Through a glass darkly – 37

At the bus stop

Last week I was sitting at the bus-stop talking to Winston Churchill. I was telling him what an awful paper The Times is now, especially the Saturday magazine. He didn’t seem to know much about the magazine, but otherwise was happy to agree with me. Then this 1950s-style London bus came along, and he got on the bus with a small crowd of people; and I woke up.

London double-decker bus

What does it all mean ? I think that for Winston Churchill read blustering Boris; and I read somewhere recently that even if you think the Prime Minister is a self-obsessed, serially untruthful, narcissist, which I do, people say that he can in private conversations be quite good company. And I think too that this continuing lock-down does funny things to my dream life and my sense of time.

Churchill and Johnson

Fifty years ago

Fifty years ago I was working for Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press at Headington Hill Hall. My history finals were a disaster, which put pay to a notional research degree on the Paris recruitment office for the International Brigades. And I then exhausted all the usual job applications for non-numerate arts graduates: the Diplomatic Service, the Civil Service, the British Council, and Southern Television. So I spent the summer of 1967 working on the local golf course until the weather deteriorated. And then I accepted the offer of a job in the College Sales department at Pergamon. It wasn’t quite like glamorous London publishing. My introduction to the list was the Autumn Sales Conference, at which I gathered the top two coming titles were Pre-Clinical Carcinoma of the Cervix Uteri and The Placenta in Twin Pregnancy. I should add that these are not titles that I read myself. Not then. Not now.

So I spent the first couple of years after graduating driving around southern England [in a Morris 1000] visiting universities and technical colleges.  The strategy was to try to persuade lecturers to recommend Pergamon titles for their courses. It wasn’t hugely successful. Partly because most universities didn’t prescribe a single course book that was a required purchase. Partly because Pergamon’s rather uneven list was geared more towards scientific and technical monographs, some of them translated from the Russian. The hotels were a bit uneven too. These were the days before en-suite bathrooms and individual televisions. I think the low point was a hotel in Chelmsford where you needed to put shillings in the gas-fire, and where there was a stack of well-thumbed copies of Playboy on top of the wardrobe. And I recall an evening in Swindon where a group of excited sales reps organised a sweepstake on the Miss World Competition in the television lounge. And dinner in a hotel in Exeter where I fearlessly ordered half a bottle of burgundy with my meal, and it came with a label saying Serve well chilled. And it was.

As a change from southern England I spent six weeks visiting universities in Belgium and Holland. It was a delight to discover places like Ghent and Delft and Leyden. But conversations with Flemish speaking academics were a bit limited. And with hindsight 1968 was not the time to go in search of the Université Catholique de Louvain. At school  I had understood that Belgium was a French-speaking country ! In Groningen the choice at the cinema was between a Bergman film or Half a Sixpence, both of them dubbed into Dutch. I went for the latter. But maybe it was a mistake. When I got back to the UK, laden with boxes of small cigars and Delft cufflinks, it transpired that my then girl-friend had taken up with an old school-friend.

Life at Headington Hill Hall

So after two years of uncommercial travelling I was pleased to move in house as the Editor of the Commonwealth and International Library, a Maxwellian concept of a library of a thousand textbooks in a variety of mainly scientific subjects. Headington Hill Hall, originally built for Morrells, the brewing family, was leased by Maxwell from the Oxford City Council. Which enabled Maxwell, who was MP for Buckingham, and not yet the Cap’n Bob of Private Eye, to tell his constituents: “Like you, I too live in a council house”. The Maxwell family lived in the big house; the offices were in a modern, two-storey block in the grounds and in the former stable block. Telephone wires were strung between the buildings, with frequent tannoy messages calling someone to the nearest telephone. Communication with the outside world was a bit hit-and-miss. The switchboard were periodically instructed to disconnect all outside calls after five minutes. Which was intended as an economy measure. But sometimes caused more problems than it solved.

Headington Hill Hall

The entrance at the top of Headington Hill was guarded by a red-and-white barrier pole, known to local residents as Checkpoint Charlie. The pole came down promptly at 9.00am, so that late-comers had to write their names in a book. It came down heavily one day on the head of a prominent Oxford physicist, an FRS, who was riding his bicycle. After that the pole disappeared.

Pergamon staff fell into two camps: the old hands, and those who were just passing through. I hoped to be in the latter category. Harry, my first boss, moved on to a technical publishing house in Paris. Pat, at one time the general sales manager, drifted away to pursue a calling as a painter on Gozo. His successor, George, was a dapper man, not very tall. Years later, when he had moved on to Oxford University Press, there was a poster in the OUP canteen advertising a talk on The Problems of the Small Publisher. On which some wit had scrawled Visual Aid: George Depotex. Aubrey was a cricket-loving, Old Malvernian from Singapore; his job was to manage [or perhaps massage] the authors’ royalty payments. Uppy was the union rep: I never discovered his real job, but he had been driving when the oldest Maxwell child was severely injured in a road accident. The boy was in a coma in the Radcliffe Infirmary. And Uppy’s future prospects weren’t very good either.

Maxwell himself was periodically seen. My first Christmas he summoned the staff to a meeting in the then warehouse, appeared as if by magic in a bright blue suit, and announced that there would be no Christmas bonus that year. The workforce all applauded him ! I once drove into the grounds on a Saturday with my parents [what were they doing there ?] to show them where I worked. We met Maxwell, with a rifle over his shoulder, apparently taking pot-shots at the squirrels. He was all smiles and very welcoming to them.

I had a desk made of some wood substitute in the corner of an enormous open-plan office. My desk was next to Peggy, my immediate boss, colleague, and friend. If I stood on the chair I could see a window. On the desk were two telephones; external [for calls of limited duration] and internal. I dictated lots of letters down the internal phone to the typing pool. Their skills were a bit basic. Most letters came back a couple of days later with multiple carbons and multiple errors. The desk and surrounding floor space were piled high with manuscripts; on their way to peer readers, going back to the authors for revision, waiting to be marked up before going to the printers. I lost a manuscript one day, a book on an obscure branch of metallurgy. The author, a middle-ranking academic, swore it was the only copy and demanded silly sums in compensation. I think he settled for £250. 00.

Lunch was generally in the canteen; good value food at formica tables with white walls. A small group of us polished off The Times crossword most days. It was a group effort. I’ve never been very good at crosswords. But the Revd Gordon Hawes, the Managing Editor of the Religious Education Press [another improbable Maxwell acquisition] was a bit of a star. For entertaining authors Pergamon had an account at The Royal Oxford, the rather dull hotel close to the station. If you ordered beef stroganoff, which I often did, the waiter would come and set fire to it at the table in a copper pan. And I think they did the same thing with crèpes suzettes. This was 1970.

Politics, Personalities, pic: December 1965, Robert Maxwell M,P, for Buckingham division, centre, receives an autograph from Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson watched by Jim Cassidy, Bletchley Urban Council chairman Jim Cassidy (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

There are a lot of books about Robert Maxwell now and I’ve read some of them. Many of them concentrate on the later period; the IPC, the Daily Mirror, buying Oxford United, the rampant megalomania, raids on the pension fund. All this stuff came a bit later. During the late 1960s Pergamon was the great [white] hope of British scientific and technical publishing; competing with such American publishers as McGraw Hill, John Wiley, Elsevier, Prentice-Hall etc.  Scientific and technical journals were a growth market. Universities were booming, and university libraries couldn’t afford not to subscribe. British academics wanted to get their work into print, and didn’t expect or require to be paid for having their work published. The journals made money. And the book publishing programme coasted along on the back of it.

It was fun while it lasted. Which Pergamon manager fired a cartographer and allowed him to work his notice ? As a result one of Pergamon’s school atlases appeared with a map of Asian and Chinese mountains and rivers which included the Pu-Ding Basin. I once got an irate letter from an academic complaining that a set of steam tables in one of our textbooks was upside-down. When I looked at the book’s production file, I discovered an undated instruction Change Fig. x the other way up. And every time the book reprinted [it was one our better sellers] the printers did exactly that. Maxwell himself commissioned highly unsuitable stuff from people he sat next to on planes. Peggy had to edit a manuscript by a not quite bilingual Swedish academic and table-tennis enthusiast; he wrote about crossing the Atlantic by liner and enjoying ‘screwing his colleagues every night on the ping-pong table’. Maxwell commissioned an autobiography from the awful Sir Gerald Nabarro, predictably entitled NAB !. George handled the book, and wrote him a letter saying: “I hope the quallity of this letter will demonstate to you the importance that we atach to this book”. Sic.


In late 1969 came the dramatic bust-up between Pergamon and Saul Steinberg’s LEASCO. I was issued with a Pergamon share in order to go and attend the AGM at which Maxwell and his fellow directors were voted off the board of the company. We stopped for drinks on the way and to buy a cigar each. It was a bit like a pre-war Cup Final outing. 

George Chadwick: A Systems View of Planning

I don’t dream about Maxwell. Although in my dream life I am often back, not always happily in the publishing world. I spent three years with the Commonwealth Library. It included launching a  major new series of books on Urban and Regional Planning. In fact, I even thought about going back to college and training as a town planner. But I didn’t. In 1972 I was invited to became Sponsoring Editor at a London publishing house in Bloomsbury. Very close to the British Museum. It sounded like ‘a very good thing’. It wasn’t. But that is another story.

January 2021

Through a glass darkly – 36

Socialists and Anarchists

James Joll

This year  I was going to read James Joll’s book on The Anarchists. But I found an earlier book by him on the shelves, and thought I ought to read that first. James Joll, born in 1918, was a Wykehamist, who read history at New College, Oxford. During the Second War he was involved with European Resistance movements. After the war he returned to Oxford to teach, and was a fellow of New College and then of St Antony’s from its inception in 1950. His books include The Second International [1955], Intellectuals in Politics [1960], and The Anarchists [1964]. I never met him, but I gather that long ago he assessed something I wrote [on Anti-Fascism in the English Public Schools, 1933-39] for a Trevelyan Scholarship, for which I am belatedly grateful.

The Founding of the Second International

The First International, which had been founded by Marx in 1864, was formally dissolved in Philadelphia in 1876. One reason for its failure was the a fundamental divide between Marxists and Anarchists. Anarchists stood for loose structure, decentralisation, and `le propaganda par le fait. They were formally expelled from various congresses, but not finally purged until 1896.

Joll: The Second International

As the demand to re-establish international links grew, the SPD, the German Socialist party, decided in 1887 to plan for an International Socialist congress. There was similar pressure from the British trade unionists. Would it work ? Could differences be overcome ? Would it inevitably be dominated by the German SPD ?

1889 was a natural year for an international revolutionary congress, and Paris was the obvious place. There were predictable differences of opinion about who to invite. So – two conferences opened on the same day: the Marxists met in the rue Petrelle, while the Possibilists and the trade unionists met in the rue de Lancry. The situation was chaotic with many personal feuds. The Congress in the Salle Petrelle was the founding congress of the new International. The Germans had the largest delegation, and Liebknecht was the moving spirit of the Congress.

The practical achievements of the Congress did not match its symbolic value. There was confusion about who had the right to attend and to vote. Three days were taken up with reports from the various countries present. After which there was little time to discuss the topics proposed. 

There were resolutions in favour of an eight-hour working day, and in favour of improved conditions of labour. It was assumed that the interests of the proletariat everywhere were the same. And it was assumed that disbanding of standing armies n favour of national militia would prevent war. The French proposed that May 1st should be celebrated everywhere as a Workers’ Holiday. In France this meant a stoppage of work. But the Germans wanted to protect workers’ job and pay, and saw May Day simply as an occasion for evening meetings and placing articles in the press. 

