland Trust. There are said to be roe deer in the woods and otters in the lake, but neither made themselves known to us. We had never been there before. On a bright, sunny day we walked the length of the lake to the dam, and returned on a path higher up the side of the valley, with a picnic on a rustic bench.

Pressmennan Lake

After which we came home via White Castle Fort, the remains of an Iron Age fort, which was occupied from about 400 BC to about 100 AD. The fort is at close to the 700 foot contour on the northern slopes of the Lammermuirs, totally unspoilt, and close to the side of the very minor road the makes its way from Garvald to Cranshaws and Duns.

More recently we had a trip down to Peebles. The road down from Edinburgh is dreadful, all IKEA traffic and temporary roadworks. But Peebles itself is a delightful county town with the feel of a Victorian holiday resort. ‘Peebles for pleasure’ was its original tourist tag. The wide high street with a church at each end is parallel with the river Tweed, one street away and crossed by a green wrought iron bridge.

River Tweed at Peebles

The river is wide and has footpaths on both sides. We had good lentil soup in what used to be the Eastgate Theatre. A few miles on, on the south side of the Tweed, Traquair House, the oldest permanently inhabited house in Scotland, visited in 1566 by Mary, Queen of Scots, with her infant son James VI, was Closed to Visitors. Innerleithen has a good ice-cream shop, and we came home on a minor road, new to us, which climbs over the bare Moorfoot Hills.

Not opening up

Life may be opening up, but blustering Boris isn’t. The latest media storm concerns the cost of the refurbishment of the flat above 11 Downing Street occupied by Boris and Carrie. [I am tired of the term fiancée. Would not partner be more appreciate. Or possibly current mistress ?] The work was done at a cost of, depending who you believe, between £58,000  and £200, 000. Boris is notoriously mean. And was keen to solicit financial support from wealthy Tory supporters. But he now insists that he paid for the work himself, and had a hissy fit when Keir Starmer suggested otherwise in the Commons. Iain Blackford, the SNP leader in Westminster, accused him of lying.

There are now several [probably toothless] committees looking into the affair. If Lord Brownlow paid for the work, then the gift should have been declared. And Boris will be liable for tax on the benefit received. And why did he lie about it ?  What may continue to rankle with many people is the report that the couple wanted to transform the apartment from his predecessor Theresa May’s “John Lewis furniture nightmare” into a “high society haven”. Since John Lewis furniture and furnishings are aspirational for many who voted for the Tories, the comment may come back to damage him. No-one has seen photos of the refurbished flat. The latest upgrade was carried out by interior designer Lulu Lytle, causing one insider to suggest that the apartment may now look more like an up-market Turkish brothel.

Boris had already spent £2.6 million on a new Briefing Centre in Downing Street, supposedly so that his new Press Secretary Allegra Stratton, could stage-manage Trump-style press conferences. The media centre has only been used once, and journalists likened it to a Travelodge hotel decorated with four outsize union flags. But now there aren’t go to be any White House style briefings. Presumable because Boris doesn’t like answering questions from journalists. And Allegra Stratton has been summarily moved from her job. Possibly because, in response to questions about the affair of [with ?] Jennifer Arcuri, the American businesswoman who alleged that she had a relationship with Boris while he was London Mayor, Allegra Stratton replied that “there is no case to answer”. She added: “He does believe in the wider principles of integrity and honesty. He acts with integrity and is honest. He follows the Nolan principles when conducting himself in public life.” A statement so preposterous that even the Daily Telegraph was incredulous.

Someone at 10 Downing Street fingered the late, unlamented Dominic Cummings as the ‘chatty rat’ who was responsible for damaging leaks about the behaviour of the government. It was a foolish move. Dom is now threatening to come clean on a whole raft of stories about Boris’s mishandling of the COVID epidemic. Including the suggestion that Boris personally  promised [Sir] James Dyson immunity from tax responsibility if Dyson, already a tax exile in south east Asia,, would work on the much needed ventilators. In the event no ventilators were produced.

No longer friends

Allegations of sleaze and inappropriate behaviour continue to accumulate. Did the Prime Minister say that he would rather see thousands die and “bodies piled high in the streets” rather than order a third lockdown. He has called the story ‘absolute rubbish’. Bit it does sound like the sort of thing Boris would say. And Robert Peston among others has blogged that two witnesses have confirmed to him that the Prime Minister did use these words, shouted in a rage in his study.