The Second International had come into being; ending the isolation of the 1870s. But important questions remained. What were the right tactics for a mass party ? Should it aim at revolution or at reform by parliamentary means ? How could Socialists prevent war ?  Who was a true Socialist ?

Struggles with the Anarchists

When ordinary people thought about international Socialists, they thought of an Anarchist with a smoking bomb in his pocket. Outrages were common in the 1880s and the 1890s. The Czar of Russia was murdered in 1881; the President of the French Republic in 1894; the Empress of Austria in 1898; the King of Italy in 1900; the President of the United States in 1901. Such acts provided the governments with opportunities to attack the whole working class movement. 

Assassination of Czar Alexander II, 1881

French Socialists were split between parliamentarians and those who believed in direct action. From the early 1890s the French Marxists were fighting on two fronts: against Socialists on the right wanting to abandon dogmatic Marxism; and against revolutionary Syndicalists on the left who advocated direct action. The German SPD was not seriously bothered by Anarchists. 

The subsequent Congresses grappled with this question. The Brussels Congress of 1891 tried to heal the breach between the two congresses of 1889. The Belgian Anarchists were excluded from the start, and the Spanish Anarchists were ejected on the second day. But disagreements about ehe nature of May Day were unresolved. The Anarchists returned to the attack at the 1893 Congress in Zurich. But there was a growing consensus; that, while waiting for the collapse of the capitalist system, much could be achieved by political means within the existing state. At the 1896 Congress in London the British delegation tried to raise such questions as universal suffrage, the emancipation of women, and education. Which highlighted the differences between British and continental socialists.  Joll notes, approvingly, that “the international Congresses of the 1890s showed that the leading European Socialists had accepted the necessity of political action inside existing bourgeois society.”

Reformism and Revisionism

Jean Jaurès

One of the other great problems was that as socialist parties grew in numbers, they were forced, for the moment at least, to function within a political system which they were seeking to destroy. Jean Jaurès, a teacher of philosophy from a middle-class family in Castres, was elected a Deputy in 1885, and his intelligence and rhetorical gifts made him leader of the Socialists. Under Jaurès the French Socialists collaborated with other parties to defend human rights, and joined forces in support of Dreyfus. But the situation in Germany was different.  The SPD was growing in strength. ‘Reformism’ advocated temporary alliance with other patties, but this was condemned by the SPD leadership. Eduard Bernstein became the spokesman for ‘Reformism’, which criticised some of Marx’s general theories. Revisionism and Reformism were trends which resulted from the success of social democracy in Europe. And the struggle around these ideas  dominated the next two Congresses of the International. 

Socialism and Nationalism

After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, there was renewed pressure on the International Socialist movement to guard against a war. Socialists had to decide what attitude to adopt towards their country’s military arrangements. The cherished aim of the Socialists was to abolish standing armies, and to create a series of popular militia, not unlike Switzerland. 

It is notoriously difficult to interest members of the public in international affairs. The German working class resented the cheap labour of the Poles. The Austrian Social Democrats were anxious about growing German influence. The Czechs wanted to be independent of the Austrians. The British Labour Party remained outside the European mainstream. England and Holland were both reluctant to abandon their colonies. And some German Socialists thought that only by entering the colonial struggle would the German working class maintain its standard of living.

Copenhagen Congress, 1910

Jaurès published L’Armée Nouvelle in 1910, calling for a complete remodelling of the French Army. But it was a patriotic book, making it clear that French Socialists would be right to defend the country against aggression. On the German side Bebel took a similar line.

International Socialist solidarity effectively meant solidarity between the two parties in Germany and France; no other powers had parties of such importance. An emergency Congress met in Basle in November 2013. The mood was confident and optimistic. The Congress was in the Cathedral. Jaurès made a celebrated speech.  “The Basle Conference marks the high point of the International’s optimistic self-confidence, and it reveals how far socialism had become almost a religious movement … and how much blind faith was placed in there actual existence of the International”.

Summer 1914

The crisis of July 1914 came with suddenness on a Europe oddly unprepared. Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia showed that they were determined on war. Alarmed Socialist leaders began to return from their holidays. The Bureau of the International convened a meeting in Brussels on July 29th. Victor Adler declared that the Austrian Socialists were impotent to act. Jaurès declared unequivocal support of French Socialists for the French Government. But within days he was shot in a Paris cafe by a hysterical young right-winger; leaving the French Socialists without a leader. And the International movement without its most buoyant leader when the crisis was at its height.

French trade unionists obeyed their call-up papers, for fear of their homes being overrun by the Germans. German Socialists were swayed by their fear of the barbarous Slav. There was a long and inconclusive debate among the SPD leaders. Finally the 92 German deputies voted in favour of the war credits; they felt it was their duty to resists what was represented as a Russian attack. It is ironic that, when the moment of crisis came, they were the first to disobey their own rules. One member of the SPD wrote: “How is it possible that I, anti-patriot and anti-militarist, who acknowledged only the International, come to be attacking my companions in misery and perhaps shall die for my enemies against my own cause and my own interests ?”

As soon as the French, German, and Austrian Socialists had voted in favour of the war credits, the Second International ceased to exist. The life had gone out of the Second International.


Joyeux Noël

I watched Joyeux Noël a week or so ago. It is a fictional reconstruction of the unofficial Christmas Eve truce of 1914, when front-line troops clambered out of their trenches to share greetings and drinks with their enemies; to play football and celebrate Christmas together.  It is a story about human dignity and kindness against a background of savage trench warfare. For me it raises a nagging question: Why did troops on both sides allow themselves to fight and be killed in a war of which they understood almost nothing ? Bertrand Russell made some pungent comments on that in Education and the Social Order. And James Joll’s book about the failure of the working class movements provides part of the answer. Which is that ugly nationalism was allowed to take precedence over international socialism. A tragedy.

January 2021

Through a glass darkly – 35

Uniformity and diversity in church life

There was a story in the papers at the end of December about a London church where attendance has grown dramatically since they switched their services back to the Book of Common Prayer, the 1662 traditional Church of England Prayer Book. Denis Lennon, my training Rector at St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, Edinburgh used to say that you could fill the church by targeting your services to appeal to, say, bikers in leathers with a passion for the Book of Common Prayer. People would travel a long way for such a niche product. But, he would add, that is not what church life is about; it is our job to build a congregation that reflects the community where the church is placed.

Anglican Church of Rwanda

When Susie and I moved from Christ Church, Duns, a welcoming but essentially mono-cultural church in the Scottish Borders, to the Lyon Anglican Church [now named Trinity Church, Lyon] we were immediately struck by the diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nature of the congregation. The majority of the members of the Church Council were [in 2000] expat Brits or native French, but the hundred or so people in church on Sunday morning would come from a dozen, and up to twenty, countries. In the early years we had a steady trickle of Nigerians; as well as Africans from Kenya, Ghana, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. A few years later we had a steady trickle of new arrivals from Asia; from Hong Kong, from mainland China, from South Korea, and above all from Singapore. In [I think] 2006 there were five new people elected to the Church Council, speaking five different languages; from France, the United States, Nigeria, Singapore, and Taiwan. Very few of these people were Anglicans, which seemed to worry one of our bishops. And there was a constant turnover of members, as students and people employed on short-term contracts went home or moved on elsewhere. But the cultural and linguistic diversity was a great joy. And the congregation reflected, so I liked to think, the “people of God of every race, language, people and nation”,  of John’s great vision in Revelation 5.

That sort of ethnic and cultural diversity is something we miss at home here in Edinburgh. But I am aware that in Trinity Church, Lyon, and in St Nicolas of Myra in Ankara, and closer to home in The Old Church, Smethwick, there have been very significant numbers of Iranians coming to faith and to join in Sunday worship. There has been since 2019 an authorised Farsi translation of Common Worship.  When the book was launched at a service in Wakefield Cathedral, Bishop Paul Butler made the point that whereas on the Day of Pentecost there was no-one present who spoke English, there were undoubtedly people who spoke something very like Farsi. So, remembering Philip Jenkins’ insistence [see TaGD – 33] that it is dangerous for churches to invest exclusively in one ethnic or linguistic group at the expense of others, that “churches survive best when they diversify in global terms”; I thought it was time to read a little book on World Christianity.

Lamin Sanneh: Whose religion is Christianity ?

Professor Lamin Sanneh, who died suddenly at the beginning of 2019, was born in Gambia in 1942, grew up as a Muslim, but converted to Christianity as a teenager. He studied Islam and Christianity in Birmingham and in Beirut and in London, and taught mission and religious studies in the University of Ghana, and in Aberdeen, and then at Harvard. When he died he had been Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School since 1989. He wrote a number of books on Christianity and Islam in Africa, on the history of Christian Mission, and this quite small book on the cross-cultural expansion of the Christian faith in a post-colonial era.

Whose religion is Christianity ?

Many writers have assumed that because of irreversible secularisation we are living in a post-Christian culture. But Sanneh sees evidence of a worldwide resurgence of Christianity. He wants to bridge the gap between a robust secularism and a quiescent private piety. The book uses an interactive interview style. Sanneh wants to demonstrate that disagreement is not a barrier to dialogue. We are often “confused by the idea that difference is threatening, fanatical, harmful, and negative while uniform agreement is sound, inclusive, and enlightened”. 

World Christianity and Christendom

Sanneh defines World Christianity as “the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that were not previously Christian”. As opposed to Global Christianity which is “the faithful replications of forms and patterns developed in Europe”. This latter is akin to Christendom, which refers to the imperial phase of Christianity when it became a domain of the state.

In World Christianity western Christians can discover the gospel as it develops in futures not shaped by the Enlightenment. African Christianity brings together religious enthusiasm and a widespread disenchantment with political structures. Which is not dissimilar to New Testament Christianity. For organised religion state patronage has been a mixed blessing. In the West Sanneh detects a retreat into isolation; he evokes Sir Edward Grey and the lights going out all over Europe;  “the religious imagination seems to have been hit with a bout of melancholy as it labours with the strains of Abide with me, fast falls the eventide and The day Thou gavest Lord has ended”.

Mission in Africa

Sanneh concedes that the Christian church has a mixed record in Africa; white rule in Zimbabwe, and Calvinist-inspired apartheid in South Africa. But he argues that African Christianity has been significantly different from 17th and 18th century Christendom. Sanneh believes that revival has been driven by the end of colonialism; by mother tongue development and Bible translation; and by indigenous cultural renewal. He sees Christianity as building on the older religions, and their values. It is appropriated into local frameworks, but is still distinctively Christian. Thus the tribes of Namibia speak of Ndjambi Karunga, the God who owns the skies, and who loves everybody and who punishes nobody. Sanneh distinguishes between Africans coming to discover the gospel through the work of missionaries and indigenous people discovering the faith through mother tongue discernment and in the light of their own experiences.

Sanneh wants people to be converted to God rather than to other people’s experience of God. He doesn’t see how Europeans can continue teach the faith without paying attention to Christianity’s successful cross-border  expansion in post-colonial societies. The Yoruba draw on their own heritage of Ifa divination. The Masai speak of a journey of faith in a God who out of love created the world and us; and of how they once knew this God in darkness, but now know him in light. “He lay buried in the grave, and the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day he rose …”.

Masai Community Church

Sanneh introduces us to Bishop Ajayi Crowther [c.1807-91]; sold into slavery in Lagos, set free by a British Naval Squadron, a convert from Islam who rose to a position of leadership in the church. He was a pioneer of the indigenous discovery of Christianity. His Yoruba Bible of 1851 was the first Bible in an African language. He promoted dialogue with Muslims. Bishop Crowther had a dual role as child of Africa and as commissioned agent of a global religion.