So we are back where we started. The Prime Minister may well be a habitual liar. Which is sad. [My current Bible reading is in Zechariah. “Yahweh Sabaoth says this: ‘These are the things you must do. Speak the truth to one another ‘ …”. [Zechariah 8:20]. 

But we are grateful for all who worked to develop, and then to roll out, the vaccine. We look forward to seeing our family, children and grandchildren, next month for the first time in nearly a year. After that we hope to be able to travel north, to the Outer Hebrides, in June. And we continue to pray for the awfulness of the situation in India and elsewhere, in places where the COVID virus continues to ravage the population unchecked.

April 2021

Through a glass darkly – 47

Deaths column

We have just lived through a week of mourning following the death of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. As many tributes emphasised, the Duke of Edinburgh, the longest living consort in British history,  lived an exemplary life of public service. He was, as the Queen herself has told us, a rock and support to the Queen through almost seven decades. Unlike some royal figures elsewhere [Spain, Thailand] and unlike too many of our politicians, he was a man of decency and integrity. I am too old to have been involved in the Duke of Edinburgh awards, and, while I once met the Queen, I don’t think that I ever met the Duke.

Other people continue to share their memories of the Duke of Edinburgh and to write obituaries. But I would like to pay tribute to another ninety-year old who died this month who had a more direct influence of my life. Hans Kung was a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who died at the beginning of April at the age of 93. Kung was a one-time friend and near contemporary of the German theologian Josef Ratzinger, and they worked harmoniously  at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s. But they came to hold very different views on the church of which they were a part. Kung remarked in 2013 that Ratzinger, who had now become Pope Benedict XVI, was “living in the Middle Ages”.

Hans Kung

Hans Kung was born in Sursee, Lucerne, in Switzerland in 1928. He studied philosophy and theology at the Gregorian College in Rime, was ordained in 1954, and was appointed Professor of Theology at Tübingen in 1960. In 1962 he was appointed by Pope John XXIII as peritus, as the youngest expert theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council. At Kung’s instigation, Tübingen recruited another peritus, Josef Ratzinger, as Professor of Dogmatic Theology.

In 1963 Kung made a tour of the United States, lecturing to enthusiastic university audiences on ‘The Church and Freedom’.; and he received the first of his many honorary doctorates. In a reception at the White House, President J. F. Kennedy introduced him to group of politicians saying “this is what I would call the new frontier man of the Catholic Church”.

Hans Kung

But in the late 1960s and beyond Kung came increasingly into conflict with the church hierarchy. In a book published in 1971 Kung called into question the [nineteenth century] dogma of papal infallibility. He also expressed doubts about the practice of celibacy, proposed opening up the priesthood and the diaconate to women, and wrote that that certain current Catholic practices “contradicted the Gospel and ancient Catholic tradition and ought to be abolished”. In December 1979 Kung was stripped of his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian. He thereby lost his position in the theological school. But he continued to teach as Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Tübingen until his retirement in 1996. He also lectured widely overseas, and he wrote an impressive  number of books; on the Christian life, on Freud and the problem of God, on Christianity and world religions, on the theology of Hegel, on ethics, on Judaism, on euthanasia, on the Catholic Church, on science and religion, and on Christianity and Islam. 

I have been looking again at Kung: On being a Christian [published in  1974], one of the first Christian books which I ever bought and read, back in the early 1980s.

On being a Christian: The horizon 

The introduction clearly states that the book is intended for those who believe but feel insecure in their faith, and for those who are at a loss between belief and unbelief. In Part 1 Kung engages in dialogue with contemporary, humanist culture. He acknowledges that man wants to be fully human. He notes that the great figures of terror in recent history, Stalin and Hitler, were programmatic anti-christians. He insists that Christians can be humanist and humanists can be Christians. But he asks whether the contemporary modernisation of Christianity, where worship too often abandoned both liturgy and theology, is a sellout of the gospel. Is there  a danger that ‘the Church has lost its soul’ ? Against such criticism he writes: “In the long run it is impossible, even for the Catholic Church, to serve, for the delight of a few aesthetes and philanthropists, … as a museum of Christendom.”

Kung: On being a Christian

Kung celebrates modern advances in science, technology, medicine etc. But insists that science and technology cannot  be the key to man’s happiness. Technology cannot be a substitute for religion. Equally he rejects Marxism as a credible explanation of reality [a Weltanschaung]; noting that Marxist-Leninist practice led directly to authoritarianism, intolerance, and totalitarian attitudes. 