Christianity Reappropriated: translation and renewal

Christianity is unique as a world religion that is transmitted a language and culture other than that of its founder. The New Testament Gospels are a translation of the message of Jesus. In later centuries Christians became pioneers of linguistic development, with the creation of alphabets and dictionaries and grammars. All in total contrast with Islam where the Quran is preserved in its original Arabic. And where translations may not be used in public worship.

Traditionally religious language is used to mystify and to intimidate, to exclude people. But Jesus departs from that tradition; he uses clear and simple language. “Jesus rated spiritual deafness, not illiteracy, as the greatest impediment to receiving the gospel”. 

For the Church Fathers the Greek Bible was the authoritative scripture. Which was followed by Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, in the 4th century. The Council of Trent in 1546 authorised the Vulgate as the authoritative Catholic Bible. For English speakers that status was accorded to the Authorised Version, the King James Bible. Which “acquired an apocryphal reputation as the only Scripture that Jesus knew”. [I think I heard that comment in Duns in the 1990s !] Christianity has felt congenial in English, French, and Spanish; but less congenial in, for example, Tamil or Igbo or Yoruba. But Sanneh insists that “bible translation into the mother tongue has opened the way for worldwide Chrisgian renewal”.

Wycliffe Bible Translators

Sanneh wants to demonstrate that Bible translation stimulates the indigenous narrative tradition. “Bible translation represents a revolutionary concept of religion as something translatable and ambi-cultural”. And Bible translation gives power to ordinary [indigenous] people, including women and children. In Africa it has been a broadening experience for churches; and has facilitated ecumenical co-operation on an unprecedented scale. 

Sanneh concludes:  “Christianity is not a religion of cultural uniformity  …  Bible translation enabled Christianity to break free culturally of its Western domestication to create movements of resurgence that transformed the religion into a world faith”.


Lamin Sanneh is of course not the first person to write about World Christianity. The term had already been in use since 1945, perhaps earlier. And his distinction between World Christianity and Global Christianity is seen by other scholars [including Philip Jenkins, see TaGD 33]  as being contrived and unhelpful. But Sanneh has been influential in moving the subject away from the history of western mission, and focusing rather on the many forms of indigenous response to the gospel. And he has helped us to appreciate the post-colonial context of church growth in Africa, and also the importance of bible translation work.

How might this speak to those who are involved in [what the Church of Scotland calls] Home Mission ? I was very struck by his relating European Christianity to Sir Edward Grey’s ‘lights going out all over Europe’. [Which may not be entirely fair ?] And by Sanneh’s insistence that the gospel has to be communicated in a way that enables the learner to receive it in his or her cultural framework [preconceptions]. In our preaching are we attempting to convert people to to God ? Or simply seeking to replicate in them our own experience of God ? For me those are challenging questions.

January 2021

Through a Glass Darkly – 34

Looking forward, looking back

The words sound familiar. Looking forward, looking back was an enormous hit for the Australian country singer Slim Dusty a couple of decades ago. People queue up on the internet to say that “this was Pop’s favourite record, and we played it at his funeral”. [I’m not sure that Canon John Wilkinson would approve.] We sang it occasionally at the mixed ability choir  Lost and Found,  but that group like many things has been a casualty of the COVID lock-down. The song sounds the right note at the end of one year and the start of another. But I am well aware that I can find it easier to look back rather than forwards. Because there is more of it to look back on ?

Slim Dusty

I have been reading the annual collection of Christmas letters. [Clergy, and retired clergy in particular, are addicted to sending them. There’s nothing wrong with that. I find it exasperating to open a Christmas card that says ‘Best wishes, Sue’ and nothing else. Especially since I know at least five people called Sue.] The consensus among our Christmas correspondents is that 2020 was a bad year. COViD 19 has killed a huge number of people, as governments which might have done better were very slow to respond. As well as the 75,000 or so COVID-related deaths in the UK, the figure is announced on our tv every evening, too many people have lost their jobs, children’s education has been badly affected, and  there is an alarming rise in mental health issues.

Politically it has been a gloomy year. It is increasingly obvious that Blustering Boris presides over a cabinet who are simply not up to the job. Hapless Hancock is clearly out of his depth; he looks like a church treasurer who has been caught stealing from the discretionary fund. Not-so-Priti Patel  is the worst kind of former immigrant turned shrill patriot. With the basic mind-set ‘I’m all right, Jack’. “It affronts and offends me that someone like her can be a senior politician... “, a former Conservative minister is quoted as saying in a New Statesman profile, “She’s jolly, but fundamentally dim, mediocre, insecure and out of her depth in any of the roles she occupies.”  

Dominic Raab takes charge

Dominic Raab “hadn’t quite understood” [his words] that a lot of trade and traffic went through Dover-Calais. Chris Grayling signed cross-channel transport contracts with a company that hadn’t any boats. Gavin Williamson looks and sounds like a middle-ranking salesman of kitchen  equipment who has been accused of sexually harassing his junior colleagues. Robert Jenrick invariably manages to make Michael Gove seem straightforward and honest. Which is quite an achievement ! The saddest story of Christmas was the interview with the small boy who was saving up his pocket money to give to the Tories so that Boris would put him in the House of Lords.

Domestically we have had a very fortunate and healthy year. I took two funerals early in the year, and attended two more, but we do not know anyone who has died of COVID, and only a very small number who have contracted the virus. We had to cancel a return trip to St Marc’s, Grenoble, planned for Easter, and a family holiday in Normandy, planned for the summer half-term. But we are fortunate to have a comfortable house and an attractive garden in what is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I am working slowly through an accumulation of unread books. And I walk round Arthur’s Seat most days; a walk that has been made more exciting by the arrival of a young otter who has taken up residence in Dunsapie Loch.

Otter, Dunsapie Loch

But I would like to walk further afield,preferably along the John Muir Way in East Lothian. Or possibly on the Fife Coastal Path.  We also managed a week away earlier in the year; going north to Sutherland and the Flow Country, and home via Gairloch. We miss seeing children and grand-children, but speak to them every week or so on Zoom. Which we had not heard of a year ago. And which now enables us to speak to my brothers regularly, and to join in Sunday worship in a variety of services around Europe.

Looking forward

Looking ahead is more speculative. It is a preaching cliché to say that, if you want to amuse God, tell him your plans for the coming year. There were some hopeful signs late in the year just ended. This month should see the removal from the White House of the most narcissistic, the most ignorant, and almost certainly the most corrupt President of modern times. Closer to home a thin BREXIT deal on Christmas Eve must be better than no deal. It seems ironic that Boris, who wouldn’t know a haddock from a halibut, should make such a fuss about fish. Particularly when the BREXIT agreement appears to offer little reassurance for the enormously more valuable financial services sector. There will be months ahead for people to pore over the small print of the agreement. It will be a kick in the teeth for Scottish exporters of seed potatoes. Personally I am sorry to see the end of the Erasmus scheme. The ending of a scheme that enabled university students to spend a term or more in a foreign country, exposed to another language and culture, seems to me to be a cause for regret. And/but I want to believe that now that the BREXIT clock has stopped ticking we may be able to engage in a friendlier and more constructive dialogue with our European neighbours. Too often in recent years English politicians abroad have come across as boorish and ignorant. And wrapped in the Daily Mail. [Think Nigel Farage.] No more welcome than English football supporters, with whom they have much in common.

There is a general consensus that the church has done well during the lock-down. Here on the south side of Edinburgh the local church has worked hard at maintaining some sense of community. And at countering social isolation. Church services on line are a mixed bunch. People miss singing. And not all clergy have understood that sermons over ten minutes are too long. Personally I think that church leaders might have done more to sound a public note of Christian hope. In recent weeks there was much media talk of lock-down policies ‘cancelling Christmas’. But the notion of Christmas that came across was more cultural than religious; the great mid-winter festival of excess and of consumption. I would like to have heard church leaders say that the original Nativity was a fragile story about a young mother and her baby, about life under harsh Roman occupation, and about light in the surrounding darkness. More about blood and mud than M&S vouchers and mince pies. I think I look forward to services being back in church. Simon Jenkins has asked what will happen to the Church of England’s architectural heritage if services stay on line.

On a personal note I look forward to being able to travel a bit. We did locum jobs in Grenoble and in Ankara at the end of 2019, but that was already a year ago. I hope there might be further opportunities for such work when the pandemic recedes. [If any hard-pressed archdeacons are reading this, please take note]. And I would very much like to be able to stay in a hotel by the sea. Something we haven’t done very often.  The last time was at Jem and Anna’s wedding at Angelholm in southern Sweden in 2008. When we stayed in the reception hotel overlooking the beach. [And before that at Tréboul, outside Douarnenez. And, many years ago at Cefalu.]

La Place, Tréboul

As a gesture of good faith [think of Jeremiah buying Hanamet’s field at Anathoth], I have booked four days in Scarborough at the end of February. It won’t be like Paris, which was the alternative destination. And whether we can go or not depends on when we might get vaccinated. But if we do go the room apparently overlooks the North Bay.

And I’d like to go somewhere [anywhere]  we haven’t been before. Two years ago I got a yen to visit Bukhara and Samarkand, which have fascinated me since I first saw the black and white photos in Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches. But I think the moment has passed. Last year I had a great urge to visit Erzurum [shades of Greenmantle]. But I think it is because we were in Ankara at the time, from where it is a mere 27 hour train journey. But from Edinburgh it seems like a very long way. More realistically I think we might look at doing a short tour of the cities of the Baltic, taking in Tallinn and Riga and Helsinki. Once again it depends on our getting vaccinated.


Back at home I still have a few books to read. For some time I’ve been meaning to read a book on the Anarchists by James Joll. And possibly his book on The Second International. And I will get round to reading Max Hastings’s Vietnam.  His books get longer. But do they get any better ? And for a long time I’ve been meaning to read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. I bought it when there was thought of our going to Croatia. But the paperback that I have is dauntingly thick. 

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

In a lighter vein I bought four slim books by Gillian Galbraith. She is Scottish, a former lawyer and journalist, the author of a series of books about an Edinburgh [lady] detective called Alice Rice. Hailed as the new Ian Rankin. [I think the Rebus books are greatly over-rated. But I dare not tell my son-in-law, who is an enthusiast and a Fifer.] There are very few new books that I am aware of that I want to read. Apart from Giles Tremlett’s new book The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, which came out in October. But I think I’ll wait for the paperback edition. I already have seven books on the International Brigades on my shelves, and really must look at more of them first. I guess I’ll have to get my International Brigades tee-shirt out and put it on if I want to read them.


This is a terribly self-centred piece at the start of a new year. Come, Lord Jesus was a frequent prayer of the past twelve months. I hope we shall continue to pray regularly in the coming months; first of all giving thanks for God’s many blessings. And continuing to pray for an uncertain world; for people and countries struggling with the pandemic; for doctors and nurses and the National Health Service; for wisdom and vision for church leaders and for politicians. That the decisions they take and the things they say may make things better and not worse. And to pray too for the many countries, Syria and South Sudan come to mind, whose suffering has been largely ignored in the British media as they focus on problems closer to home.