Kung approvingly quotes Eugene Ionesco, who wrote in 1972: “People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet , because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky …” There will always be religion, just as there will always be art. The perennial dilemma is the relationship between faith and reason. Can man only know God if God takes the initiative and makes himself known ? The idea of biblical revelation.  Or can man only believe in God if he has already known God by reason ? This question leads Kung into a detailed philosophical excursus. In which he writes approvingly of Kant’s ‘postulation’ of God deriving from man’s  self-understanding as a moral, responsible being.

In the final part of his scene-setting introduction Kung addresses the question of Christianity and the other world religions. He anticipates later writers like Lammin Sanneh by noting that “several centuries too late …  the attempt is being made to liberate Christianity from its European-American, Latin-Roman wrappings”. If all religions contain truth, what makes Christianity the truth ? He agrees with modern theologians who believe that men can attain salvation in other religions. But, he insists, “the question of salvation does not make the question of truth superfluous”.

On being a Christian: The distinctiveness of Christianity

Kung emphasises that Christianity is founded on Christ, God’s last and decisive ambassador. Being a Christian does not just mean standing for all that is true and good and beautiful. It means a belief that Jesus is decisive and definitive for man’s relations with God.

But the question then is:  Which Christ ? We have the Christ of piety, the “holy infant so tender and mild”. We have the Christ of dogma, whose nature caused such problems for the Church Councils [as they sought to define Jesus in terms of Hellenistic thought]. We have the Christ of the enthusiasts, from flagellants and Anabaptists of the Middle Ages to modern day charismatics and Pentecostals. And there is the Christ of literature. Here Kung notes that writers can often be “more alert, more perceptive, and more sensitive than the theologians”.

Kung emphasises that Christ is a historical person, not a myth. But he acknowledges the uncertainties: Bethlehem or Nazareth ?; the nature [and the historicity] of the gospels. Kung notes the Protestant emphasis on the Bible; the Orthodox emphasis on tradition; the Catholic emphasis on the Church. He argues for a combination of faith and of knowledge. He recalls that Jesus was a Jew. And he regrets the historical hostility between Jews and Christians. He acknowledges the real theological differences, but welcomes the contributions of Jewish scholars to understanding Jesus.

On being a Christian: The Program

Jesus did not belong to the ecclesiastical and social establishment. Jesus was not a priest. And he was not a theologian. His style of teaching is popular and direct. He preaches that the Kingdom of God is imminent; it will come, not as judgement, but as grace for all. Not only sickness and suffering, but also poverty and oppression, will come to an end.

The Jesus of the gospels is not the sweet and gentle figure of hymnody. He is not a prudent diplomat. In the gospels he is an unarmed, itinerant preacher and a charismatic healer. He preaches a non-violent revolution. Not as a monastic retreat from the world. Was Jesus an Essene or a Qumran monk ? Kung demonstrates clearly that Jesus was very different from these dualist ‘sons of light’. Equally, he is very different from the pious legalism of the Pharisees. “Pharisaism lives on in Christianity … but it is contrary to the spirit of Jesus.” 

The central cause of Jesus is the kingdom of God; a kingdom of love and joy and peace. Jesus expects the kingdom to come in the immediate future. Does this promise of the kingdom still hold good after two millennia ? It will not come about by social revolution.

Jesus’s miracles cause more problems for modern man than his teaching. The miracles are not scientifically tested documentaton. The healing miracles often involve curing the possessed; the exorcism and defeat of devils. Some of the miracles may be anticipated portrayals of the risen Christ. The word used in John’s Gospel is signs. In that gospel the different signs point to Jesus as ‘the bread of life’, as ‘the light of the world’, as ‘the resurrection and the life’. What is demanded is not faith in miracles; but faith in Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Jesus expects [demands] a fundamental re-orientation of man’s life towards God. This is metanoia, translated as repentance but meaning conversion. Based on an unshakeable confidence in God; which is described in the Old Testament as faith. Humanity replaces legalism. We are to love God, and to love our neighbour. And our neighbour is the person who needs our love. This love will involve forgiveness, without limits; and service, that is humility; and renunciation. Jesus has a particular concern for the weak, the sick, and the neglected; for woman, for children, and the poor.

Jesus got involved with irreligious and immoral people; tax collectors and sinners. Table fellowship meant more than politeness; it meant peace, trust, fraternity. Must the sinner first make an effort to receive grace ? For Jesus grace comes first; acceptance comes before repentance. 