January 2021

Through a glass darkly – 33

Last March, in the very early days of the COVID lock-down [it feels a long time  ago], I read Peter Frankopan’s book on The Silk Road. It is an impressive, wide-ranging book which acted as a corrective to my rather blinkered, Eurocentric version of history. [New readers, if there are any, can consult TaGD -2.] Now I have just been reading what you might think of as an ecclesiastical equivalent, Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity. Sub-titled The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died. For someone like me who thinks that church history is essentially the Roman Catholic Church and then the [necessary] Protestant Reformation, it is an eye-opening read.

Philip Jenkins is Welsh, born in Port Talbot in 1952, a Roman Catholic turned Episcopalian. His first degree was in History at Cambridge, and his early doctoral research was in criminology. But he moved to Pennsylvania State University in 1980, and his research interests switched to global Christianity and to emerging religious movements. Before he left the UK he was the 1979 winner of the BBC’s Mastermind. He is now Professor Emeritus at Penn State, and is Professor of History at Baylor University, a private Christian university at Waco, Texas. He is a prolific author; his twenty-plus books include histories of Wales and of the United States, a book on pedophiles and priests, and a series of books on the changing aspects of global Christianity.

The First Thousand Years of Christianity

Jenkins insists that until the 14th century Christianity was a tri-continental religion, with powerful representation in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe. Much of what today we call the Islamic world was once Christian.  Iraq and Syria were the homes of two great, international churches – the Nestorians and the Jacobites. In the time of the Nestorian patriarch Timothy [c.800 AD] the Church of the East still thought and spoke in Syriac, a language similar to Aramaic.

Nestorian church, Baghdad

It is difficult to grasp the extent of the Church of the East. While in the UK there were/are two metropolitans [Canterbury and York], Timothy presided over 19 metropolitans and some 85 bishops. During his lifetime new metropolitan sees were created in [modern-day] Iran, Syria, Turkestan, Armenia, and on the Caspian Sea. The church operated in multiple languages, but not Latin. In modern terminology, the Eastern churches were thoroughly inculturated. And they enjoyed critical interactions [and good relations] with Islam.

Timothy died in 823 AD. After his death one might have projected a Christian future in which two multi-ethnic churches dominated, one in Constantinople, the other in Baghdad. But this older Christian world perished. In 1050 Asia Minor was predominantly Christian with 375 bishoprics. Four hundred years later, Christians were 10% of the population with just 3 bishops. There was a brutal purge of Christianity in Asia. Christianity did become predominantly European, but only from about 1500; producing “a Europe that was essentially Christian and a Christianity that was essentially European”. Jenkins notes: “De-christianization is one of the least studied aspects of Christian history”. Most African and Asian churches collapsed because of persecution, of pressures placed on them by hostile regimes, mainly Muslim. Around 1300, partly as a consequence of the Mongol invasions, there was a distinct shift to religious intolerance. In some areas, as the church collapsed, there was a remnant of clandestine believers, what Jenkins calls crytpo-Christians.

The Churches of the East

Merv, a dead city in what is now Turkmenistan, was once one of the great centres of Christendom; it had a bishop by the 420s, and was a metropolitan by 544. From the 7th century Merv was under Muslim rule, but the Christians co-existed with Muslims, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. By the 5th century Christianity had 5 great patriarchs: one, Rome, was in Europe; one, Alexandria, was in Africa; the other three, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem, were all in Asia. Church festivals such as the Annunciation or the Dormition [Assumption] began in the East, in Syria.

We think of close links between Christianity and the Roman Empire. But the Persian [or Sassanian] Empire was  equally significant. Jerusalem is geographically closer to central Asia than it is to France. Christianity came early to [the lost kingdom of] Osrhoene, to neighbouring Armenia, and to Georgia;  and, in Africa, to Egypt and to Nubia and to Ethiopia. Eastern Christianity had many spiritual  and cultural centres, which remained unchanged between the 6th and 13th centuries. Syriac Christianity found a stronghold in Mesopotamia. By 650 the Church of the East had two metropolitans beyond the Oxus, at Kashgar and at Samarkand. The Nestorian church was established in India, through communities that grew into the Mar Thoma church. And there were missions into China.

Another World

All the eastern churches were strongly liturgical and hierarchical. Their liturgies are some of the oldest Christian liturgies. Monasticism was the highest form of Christian life. Through to the 8th century the Syrian church included stylites. The religious included women as well as men. The Eastern Churches embraced mystical practices that we associate with Gnosticism; theosis was the practice of approaching so close to God as to become divine. Healings and miracles were common.

Aghtamar Monastery, 1923

The Eastern Churches were passionate about learning and scholarship. The primary home of Syriac scholarship was at Nisibis. Which kept much of ancient scholarship alive. By the mid-7th century they were aware of Arabic numerals. These churches had great veneration for the Bible, which they read in their own Semitic languages. The Syriac Bible included the 4 major gospels, but omitted several books retained in the west  [2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation]. They were anxious to integrate the worlds of the Old and New Testaments. In 1287 the Nestorian monk, Bar Sauma, was sent on a mission to Western Europe. His visit was a sensation. Europeans were amazed to learn that the Christian world extended much further [east] than they had ever imagined.

The great tribulation 

The 14th century marks the decisive collapse of Christianity in the Middle East, across Asia, and much of Africa. Jenkins notes that many  books stress the tolerant nature of Islam. Certainly early Muslim regimes were less oppressive than many European Christian states. But the great exception was North Africa, where Christianity disappeared completely soon after the fall of Carthage in 698. Though Egypt remained a majority Christian country for another two centuries.

Ancient empires frequently granted religious minorities considerable freedom. But at the end of the 10th century the Egyptian based caliph Hakim launched an unprecedented persecution of Jews and Christians; and destroyed the Jerusalem church of the Holy Sepulchre. Asia Minor remained Christian throughout the Byzantine era. But things began to change from about 1200. The situation was exacerbated by the Crusades, which led to the creation of short-lived crusader kingdoms in Palestine, the Lebanon, and Syria. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century were initially a threat to Islam; but when later Mongol rulers converted to Islam, around 1290-1330, conditions became very difficult for the Christians in Mesopotamia and Syria. 

In 1304 Turkish forces destroyed Ephesus; large areas Asia Minor were de-christianized. The new Muslim militancy had dreadful consequences for the smaller Christian states on the fringe, Armenia and Georgia, Nubia and Ethiopia. Intolerance was becoming a marked feature around the globe. Climate change, and the coming of the Little Ice Age, caused economic depression and poverty. Europe suffered the Great Famine in 1315-17, and the Black Death in the 1340s. Social unrest led to increased persecution of religious minorities. In the 1360s the war-lord Timur systematically ravaged the ancient cities of the Middle East, and destroyed much of the Nestorian church.

The Last Christians.

Jenkins asserts that the decline of Christianity in the Middle East occurred in two distinct phases. First, the the Middle Ages, as Christians lost their majority status in what then became Muslim-majority countries. And second, in the last hundred years, when Christians have virtually ceased to exist across the Middle East, at least as organised communities.

The Ottoman Turks took over what had been the [Christian] Byzantine Empire. From the 15th century to the 19th century the Ottomans did much to underline the Orthodox Church in the Balkans. Meanwhile the Eastern churches were also under threat from a newly assertive Western Christianity. As Spain and Portugal built their empires from about 1550, the Roman Catholic church was dismissive of the Egyptian Copts and the long-isolated church of Ethiopia. They also sought to absorb [or to take over] the ancient Syriac churches of South India. 

Muslim forces attacked Assyrian and Nestorian Christians recurrently between 1843 and 1847; and again in the 1890s. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the nationalist Turkish state led to the Armenian genocide that began in 1915. The subsequent war between Greece and Turkey led to wholesale population exchange and to ethnic cleansing. Asia Minor, as the state of Turkey, now became a self-consciously Muslim land, cleansed of Armenians and Greeks. [See TaGD – 30 for more details.]

I had never realised that the creation of the Lebanon [proclaimed in 1943 out of the former French protectorate] was an attempt to create a safe Christian  reservation. But the Christian population is shrinking. The Assyrians hoped to form a distinct Christian state, but were lumped into the Muslim-majority Iraq, where the Christian population has now shrunk to perhaps 1%. Leaders of the Palestinian guerrilla movements in the 1970s were predominantly Christians. But the leading forces [Hamas] are now Islamist.

Ghosts of a Faith

Jenkins believes that when religions die they leave remnants which are incorporated into new cultures. And that, even when Christian communities are destroyed, they leave a clandestine presence. He points, for example, to the existence of crypto-Christian communities in the Balkans, which survived under Islam.And to the way in which the architecture of mosques is heavy influenced by Byzantine churches of the 7th and 8th centuries. [Think of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia.]

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

He also suggests that Islam appropriated many Christian religious texts, particularly  from the apocryphal books that were in circulation in the Eastern churches. And he gives some credence to the [controversial] views of the German scholar Christoph Luxenberg that the Koran was in origin a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book. Some minority Muslim sects, such as the Alawites in Syria, have an attachment to Jesus and doctrines close to the Christian church.

How faiths die

History tells us that faiths are resilient and hard to eradicate. But, as the book emphasises, it is also  true that faiths can disappear from regions which they once dominated. Jenkins surveys a number of contributory factors. State protection was critical. By the 16th century the great majority of Christians lived in Christian states; and most of these were in Europe. But demography is also a significant factor. Higher education and access to contraception means that Christian communities [in the Middle East] have much lower birth rates than their Muslim neighbours. Migration is also significant. In Asia Minor Islam grew after 1200 because of the influx of Turkish immigrants.

And language was important for religious transition. The rise of Islam saw the eclipse of Syriac, Greek, and Coptic; and the growing importance of Arabic. Peter Brown writes: “Ultimately it was the victory of Arabic which opened the door to Islamization”. By the 11th century both Syriac and Coptic were declining as major languages.

Endings and Beginnings

The total eclipse of the church in North Africa remains a major setback. Latin Christian traditions developed in Carthage rather than Rome; Africa was the home of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. But within 50 years of the Arab conquest in 698, North African Christianity was in severe decline. And by the 12th century it had disappeared. Interestingly Jenkins suggests that the church had failed to evangelise in local languages. “Christianity remained a colonists’ religion.” By contrast, in Egypt the Coptic church did reach the natives by using the native Coptic language.

Eastern Christianity was founded on a hierarchy of metropolitans and bishops based in cities;  it was an urban, elitist religion. But cities like Antioch and Carthage shrank to nothing; while Damascus and Alexandria lost influence. In Asia Minor fighting destroyed the urban culture. Geography favoured the Coptic church: Egypt escaped much of the invasion and conflict of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; being protected by the land bottleneck between Palestine and Egypt, between Asia and Africa. Minority faiths flourished only on the fringes and in the mountains. The kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia survived in the Caucasus. Mountainous Lebanon was a home to Maronite Christians. Mesopotamian Christians survived only in the hill regions of Kurdistan.

Maronite church, Chouf

Some people see the disappearance of the great eastern churches as God’s judgement on heresy [by Western, Catholic standards]. More positively, Jenkins asks: “Do churches die ? Or does something positive arise from their ruins ?” He wants us to try and see the global picture. At the same time as [Islamic] Turkish power was reaching its peak in the traditional Christian lands of the Middle East, so the seafaring Christian powers were bringing their faith to the New World and to the Pacific. At exactly the time in 1915-25 when powers in the Middle East were extinguishing the Christian remnants, so then Christianity began its epochal growth [revival] in black Africa, “arguably the most important event in Christian history since the Reformation”. If we believe that God speaks to us through history, then we need to rediscover some of these lost Christian memories.