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom. He did not found a church. His disciples are a mixed bunch; we are not even sure of their names. Their role is to be ‘fishers of men’.

The Gospels all point towards Jesus’ death. Things changed when he went up to Jerusalem. Jesus was baptised, but neither he nor his disciples baptised before Easter. Kung is not worried whether the Last Supper was a ritual Passover Meal [as Mark says] or not [as John says]. His violent end was the logical conclusion of his proclamation and his behaviour; he was seen as a heretical teacher, a false prophet, a blasphemer. Jesus’s death on the Cross suggested that the Law had conquered. The peculiarity of his death is that Jesus is forsaken by men, but also totally forsaken by God.

On being a Christian: The new life

It is only after Jesus’ death that this new movement started. After an [apparent] complete failure and a shameful death, emerges an explosive message and a new community in the name of the defeated leader. The earliest New Testament writings [Paul’s letters]  never mention the virgin birth, nor the descent into hell nor the ascension, but firmly proclaim the resurrection of the crucified Christ as the centre of Christian preaching. Jesus is a living person, encountered by his disciples.

Kung notes: this is a work of God; his being raised [passive] rather than his resurrection [active]. He insists that both resurrection and raising are pictorial, metaphorical terms. In Luke’s gospel and in Mark’s supplement the Easter appearances and the ascension take place on the same Easter Day. Only Acts of the Apostles mentions forty days between Easter and Ascension; forty being an important Biblical number. Again, it is from Acts that we have the story of Pentecost [50th day]. Which was celebrated in the first 3 centuries only as an extension of the Easter celebrations.

Kung notes the development of the Easter tradition. And that Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb. But Kung insists that the empty tomb does not by itself prove the resurrection. The Easter faith is oriented to the living Jesus himself. “Without Easter there is no Gospel … no faith, no proclamation, no Church, no worship, no mission to Christendom.”

Jesus’s death on the cross remains problematic. There is a diversity of interpretation at many levels. The distinction between ransom, representation, and sacrifice [Passover, covenant, expiatory sacrifice] is blurred. The work of Jesus on the cross was interpreted in the Latin West by means of juridical concepts; the need to restore God’s honour, to make restitution. “The idea of the death on the cross as an expiatory sacrifice, understandable enough for Jewish Christians at the time, is only one and not the most important model for the interpretation of that death.

Kung explores the link to suffering. The book of Job is about the incomprehensibility of God in time of suffering. Jesus does not explain suffering, but endures it to the end.His death only acquires a meaning with his resurrection to new life with God. Suffering, even though it can seem like being forsaken by God, can also become the point of an encounter with God. The Christian looks in suffering to the one who secretly sustains him even in nothingness, loneliness, and despair.

Kung looks in detail at the birth narratives. And notes that extraordinary events are traditionally associated with the birth of the founders of religions. “Today it is admitted, even by Catholic exegetes, that these stories are a collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary, and ultimately theologically motivated narratives, with a character of their own.” 

The Virgin Birth presents a particular problem. The emphasis moves from virginal conception to virgin birth. “Both doctrines had something to do with the negative valuation of the sexual act on the part of the Fathers of the Church.”

The veneration of Mary is relatively recent. The efficacy of praying through Mary comes from the 12th century. The dogma of the immaculate conception dates from 1854; the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary dates from 1950. From the time of Pius IX the popes have promoted Marian devotion. Marianism and papalism go hand in hand, and give each other mutual support.

On being a Christian: Community of Faith

The Bible did not drop out of heaven [unlike the Koran]. The books of the Bible were written and collected on earth. Which explains the shortcomings and mistakes, confusions and concealments. “I do not believe first in Scripture … I believe in God who revealed himself in the history of Israel … and finally in a liberating message in the person of Jesus.”

The Holy Spirit is unintelligible to many people today. He is the Spirit of God himself, self-bestowing but not controllable, life-giving, a source of power. The Latin Church proclaims the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son [filioque]; the Eastern Church proclaims the procession of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. “An unnecessary controversy.” Kung insists that any formulation of the Trinity must not cause us to  abandon the monotheistic faith.

For Kung the church is simply “the community of those who believe in Christ”. He notes that the Germanic language words [German kirche, English church, Swedish kyrka] derive [not from curia, as Luther supposed] from the Byzantine Kyrike, meaning ‘belonging to the Lord’. But the Romance languages [Latin ecclesia, Spanish iglesia, French église, Italian chiesa] derive from the Greek ekklesia meaning ‘assembly, called out from’. 