I am aware of churches in Edinburgh that have died. And others that may only survive for another decade or so. Are there then lessons here for the churches in the West ? I think that Jenkins addresses this question more directly in his later book Europe: God’s Own Continent. My recollection is that the book is rather better than the rather naff title. But I lent my copy to a member of our home group over a year ago. If and when I get it back, I’ll have another look at it.

December 2020

Through a glass darkly – 32


I am an awful wimp about heights. I used to think it was a severe case of vertigo. But now I think it is probably acrophobia; a state of great anxiety on tall buildings, mountain roads, cliffs and big bridges. A Christian psychotherapist once told me it was almost certainly related to child abuse. But whether as a victim or a perpetrator he was unwilling to say. As a child I baulked at going up the Monument in London; and as a teenager I wouldn’t go up St Stephen’s Tower [Big Ben] at the Houses of Parliament. I have never wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower. As for mountain roads, when I was much younger I hitched over the Simplon Pass. But two decades ago I had to have my hands prised off the wheel after driving from Bourg-en-Bresse to Geneva, with its longish elevated motorway section. And more recently on the bus from Interlaken Station up to Beatenberg, and again on the coach from Grand Junction up to Silverton, Colorado, I have had to travel with a covering over my head like an over-stimulated parrot.

So it is odd that I quite enjoy looking at mountains. From a safe distance. And perhaps more odd that I quite enjoy reading books by mountaineers and looking at the illustrations. Even when they make my toes curl. As in other areas of life, my choice of reading seems to be out of date. A bit retro. Several years ago I bought, and read, a second-hand copy of Eric Shipton’s  classic, 1969 autobiography That Untravelled World. Which I have again been looking through on wet December afternoons.

Eric Shipton

Shipton was an interesting character. He was born in Ceylon in 1907; his father died when he was just three, and his mother’s remarriage was short-lived when his step-father died in the First World War.  His mother was restless, and as a small child he moved around a lot between Ceylon, India, England, and France; guarding for the rest of his life valued memories of cross-Channel boats and Continental sleeper trains. He was sent at the age of eight to an English prep school of the era; corporal punishment was the norm, and from her bed the headmaster’s wife interrogated the boys daily on their bowel movements. After failing his Common Entrance Shipton was sent to Pyt House, an eccentric, minor public school in south Wiltshire. [Evelyn Waugh taught at the school a few years later when it had moved to Aston Clinton.] At school Shipton was dyslexic [would that disqualify you for Harrow ?], and excelled only in tree-climbing.

Eric Shipton

In later life Shipton considered that the two luckiest influences that shaped his life were, first, being a complete failure at school, which precluded the choice of a professional career in England; and secondly the Great Slump of the 1920s which ruined his prospects as a farmer in Kenya. In his teens Shipton had developed a lasting love of mountains: he spent a hiking holiday in the Jotunheimen with a Norwegian school friend; did his first guided climbs in Switzerland in 1924; and then embarked on two weeks intensive climbing with the French guide Elie Richard in the Dauphiné. It was his last visit to the Alps for three decades. In 1928 he arrived in Kenya to work as an apprentice on a coffee farm a hundred miles north of Nairobi. From his bungalow window Shipton looked out at the twin volcanic peaks of Mount Kenya. The mountain was first seen by a European in 1849. But it was first climbed only in 1899, by Halford Mackuinder, the only known ascent..

[Major] HW Tilman

After the First World War ex-soldiers were offered [free] plots of land in what was then British East Africa. One of the settlers was HW Tilman, who had drawn a plot 7,000 feet up close to the equator, and forty miles east of Lake Victoria. Tilman was from Wallasey, the son of a prosperous sugar merchant. He had been an outstanding pupil at Berkhamsted school, and might under other circumstances have progressed to Oxbridge. Instead he became, aged 16, a cadet at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich; was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery; and sailed aged not quite 18 for the Western Front. Like many who fought in that war he never spoke of his experiences. When the war ended he was not quite 21, had won an MC and Bar for ‘acts of exceptional gallantry’; and exhibited the shame and guilt of those who had survived when too many friends had died in the mud-filled trenches.

Bill Tilman

In Kenya, as it was now known, Tilman cleared land, built mud-brick houses, put acres under flax and then coffee, and built bridges made of timber baulks lashed together with war-surplus barbed wire. In 1924 he returned home for his brother’s funeral, and spent an enjoyable day climbing in the Lake District. One day at the end of the 1920s Tilman wrote to Shipton whose name he had seen in The East Africa Standard [Dear Shipton … … Yours sincerely, HW Tilman] to ask for some advice about how to go about climbing in Kenya.

Shipton and Tilman

Mount Kenya

After that initial letter Shipton and Tilman joined forces to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, but really little more than a “somewhat gruelling walk”; to make the first traverse of the twin peaks of Mount Kenya, described by Shipton as :”probably the hardest climb I have ever done”; and then in January 1932, on their last African expedition, to climb the highest peaks of Ruwenzori, the mysterious range of mountains above the headwaters of the White Nile, on the borders of Uganda and the Congo.  But this was only the beginning of their shared exploits.

Tilman and Shipton

I have been reading Shipton and Tilman: The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration by Jim Perrin, a climber, journalist, and mountain historian. It is essentially a joint biography of the two men, but the focus is on their travels together in the 1930s. Shipton is associated in particular with the Himalayas. He had made a first ascent of Kamet in 1931, then the highest mountain ever climbed, in an expedition led by Frank Smythe [another product of Berkhamsted school]. Shipton forged a warm friendship with Smythe, who then invited him to join the Everest expedition of 1933. The expedition ended in failure, turning back in some disarray because of bad weather. The younger climbers were critical of the old guard leadership. Shipton and others took the opportunity to indulge in some local exploration. Meanwhile Tilman had abandoned farming in Africa; bought himself a £6.00 bicycle and set off to cycle home to the UK from Uganda across the Belgian Congo, French Equatorial Africa, and French Cameroon. His map was torn from the back of a magazine. His diet was exclusively eggs, often bad, and coarse baking bananas. 

A decade of exploration

Shipton was persuaded by Tom Longstaff, a choleric, red-haired doctor-turned-mountain explorer, to turn his attention to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. In 1934 this was the fascinating challenge of the Himalayan region; a precipice-ringed valley which no European traveller had ever entered. Where all previous Everest expeditions had travelled with literally hundreds of porters, bearing Fortnum and Mason’s Stilton and  tinned tongue and quails in aspic, Shipton, influenced again by Tom Longstaff,  envisaged a more Spartan approach, dispensing with elaborate equipment and living largely off local produce. He believed that travelling light would make it easier to make contact with the local people. Tilman, now at a loose end in Wallasey, was an enthusiastic recruit for such an approach. Though his suggestion of bicycling to India was swiftly dismissed. The budget for their five months in India, accompanied by three Sherpas, turned out to be £140.00 each, including their fares out and back on a cargo vessel.

Rishi Ganga gorge

There is a detailed account of the 1934 expedition in Shipton’s Nanda Devi [published in 1936]. [For someone who was dyslexic he wrote six mountain travel books, many of which are still in print, and some forty-odd articles, mainly for the Alpine Journal.] Penetrating the Nanda Devi Sanctuary was a major struggle. The only access was through the Rishi Ganga valley; it was not the paradise they imagined, but a steep-sided gorge covered in dense bamboo forest where they progressed at the rate of a mile a day. After almost five months their boots were ragged and funds were running low. They lived and ate with the Sherpas as equals. “With these allies we hope one day to reach the summit of Mount Everest”, Shipton wrote; “without them we would have little chance of doing so”. The two Europeans continued to address each other as ‘Tilman’ and ‘Shipton’. After seven months almost continuously together “when I suggested it was time he called me ‘Eric’, he became acutely embarrassed, hung his head, and muttered ‘it sounds so damned silly’”. 

The Nanda Devi adventure certainly made their name in explorers’ circles. When permission was unexpectedly granted for an exploratory Everest expedition in 1935, Shipton’s name went forwards as leader. Tilman reluctantly joined a team of six climbers. “I suspected that the root of his objection”, wrote Shipton, “was that, while he had been forced to accept my company, the prospect of having five companions was scarcely tolerable”. The expedition achieved little on Everest because of the snow conditions, but they enjoyed themselves exploring little-known peaks to the north-east of the mountain, and reached some twenty-six summits.

For the full-blown 1936 Everest expedition Tilman was discarded because of his [supposed] low altitude ceiling. He went instead back to Nanda Devi, where he and Noel Odell [also left out of the Everest team on the grounds of age] became the first pair to reach the summit. It was the finest achievement yet in the Himalayas. In his book, The Ascent of Nanda Devi, Tilman writes, after describing the view, “I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it”. On Everest Frank Smythe and Shipton were designated as the first summit pair, but an early monsoon and heavy snow caused the attempt to be abandoned.In a letter to a new lady friend, Pamela Preston, Shipton wished that he had been with Tilman and Odell “instead of wasting my time on this Everest business”.

In 1937 Shipton and Tillman made the second of their epic exploratory expeditions; to the Shaksgam River valley on the north side of the Karakoram range. To add credibility and expertise to the expedition they were joined by Michael Spender, an abrasive surveyor who had already been on Everest, and John Auden, a geologist from the Geological Survey of India. Both incidentally were the brothers of famous poets. The party had to be self-sufficient for four months and they rationed their food meticulously. They earnestly debated whether to take a knife each or one between two. Tilman argued that plates were unnecessary as everything could be eaten out of a mug. But it was agreed that eating curry and drinking tea at the same time demanded two receptacles. In the course of a gruelling four-month trip the party climbed few peaks, but they did much to disentangle the geography of a hitherto unknown region, accurately mapping the glaciers and high passes of an area that had previously been Blank on the Map, the title of Shipton’s 1938 book.

Karakoram range

The final pre-war Everest expedition took place in 1938. This time Tilman was the designated leader, which ensured that there was Spartan provisioning. Tilman chose a team of seven, a lot for a man who described an expedition as “a party with too many people in it”.  Frank Smythe and Peter Oliver complained continuously about the food. After a promising start, an early monsoon and exceptionally heavy  snow defeated the expedition. “A vile waste of time” was Shipton’s verdict.

The following decades

Summer 1938 was the end of their explorations together. When the Second World War broke out, Shipton was in the wilderness of the Karakoram. He joined the Indian Army, and started without enthusiasm at Officers Training School in Southern India. In 1940 he was offered the post of HM Consul-General in Kashgar, in Sinkiang. There were subsequent postings to Persia, and to Vienna, a return to Kashgar, and then a posting to Kunming in southern China. It is not clear to what extent he may have been a player in the Great Game [that is, a spy]. 

By the 1950s Shipton was the most experienced Everest climber alive, and the obvious candidate to lead a British attempt on Everest, which some Britons thought as ‘their mountain’. On his return from China he led an expedition in 1951 to explore Mount Everest from the south, now that Nepal had opened up. The team included, at the last moment, the hitherto unknown New Zealand climber, Edmund Hillary. And he also led a training expedition to nearby Cho Oyu in 1952. But not everyone was convinced by Shipton’s leadership; there was a suspicion that he showed ‘inadequate drive’, that he might not be ‘hungry enough’ for a summit bid that was a matter of ‘national prestige’. In a manoeuvre that is still controversial Shipton was stabbed in the back, and was replaced by the military man, Colonel John Hunt, who was thought to be ‘more of a thruster’. After which he became Warden of the Outward Bound Mountain School in Eskdale, in the Lake District. The job was abruptly terminated when his marriage broken down, after which he was housed by a succession of lady friends. In the late 1950s and the 1960s Shipton made a series of gruelling expeditions to the Patagonian Ice Cap. Which are characterised by Peter Steele, his biographer, as “essays in masochism”. In the final decade of his life he became a celebrity guide and lecturer. He died peacefully in 1977, aged 70, and his ashes were scattered on the Fonthill Lakes.

Tilman rejoined the British Army when war broke out, was evacuated from Dunkirk, was promoted to major [a rank at which he conspired to remain], and led a ‘Jock column’ in North Africa. Finding the Western Desert too quiet for his liking, he volunteered for parachute training and fought with SOE with the partisans in Albania and later in Italy. After the war he turned to Himalayan and Central Asian climbing, which included an under-prepared, and unsuccessful, attempt with Shipton on Muzagh Ata in the remote Kun Lun mountains. For two years he was British Consul at  Maymyo in the Shan Highlands of Central Burma, but his contract was not renewed. In 1953 he came home to Wales, and bought a small boat. For most of the following two decades he roamed the seas in a series of cutters, invariably living off frugal rations. On one occasion s younger crew mutinied at the lack of provisions. He was lost at sea in November 1977, in circumstances that are not entirely  clear, somewhere between Rio and Port Stanley. He outlived Shipton by six months.


They were in some ways an improbable couple. They were both happiest when breaking new ground in remote mountains; both happy to travel light and live off the land. They were both frugal. Their travels earned them recognition from fellow travellers and from the Royal Geographical Society. Tilman was shy and self-effacing; allegedly a misogynist; and taciturn in the extreme. Shipton though introverted was quite gregarious, enjoyed dancing, and had a complicated love life. Women fell for his blue eyes. And he fell for a succession of women, remaining friendly with them when the passion was over. It is not clear that this was a conventional friendship. But they had a quirky, humorous relationship which survived their extended travels together. As Jim Perrin concludes, “this was the greatest exploring partnership in British history”.

December 2020

Though a glass darkly – 31

Hail Mary, full of grace

I see that COVID restrictions in France have caused the cancellation of Lyon’s Fête des Lumières this year.  Normally the Festival is held each year on December 8th, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception.

Fête des Lumières, Lyon

Lyon thanks the Virgin for saving the city by lighting hundreds of candles which are placed in windows across the city. And there is a candle-lit procession from the Cathedral in the old town up the steep hill to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a huge, vaguely Byzantine, 19th century church which dominates the city.  The festival gives thanks to the Virgin for saving the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague that swept across France in 1643. And for saving the city again from a cholera epidemic in 1832. And from the Prussian invasion in 1870. Or possibly just for ensuring victory over the socialists and in expiation of the sins of modern France.

When I was clearing out my collection of biblical commentaries, a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of Marina Warner’s book, Alone of all her sex: the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary. Warner was at Oxford at the same time as me; she was Editor of Isis, and I once saw her at a party, sitting on a sofa next to Emma Rothschild. They both looked classier and better-dressed than the rest of us. [Her grandfather, for those who need to know, was Sir Pelham ‘Plum’ Warner, captain of the England cricket team before the First World War, and thereafter an august and much respected member of the MCC. Jack Fingleton is scathing about his two-faced behaviour over the Bodyline controversy.]  Dame Marina Warner is not a cricketer. But she has eleven honorary degrees and is a respected academic and a wide-ranging cultural historian.

Alone of all her sex

Warner is from a Catholic background and confesses that invocation to the Virgin Mary marked out the days of her childhood. “On February 2, the feast of the Purification, we wore starched white veils of tulle that stood out around us like a nimbus … “. On the same day her school laid lilies at the Virgin’s statue. Warner created a grotto for prayer under a rhododendron bush. The Virgin was faithful and steadfast, but she demanded purity; which was most often understood as sexual chastity.

Alone of all her sex

This book does not pursue the historical Mary; of whom we know little. But it traces the evolution of the four Catholic dogma: her divine motherhood and her virginity, both proclaimed by early Councils of the Church; the immaculate conception, proclaimed in 1854; and her assumption, body and soul, into heaven, proclaimed  by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The book explores the aspects of her person and her cult. “Whether we regard the Virgin Mary as the most sublime and beautiful image of man’s struggle towards the good and the pure, or as the most pitiable product of ignorance and superstition, she represents a central theme in the history of western attitudes to women.”

Mary in the Gospels and in the Apocrypha

Our knowledge of Mary in Scripture is largely limited to the infancy narratives in Matthew and in Luke. Which Warner assumes to be later additions, and not historic. Thus Matthew’s gospel is a reworking of Old Testament themes with Jesus as the new Moses. “Luke’s infancy Gospel is the scriptural source for all the great mysteries of the Virgin”; she is at the centre of the Lucan narrative. Of the four declared dogmas, her divine motherhood, her virginity, her immaculate conception, and her bodily assumption into heaven, only the first can be attributed to Scripture. 

The myth of the Virgin owes much to two eastern, apocryphal books, Pseudo-Matthew and The Book of James. The eastern church received The Book of James as authentic. But it was not translated into Latin until the 16th century. Since when Mary’s mother, St Anne, has become a historical woman with an official cult; as late as 1954 Pope Pius XII was recommending pilgrimage to her shrine in Brittany. The book, and the subsequent apocryphal books which it influenced, focussed attention on the miraculous virginity of Mary; and thus played a crucial part in shaping the story of the Virgin Mary as we receive it today.

The Virgin Birth

In the pre-Christian Roman Empire virgin birth was a sign of a man’s divinity. Christians are worried about the parallel between Christ’s birth and the dozens of virgin births of classical mythology. Warner notes that Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander were all believed to have been born of a woman by the intervention of a divine spirit. Catholic orthodoxy, e.g. the Council of Trent, continued to uphold the virginity of Mary both during and after the birth of Jesus. But the Second Vatican Council of 1964 refrained from proclaiming this as an article of faith. 

The belief that sexual intercourse was linked to original sin is the reason for the belief in the virgin birth. “The son of God chose to be born from a virgin mother because this was the only way a child could enter the world without sin.” From the 3rd century Christians retreated up the Nile valley to lives of solitude and abstinence. Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome all equated chastity with holiness. 

The virgin martyr is one of Christianity’s enduring types. In Christian hagiography the sado-masochistic suffering of both male and female martyrs is startling. The female martyrs are assaulted in a variety of ingenious and often sexual ways.  Perhaps because virginity was associated with wholeness, and with power. Warner suggests that the nun’s vocation is both oppressive and liberating; founded in contempt of, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. According to St Augustine, the marriage of Joseph and Mary, in which there was no sexual intercourse, was the model marriage; a relationship bound by a mutual vow of abstinence.

The Immaculate Conception

In December 1854 Pope Pius IX officially proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary; the only human creature free of the taint of original sin.  In doing so he proclaimed as a dogma something that had been discussed since the 12th century. This doctrine is a significant barrier to the ecumenical movement; the Reformed churches recoil from the superhuman exaltation of Mary that the doctrine implies. [Quite right too !] The Immaculate Conception was anathema to the Reformers. But the Jesuits, founded in 1534, were particularly zealous in their teaching of the doctrine. When Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine in 1854, it was the culmination of a lengthy struggle within the Catholic Church. Four years later, Warner suggests [tongue in cheek ?],  the doctrine was ratified by the appearance of the Virgin at Lourdes.

The Assumption

The Feast of the Dormition arrived from the eastern church in the 7th century, and the name changes to ‘Assumption’ in 9th century liturgical calendars. Mary’s bodily translation into heaven inspired a host of Renaissance painters, notably Titian. The Catholic dogma of the Assumption was not proclaimed until 1950, when the announcement was made on a balcony at the Vatican and was greeted by thunderous applause from a crowd estimated at nearly a million. It was the climax of centuries of tradition. The underlying theological justification depends on the Christian equivalence between sex and death, and by extension between the Virgin’s purity and her freedom from the dissolution of the grave. At least, I think that is the argument.

A bit confused

I must confess that this book leaves me a bit confused. Warner’s scholarship is impressive. And her observations are backed up by a huge array of artistic and literary references. And she occasionally comes out with some striking phrases. In the conclusion she suggests that any goddess is better than no goddess at all; that “the sombre-suited masculine world of the Protestant religion is altogether too much like a gentleman’s club to which the ladies are only admitted on special days.” But that of course was before these days of woman priests and woman bishops.

Our Lady – Intercessor

The taxonomy is a bit confusing; the section headings – Virgin, Queen, Bride, Mother, and Intercessor – do not fit tidily with the four Catholic dogma. Which makes for quite a bit of repetition.  And there is this centuries-old hang-up about sex. Warner concedes, after a chapter on Dante, Beatrice, and the Virgin Mary: “sometimes this long and durable obsession with chastity perpetuated by the Church appears to be an incomprehensible attack of mass lunacy.”

A later chapter acknowledges that the one biological function allowed to the Virgin was that of suckling. In the Old Testament milk and honey are symbols of the promised land. Milk was a crucial metaphor for the gift of life. The Romans also connected milk with the heavens; Juno’s milk, when she was nursing Hercules, sprayed across the heavens to give us The Milky Way. Mary’s milk was an emanation from heaven; and St Bernard believed he had tasted it with his own lips. But as the Renaissance advanced so the image of the nursing Virgin waned in popularity. The wine Liebfraumilch is one of the reminders of this once common image of the Virgin’s lactation. I may never be able to drink German wine in the same way again.

Role models

The Church needed role models of sinners who repented. Clearly the Virgin was not eligible, as someone who was pure and without sin. So – this role was played by Mary Magdalene. For the Catholic church Mary Magdalene is the prototype of the penitent whore; who neatly combines Christianity’s fear  of women, its identification of physical beauty with temptation, and its practice of bodily mortification.  Warner summarises: “Together the Virgin and the Magdalene form a diptych of Christian patriarchy’s ideas of woman … there is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore”.

Update in 2013

Warner’s book was first published in the UK back in 1975. But there is a revised edition published a few years back by Oxford University Press. Writing in the Church Times in 2013, when the new edition appeared, Warner noted that the Virgin Mary continues to be loved and revered, invoked and depicted even well outside the sphere of the Roman Catholic church. Instead of being the figurehead of the long crusade against Communism, and the emblem of kings and Fascist dictators from Europe to Central and South America, she has evolved into a counter-cultural peace symbol. Warner sees links with the voodoo goddess Erzulie, or the candomblé (an African-originated or Afro-Brazilian religion) figure of Iemaja as distinct from the traditional Madonna. It isn’t that her myth has died – far from it; but it has changed with regard to its historic meanings, alliances, and effects.

The House of Mary in Ephesus

In 2013 Warner suggests that the miraculous virgin birth is now a less prominent issue. Instead ethical questions about the relations of Church and State, justice, equality of means, of women and children’s survival, and stewardship of nature – have crystallised around the traditional figure of Mary in her aspects as the Mother of Mercy, and advocate and protectress of the poor. And it is not only the self-professed faithful who find this Mary an inspiration. “It is a long time since I lost my faith in Mary”, she writes “…  but I find that the symbolism of mercy and love that her figure has traditionally expressed has migrated, and now shapes secular imagery and events. Roman Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolise it, or control its significance.”


There was stuff here that was new to me. But I guess that I won’t be reading the book again.  The story of Mary has undoubtedly inspired artists and story-tellers down the centuries. And I think that her story, and that of Joseph too, can speak powerfully to us about collaborating with God in order that his purposes may. be fulfilled. And that the story can speak to us too about Christian parenting. But I find the whole emphasis on the virgin birth [and the immaculate conception too] distinctly unhelpful. Such dogma seems to me to totally undermine the real miracle of the incarnation, the  physicality and the earthiness of the Word made Flesh, Was it Selwyn Hughes who used to say that mud and blood were very close in the Bethlehem stable ?