What is the relation between the local church and the universal church ? Kung insists: “The local church is the the church and can fully represent the cause of Jesus Christ.” The church is the whole community of God’s people; offices and office-bearing are not important. There is no need for a priest as mediator. The church should be a community of brothers and sisters; it cannot be a patriarchal power structure. It is better to speak, not of office, but of ministry. The word ‘priest’ is never used in the NT for those who exercise a ministry in the Church. 

Paul writes of charisms which [given by God] serve the congregation. He never speaks [in authentic letters] of ordination nor or presbyters. But, after Paul’s death, institutionalisation could not be avoided. With the emergence of presbyters and bishops. “It cannot be maintained historically that the bishops in a direct and exclusive sense are the successors of the apostles.”

Does the Church need a universal leader, a Pope ? Roman Catholic ecclesiology has always been reactionary and hierarchical. Hence the 1870 definitions of papal primacy and papal infallibility. While the Catholics venerate the Pope, the Orthodox venerate tradition, and Protestants the Bible. There have been parties in the Church from the time of Corinth. The Church must exist to serve the surrounding society. “There is nothing about the Church which perfect, which is not imperilled, fragile, questionable, which is not constantly in need of correction, renewal, and reform.”

On being a Christian: Practice

People can be put off by the Church; “an unevangelical and externalised ritualism which is still tied to the medieval, baroque tradition … to a rigid, authoritarian, unhistorical, unbiblical textbook theology.” But, Kung insists, breaking away from the church leads only to isolation, or to a new institutionalising. In a renewed church, bishops would be appointed openly by clergy and laity; equally the pope would be elected by clergy and laity; priests would be allowed to marry if they so wished; and women should be given dignity, freedom, and responsibility. In spite of the forces of resistance and inertia, we must not give up.

On being a Christian: Being human and being Christian

Being a Christian is not just about self-denial and self-renunciation. It is about a new orientation, a new approach to life, with Jesus as our guiding principle and our living model.

What is ultimately important ? Churches influenced by Calvin have stressed the importance of ‘works’ in everyday life. Which has led to an emphasis on achievement; and seeing man as an economic unit. Kung insists that this attitude is a threat to man’s humanity. “A man can be a marvellous manager, scientist, official, or skilled workman, be generally credited with playing his part brilliantly, and yet fail completely as a human being.

Christian freedom means freedom  from dependence on the false gods which drive us on to new achievements: money or career, prestige or power, or whatever is of supreme value for us. We know that life has a meaning not only in successes but also in  failures.

Finally, Kung offers suggestions as to what Christian freedom means in our culture:

*  willingness to renounce rights without compensation

*  willingness to voluntarily use power for the service of others

*  willingness to practise freedom from the consumption of possessions

Consumerism is self-defeating.  “New needs are created as soon as the old ones are satisfied … luxury goods are classified as necessary consumer goods.” Uncontrolled economic growth widens the gap between rich and poor countries; and creates feelings of envy, resentment, and hatred, and also despair and helplessness.

In summary, to be Christian means to be fully human.

By following Jesus Christ, man in the world of today

can truly, humanly live, act, suffer, and die

in happiness and in unhappiness, life and death,

sustained by God and helpful to men.”


A better global order

I first read this book in the 1980s. It was the second Christian book I ever bought. [The first was by Don Cupitt ! A friend at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, made a telling comment about ‘baby and bathwater’.] Re-reading it, I am hugely impressed by both the breadth and the depth of Kung’s writing. Back in the 1980s and again now I find this book a magisterial and engaging account of the Christian faith. Written for the most part in accessible language. [Though I am not sure about ‘theonomy’.]  And I am very struck by the way in which Kung anticipates stuff  [other books] that I have been reading during this past year; he touches on the problem of suffering, on the dangers of clericalism, the origins and nature of Marianism, the meaning of the Cross, and the need for the church to escape from its medieval, Latin-Roman wrappings. It is easy to see why the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy were so disquieted by him. But I was saddened to see a shabby obituary of Kung in Echoes, a Roman Catholic forum, written by George Weigel, which accused Kung of being an anti-papal show-pony. The truth may be that, as the Church Times obituary noted, he was a Roman Catholic and he was a distinguished theologian. But he was not a Roman Catholic theologian. 

April 2021