December 2020

Through a glass darkly – 30

Changing Places

Just typing those words brings up odd memories and connections. Changing Places was the title of a very funny campus novel [of 1975], in which the conformist University of Rummidge [Birmingham] lecturer, Philip Swallow, does an exchange with the ebullient, cigar-chewing Euphoria University [Berkeley] academic. Morris Zapp.   But in a very different culture Changing Places is now the name of a pressure group  that campaigns for fully accessible public toilets for people with profound and multiple disabilities. And also for old people. Perhaps they are the same group ?

I’m not wanting to write about either of those things. Instead, aware that it is almost exactly a year since we went to do locum ministry in Ankara, I have been reading a book which I first saw there in the chaplaincy flat; Twice a Stranger by the journalist Bruce Clark. It is an excellent book.

The treaty of Lausanne

After the 1914-18 war the situation in Greece and Turkey was very confused. In the culturally and confessionally diverse Ottoman world, modernity led not to integration but to ethnic division. People and religions were forced to live separately because no way of co-existence could be found. 

The separation was a solution to an immediate political crisis. But population transfer was the culmination of a long historical process. The Sultans’ retreat from Europe began with the Serbian revolt of 1804 and the creation of a new, self-consciously Christian kingdom of Greece in 1829. Greece was poverty-stricken. Ambitious Ottoman Greeks found more opportunities elsewhere, in Anatolia. But conflict engulfed Anatolia in 1919 when a Greek expeditionary force [supported by European powers and by Lloyd-George] invaded the nascent Turkey and occupied Smyrna. In 1922 the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal  drove the Greeks back into the sea. New borders were drawn up. Economic assets were distributed. “Henceforth, it was determined, Greece would be an almost entirely Orthodox Christian country, while in Turkey the overwhelming majority of citizens would be Muslims.” The terms of the divorce were contained in the Treaty of Lausanne in January 1923. Which allowed for substantial population exchange: some 400,000 Muslims in Greece [speaking Greek, Albanian, and Bulgarian as well as Turkish] were deported [back to Turkey]; and some 500,000 Turkish-speaking Christians who had lived in Anatolia were shipped to Greece.

Treaty of Lausanne, 1923

The modern societies of Turkey and Greece were significantly shaped by this exchange. Anatolia lost virtually all its traders and entrepreneurs, and most professional people and skilled craftsmen. While Athens still has a significant minority of people from Asia Minor origins. A new dogma of nationalism emerged. Before 1923 ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ had little meaning. But “the treaty of Lausanne … was inspired by a new way of looking at human society; one that dealt in hard, hermetically sealed categories, and insisted that every individual and family must belong to one nation or the other and live within its borders.” Whatever they felt about being deported, the Christians of Anatolia and the Muslims of Greece were now remoulded as Greeks and Turks.

Who was responsible for this massive piece of social engineering. Clark identifies Eleftherios Venizelos, the dominant Greek politician of the time, and Fridtjof Nansen, the Polar explorer turned United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as the main players. They knew that compulsory resettlement would cause hardship and suffering, but it seemed that population exchange on a huge scale was the only solution to a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

What happened ?

Bruce Clark traces the human stories of the people who were wrenched from their homes. He draws on interviews and the oral history of the people involved. There were difficult decisions to be made. The Pontic Greeks of Trebizond, a flourishing Greek port on the Black Sea, traced their origins to Greek colonists in about 700 BC. But in January 1923 Greek Orthodox families in Trebizond were told to leave their homes within one hour. Because of its location, Trebizond had had little direct contact with mainland Greece. More than elsewhere in Anatolia there was a close sympathy between Greeks and Turks. The Pontic Greeks had retained both their language and their religion. There were also tens of thousands of ‘crypto-Christians’, who straddled the boundaries between the Muslim and Christian faiths. The division between Muslims and Christians here was not clear-cut. The Greek-speaking population of Imera, a remote village in the mountains behind Trebizond, was isolated from Muslims and Turks. Forced into exile in Greece in 1923, they retained a nostalgic longing for their villages; displaying an ethnic and cultural ambivalence.

Population exchange

Liberal opinion in the west was horrified at the notion of compulsory expulsion of all Christians from the new Turkish state. So, Lord Curzon backed Venizelos in his claim that the Greek Orthodox population of Constantinople be  exempted. On the understanding that the Patriarch’s rule was purely religious. In return for allowing 100,000 Greeks to remain in Constantinople, the Greeks allowed [roughly the same number of ] Ottoman Muslims to  remain in  western Thrace.  There was an additional problem over the Turkish-speaking Christians of Cappadocia; an area with long-standing Christian traditions, where the distinction between ‘Greeks’ and ‘Turks’ was very unclear. It was initially thought that the Cappadocian Christians would be exempted. But then it was acknowledged that their presence in the centre of Turkey would be too problematic.

The outcome

The compulsory population exchange caused a great deal of heartache and suffering. Many Anatolian Christians fleeing Smyrna and Trebizond were housed temporarily in the Selimye barracks in Constantinople; they experienced hunger, were overcrowded, and were ravaged by smallpox and by typhoid. But it ‘worked’ in that it contributed in both countries to the forging of a more-or-less homogenous nation-state. “Compared with any major country in western Europe, Greece and Turkey are fairly homogenous countries.” The vast majority of Greek citizens speak Greek and adhere, at least nominally, to Orthodox Christianity. The vast majority of Turkish citizens speak Turkish and adhere to Sunni Islam. On the Turkish side, with a population of 70 million, the only exception are the Kurds, who may number 10 million, and who have never been fully incorporated into the Turkish Republic.

Refugees on the move

 “It is a hard fact of modern Greek and Turkish history”, Clark concludes,  “that this huge and ruthless project in social engineering was more successful than otherwise …” And the project was certainly helped by on both sides by a single faith. Even though the infant Turkish Republic was determinedly secular. [The secularist founders of the Republic of Turkey would be disappointed by recent developments.] Equally the rites, sacraments and bonding influence of the Greek church have made a significant contribution to the holding together of the modern Greek state.

One issue that was not settled by the Treaty of Lausanne was Cyprus – which was then a British colony. Cyprus was a running sore from the 1950s. In the summer of 1974 a coup by Greek and Greek-Cypriot ultra-rightists triggered a Turkish invasion. Leaving a divided island.

In the 21st century it is no longer possible for Greece and Turkey to remain neatly divided and hermetically sealed countries. In Greece half the wage-earners have migrated to Germany to work, and many houses are being bought as holiday homes for north Europeans. Greece now has a diverse labour force, of whom 20% may be non-Greek-speakers, The Lausanne guiding principle of ‘Greece for the Greek Orthodox Christians’ may be unsustainable in the 21st century.

Similarly, if Turkey continues to pursue its ambition to join the European Community, it will no longer be able to impose a single, narrowly defined model of ‘Turkishness’ on all its citizens. For Turkey’s nationalist establishment, every concession to Brussels means surrendering some part of the Lausanne principles on which the republic is based. “It is baffling and infuriating” for them, Clark notes, “to be told by European organisations that they must dismantle the post-Lausanne republican order and go back to the older notion that more than one language, culture, and religion can exist under the same roof”. But as globalisation and liberal capitalism advance, they are bringing a different concept of citizenship to the partially modern, partially traditional societies of Turkey and Greece. But some people are nervous that President Erdogan may think that 2023 is the time to renege on some aspects of the Lausanne agreement.

The relevance in our world today

The issue at the heart of the Lausanne negotiations, that of how to deal with an ethnic and linguistic minority within one country, is a recurrent issue in the history of the past century. The existence of the Sudeten Germans was the trigger for Nazi Germany’s two-stage annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. The 1947 plan for Britain’s granting of independence to the Indian sub-continent was the occasion of widespread violence and killing between the Hindu and Muslim communities; and there is lingering distrust and tension between India and Pakistan, especially in the disputed area of the Frontier Province. Bruce Clark is himself from Northern Ireland which, as he acknowledges “is one of the last places in the western world where conflict rages in the name of religion”. In recent weeks there has been renewed fighting in the long disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the boundaries  are unclear between [predominantly Christian] Armenians and Azebaijani Turks who are predominantly Shia Muslims.


Notionally, here in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, the Lausanne principles have been superseded by the Helsinki agreement, signed by 35 European countries [plus America and Canada] in 1975. This agreement insists that countries respect the human and cultural rights of their citizens, including minorities. I am not at all clear how the BREXIT mantra of ‘taking back sovereignty’ affects this principle. When the unspeakable Priti Patel tweets: “After many years of campaigning, I am delighted the Immigration Bill which will end free movement on 31st December has today passed through Parliament”, I think we have the right to be worried. Could we be contemplating a Lausanne-type solution ? Compulsory resettlement of undesirable aliens whose faces don’t fit ?

November 2020

Through a glass darkly – 29

Commentaries on the way to Glasgow

Susie and I drove to Glasgow ten days ago, to Bishopbriggs to be precise, in a City Car Club car. Possibly in contravention of current lockdown restrictions here in Edinburgh. We went there in order to take two big cardboard trays of biblical commentaries, about a hundred books, to the nearest collection point for BookAid. Which is a charity which collects theological and other books, either for re-sale or for onward shipment to students in the Third World. It feels like the end of an era. From Wycliffe Hall days I always felt that building a library of commentaries was an important part of ordained ministry. And an essential tool in preparing sermons. But now that I’m not doing much preaching, and now that I prepare sermons rather differently, it just seemed like a waste of half a bookcase. And Susie wanted the space for all her clarinet music and paraphernalia.

Colin Bennetts

Mark Ashton, one-time Vicar of the Round Church, Cambridge, once said that he had attended a couple of thousand church services before making a personal commitment. When I became a Christian in my mid thirties, at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, Oxford, it was largely through the preaching of Colin Bennetts, the then Rector. Colin was, to use an expression that I would not have known at the time. a ‘sane evangelical’. He had recently come to St Andrew’s after a spell as Chaplain at Jesus College, Oxford; and he preached on Sunday mornings by taking the lectionary readings [it was the era of Series Three morphing into the ASB], by seeking to explain them in their  context, and then by suggesting ways in which the passages might speak to us today. There was usually a point in the sermon when he would say: “So what might this passage say to us today …”. It sounds basic. But for me it was very effective. One day Susie and I were having lunch with a school-friend, Ian Maclean, who in those days taught French literature at the Queen’s College and who had appeared unexpectedly in the congregation. “What I can’t stand about Colin”, he said to me, “is that each week his sermon is aimed directly at me.” “No, I don’t think so”, I told him; “I think it is me that Colin is getting at.”

Colin Bennetts

Colin became a good friend to Susie and to me, and it was largely at his prompting that I found myself a candidate for ordination training. After surviving the selection process with some difficulty, I trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. By that time we were worshipping on Sundays at the parish church in Woodstock where we lived. The Rector in Woodstock was Edward Gregory Ambrose Wilford Page-Turner. He was tall and good-looking with silver hair, and much loved by some of the women in the parish. But preaching was not one of his gifts. So it was staff at Wycliffe, like Geoffrey Shaw and Gordon Ogilvie and David Wenham, who modelled for me expository preaching, using the pulpit to preach the Word of God, and praying for the Spirit to work among those in the pews. 

It was doing my time at Wycliffe that I encountered Proclamation Trust, led by Dick Lucas and David Jackman, and Evangelical Ministry Assembly [EMA]. I signed up a couple of times for EMA, at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and sat through some classic expositions by Dick and others. One of the highlights was hearing John Stott expounding the Book of Acts. [Much of the stuff later appeared in his volume in The Bible Speaks Today: Acts. It’s a very good book, but the danger [temptation] is to skimp on sermon preparation and just to read the stuff out !] But Philip Jensen, the more strident of the two Australian brothers, [Peter had been a curate briefly at St Andrew’s] could make me very cross. And I think I dimly perceived that ‘Death by over-exposition’, a detailed and seemingly interminable examination of each word in the text,  was a sort of predecessor of ‘Death by Powerpoint’ a few years later. 

Dennis Lennon

For complicated reasons when I was ordained in 1988 we came north to Scotland.  I came to Edinburgh to be a curate at St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, out towards the airport. The Rector, Dennis Lennon, was the best preacher I ever heard. By a country mile. He was certainly a biblical preacher. But not an expositor in the EMA sense. His own model as a student had been Martyn Lloyd-Jones, ‘The Doctor’, the celebrated Welsh preacher at Westminster Chapel. But Dennis’s preaching had been influenced by years with OMF in Thailand and South East Asia, bringing the gospel to peoples of a very different language and culture. He then trained at Oak Hill and did a curacy at the Round Church in Cambridge. He read widely, and had a particular affection for the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar. Other influences included the theologians Karl Barth, Tom Torrance, and Austin Farrer, and George Herbert, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Ted Hughes among the poets.

Dennis Lennon with Sonja, and me, 2006

Dennis had a gift for opening up new perspectives on Scripture [“How long do you have to look at a bush in the desert to see that it is burning, but not being consumed ?’] This was the beginning of a [long] evening service sermon, which later reappeared in [I think] The Eyes of the Heart. The message was on the importance of looking hard at things.  I remember his preaching three weeks running, to the consternation of the congregation, on the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, because he wasn’t sure if he was getting it right. The last time I heard him preach was in Lyon in 2001. A few weeks after the bombing of The Twin Towers in New York he preached, memorably, on the story in Matthew 7 of The Two Houses, one built on the rock and the other on the sand. From the outside, there is no discernible difference – until the storms blow and troubles come.

Colin and Dennis were the best two preachers I have heard, and certainly had the most influence on my life. After you get ordained there is of course less opportunity to hear other people preach. Richard Holloway, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Edinburgh, was always stimulating. And often controversial. He came once to Duns and told the congregation: “Here are some words I found recently on a fridge door in New York … I get most of my theology from fridge doors nowadays”.  I think as a more-or-less conservative evangelical, I was a bit disapproving ! In the same sermon he told the congregation, “I’m going to quote some well-know lines from Philip Larkin [‘They f— you up, your parents …], … and I’ll bowdlerise them in case there are any reporters from the Daily Mail here”. The congregation loved it. And loved him. [And there was a reporter there.]

Geoffrey Rowell, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Europe, was a different kind of bishop; he was a Tractarian Anglo-Catholic, most at home in an Oxford senior common room. He was also a different kind of preacher. My feeling was that his sermons, like some Orthodox theology, circled elegantly round a point that was never quite reached or articulated. More positively, on different occasions Peter Neilson, from the Church if Scotland, and David Smith, from ICC, Glasgow, came to preach for us in Lyon. And both were excellent.

Richard Mayabi, with Susie, Lyon, 2008

Through connections with ICC, Richard Mayabi, then the priest of St Jerome’s Anglican Church in Kibera, in Nairobi, came to preach for us. He worked at that time in one of the biggest slums in Africa, and caught our imagination in Lyon as he spoke of a church community that was thriving in very difficult circumstances.

Here in retirement in Edinburgh we worship, when we are not elsewhere, in our local presbyterian church, in the Church of Scotland. Jared Hay, the previous minister, was an excellent preacher. And a very capable exponent of PowerPoint. [He also enlivened a sermon series on Revelation by dressing up as different characters in the story on successive Sundays.] Sadly his successor, though good with people and with children, seems to have little interest in engaging with scripture. I suppose I could have offered him my old commentaries. But I don’t know if he would have had much use for them.

November 2020

Through a glass darkly – 28

The Fall of France

Do not be afraid ! I am writing about history, not current affairs. After reading Alistair Horne’s book on The Siege and the Paris Commune [see TaGD 22], I thought I’d look again at his book To lose a battle: France 1940. But this has gone. Probably a casualty of water damage in the garage. But I did find two books called Assignment to Catastrophe by General E.L. Spears.  The second volume has a Shakespeare and Co bookseller’s stamp, so I guess I bought them when we were living in Paris back in the 1970s.

Edward Louis Spears  had been born in Paris, was brought up largely by his grand-mother in France and Ireland, and spoke French fluently. There is evidence that his forbears were Jewish, something he always denied. Spears joined the British Army in 1906 aged twenty, and was commissioned in the Royal Irish Hussars. He acquired the nickname Monsieur Beaucaire in the Mess, where his unconventional childhood ensured that he remained something of an outsider. Very few military men spoke two languages. [It is said that when General Sir John French spoke French from a prepared text at manoeuvres in France, his accent was so bad that listeners assumed he was speaking in English.] So Spears was swiftly appointed to liaison duties in 1914 between the British and French armies. Although he was initially quite a junior officer, Spears’ liaison work brought him into contact with a host of influential military and political figures; among the French he came to know Generals Georges and Petain and Foch, and Clémenceau; while on the British side he worked with Lloyd George and Douglas Haig, and developed a close friendship with Winston Churchill. After the war Spears published two well received books about his liaison work, became a Conservative MP, first for Loughborough and then for Carlisle, and aligned himself to the so-called Eden group, of Conservative backbenchers who were opposed to appeasement policies.

In August 1939 Spears visited the Maginot Line in the company of Winston Churchill as the guests of General Georges. With the country was on the verge of war the following month he was on a motoring holiday in the Dordogne valley. When war was declared he explored the possibility of returning to service in liaison work but was rebuffed by the War Office. During the so-called Phoney War he and other members of the Eden group pressed for a more energetic government policy; for more robust support for Poland and more vigorous action against Germany.

In May 1940 Germany invades Belgium and France, Chamberlain promptly resigns and Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister. Ten days later Churchill sends Spears to France: “I have decided to send you as my personal representative to Paul Reynaud [the French Prime Minister]. You will have the rank of Major-General.” He looks out the missing portions of his uniform, and flies two days later to Paris in a Bristol Blenheim. The greater part of the two books are a detailed, day-by-day account of Spears’ mission.

The most striking feature of the books is that Spears seemingly knows everyone. It is a small world. Sir Ronald Campbell, the British Ambassador, is a former colleague. A sad-eyed  Reynaud greets him as an old friend; “vous êtes le bienvenu”. General Maxim Weygand, the new French Commander-in-Chief [aged 73], and Marshal Pétain, now Vice-President of the Council [aged 84], are known to him from the First War. [He notes that Pétain a son of Picardy naturally loathes Weygand who was  born in Belgium.] Spears is soon given an office in the French Ministry of War.  He attends meetings of the French War Committee. Georges Mandel, the Minister of the Interior, offers him a frank assessment of the lack of will to  fight in the French Army, and of the low morale of his cabinet colleagues. One of the phrases that recurs in conversations is“ecroulment moral”.  As a welcome break from the prevalent mood of defeatism, Spears enjoys dining with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, now a Captain in the French Air Force, and his cousin “a very charming woman and a friend of twenty years’ standing”.

Spears, a long-time admirer of the French Army, is saddened by their unwillingness to fight. Which brings out all his reactionary prejudices: “Were the weaknesses, the disorders, the lack of leadership and the dearth of fighting qualities, the  result of a dying patriotism, poisoned at its root by political corruption and pacifist-cum-communist slobber ?

The hero of the two books is of course Churchill. He flies unexpectedly into Paris at the end of May, “fresh as a daisy”, and delivers an up-beat message to the Supreme War Council; “Dunkirk has been a triumph for the British Navy and Air Force”.  [Reynaud and Paul Baudoin are moved and grateful, but not all are convinced. “Weygand, face resting on his hands, looked like a dried-up lemon.”] Spears is worried that Churchill will lose patience with the French. In early June Spears goes to see the aged Pétain, who tells him: “this time there are no reserves, vous m’entendez, no reserves at all. It is hopeless – c’est sans espoir.”And the Marshal settles into his armchair and reads him one of his old speeches on Joan of Arc.

Weygand, Reynaud, and Pétain

Spears returns to London to report. He is delighted to fly  in Churchill’s own Flamingo with comfortable armchairs, and dines with the Churchill family,  and a small black cat called Nelson. The situation worsens. The French cabinet decide to leave Paris. On June 11th Churchill, with Eden and Spears and General Dill and others, flies to France in his Flamingo accompanied by twelve Hurricanes. There is a meeting of the Supreme War Council at the inaptly named Château du Muguet, “the sort of building the nouveau riche French bourgeoisie delight in : a large monstrosity of red-coloured brick and stone the hue of unripe Camembert”. Churchill speaks passionately of his confidence in the French military. There is little response from the French, except for the chain-smoking General de Gaulle, newly appointed to the Ministry of Defence. Two days later Churchill flies back again for one final meeting at Tours. But his speeches to the War Council “conveyed no more reality than would have done a reading of El Cid on the wireless to a brawling audience in a Montmartre cafe”. Spears and his party follow the French government south to Bordeaux. On June 16th Churchill sends Reynaud a dramatic message in which he proposed an indissoluble union of France and Great Britain. In the common defence of justice and of freedom, the countries are to share one government, and one war cabinet directing all their forces on land, at sea, or in the air. But it is too late. The following day Reynaud resigns. President Lebrun asks Pétain to form a government. Spears returns to London, hoisting de Gaulle onto the plane with him. They arrive in London for a late lunch at the RAC, and then on to Downing Street for a meeting with Churchill.

It is an old-fashioned book. [It even has sub-headings in the Contents pages and a professional Index.]  And maybe a bit repetitive. It is a book of a different era. Spears had an eye for a pretty girl. He and the aged Marshal Franchet d’Esperey, still in uniform but now in a wheel-chair,  share memories of “la belle patissière d’Epernay”. He casts his eye appreciatively at dinner over Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s cousin. At the Château de Muguet he flirts discreetly with the woman telephonist in the village post office. In Paris he stays at the Ritz and dines there with guests. When they get to Bordeaux they eat in the Chapon Fin. I guess this is not the style of Lord Frost !

Churchill, blustering Boris, and BREXIT

In a week when the disastrous BREXIT saga is approaching yet another deadline, I am impressed at the great lengths to which Churchill went to stay closely linked to France, the other major western democracy. Blustering Boris is a self-proclaimed admirer  of Churchill, on whom he clearly models his public speaking. But Churchill, as this book demonstrates, and as his post-war speeches confirm, was strongly committed to European co-operation. Even at the cost of a potentially significant diminution of national sovereignty. Brexiteers please note.

Churchill’s  views are summarised in a speech made at the University of Zurich in 1946: 

There is a remedy which … would in a few years make all Europe … free and … happy.

It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.

We must build a kind of United States of Europe.

The fall of France in June 1940 was a tragedy which, as this book recounts, the British government of the time under Churchill did its best to avert. At a time when European democratic values were under threat. By contrast BREXIT is a tragedy which the present British government seems determined to inflict upon us. A tragedy which destroys the ideal of European co-operation for the sake of a spurious [and outdated] notion of national sovereignty

November 2020