29 November 2006

by John Pridmore

A farewell toast

I’M GOING to miss the Hackney clergy. They’re a cheerful lot, despite all they have to put up with.

The “old dogs” among us were asked to conduct our latest chapter conference, and we met for it at St Columba’s, Woking. They’ve revamped the place since I was last there. They now have a sophisticated new toaster, which has to be mastered if you want breakfast. Beside it is a placard with operating instructions as complicated as the preface to the Common Worship lectionary.

Hackney’s younger clergy, of course, take the new technology in their stride, just as they know what “ordinary time” is. Thanks to them, I got some toast.

From little acorns

ANOTHER conference was going on while we were there — a meeting of the Lambeth Palace staff. There were distant glimpses of Dr Williams, looking surprisingly chirpy. These exalted beings met in the house. We lesser fry were dispatched to the conservatory.

There’s a great deal of glass in the new St Columba’s. Unfortunately, they built the conservatory under an old oak tree, and our deliberations were punctuated by the noise of acorns dropping on the panes above us.

As an old soldier, I found the sound familiar. The detonations sounded exactly like the sharp crack of rifle fire. I swiftly suppressed the thought that what we were hearing was the sound of the Lambeth staff being taken out one by one and shot. But the Archbishop did look so very cheerful. . .

This is my quest

I INTRODUCED my session by sketching my own theological journey. I spoke of the experience in my life closest to what once happened on a Damascus road.

For Paul, the light blazed. For me, 30 years ago, in a seedy transport café in Derbyshire, the light guttered out. (I was on my way to Swanwick to give a “keynote” at a conference.) All at once, over a mug of tepid tea and a slab of tired cake, the Christian story, with all its unlikely claims, collapsed like a house of cards.


I told the chapter that my journey since then has been a search for sight. Occasionally there have been glimpses of “men as trees walking”, and I shared with the brethren how my companion on that search has been someone on a more important quest than mine.

I first read Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus — or tried to — when I was 13. (Yes, I was a sad little boy.) Schweitzer’s Quest is still the book I’d take with me to a desert island.

Schweitzer himself has long been dethroned. His interpretation of the mission of Jesus is derided. We’re told that the hospital he ran for half a century in equatorial Africa was both unhygienic and racist. For all I know, they now write off Schweitzer’s book on Bach, and say that he was a rubbish organist. But one thing Schweitzer did understand. He recognised that Jesus remains an enigma, and that all our attempts to demystify him, from Chalcedon to Alpha, are unavailing.

As I shred a lifetime’s sermons, I realise that I know no more about that strange peripatetic Galilean exorcist than did the lonely little boy I once was. He comes to me, now as then, as one unknown.

Incidentally, it appears that I was by no means the only post-Evangelical in our group. A post-Evangelical is someone who, when asked the question “Have you ever sat under Major Batt?”, turns misty-eyed, and stifles a nostalgic sob.

Open-door policy

FOR THE last time — pray God, for the last time — a weary mum, hung about with much shopping and many offspring, calls at my door, pleading that I will sign a form to help get one of her children into a church school.

For the last time — pray God, for the last time — I hear the grovelling apology: “I’m afraid that we don’t get to church very often.”

For the last time — pray God, for the last time — I have to quench my incandescent rage with the iniquitous system that expects parents to pitch up at church to get a place at one of our schools.

For all my confusions about Christianity, one thing is clear to me. Christian allegiance cannot confer any entitlement. All is of grace; nothing

is merited. Church schools, like churches, should be for those outside. If there has to be a queue for a limited number of places, this mum should be at the front of it.


So I tell her, just as I’ve told countless other mums, that we don’t take a register at our church; that I’ll certainly sign her form; and that anyway she needn’t worry because, as a governor, I’ve made very sure that the admissions criteria for our two church schools don’t exclude children like hers. Yes, we have a “church- attendance” criterion, but all it stipulates is that the family comes to church “regularly”.

For the avoidance of confusion, I point out that she will fully comply with this criterion if she comes to church with her kiddies at Christmas every other leap year.

Rhubarb, rhubarb

I WANDER across to the church for one last time. I kick back over the fence the football that has sailed into our garden from the “education centre” next door. This is a sin-bin for children who have been banned from school for bad behaviour. It’s more Center Parcs than boot camp.

Next door to them is the Hackney morgue. Outside is a white van. “Dimmock’s Refrigeration Services”, it says on the side. The weather is still quite mild; so let’s hope they do a good job.

I stroll though the churchyard. After decades of neglect by the council, this wonderful garden in the heart of Hackney is being restored. I notice that a mountain of steaming manure, as big as a bus, has been deposited opposite the church porch. There is something richly redolent about this pile of muck before our doors. At St John-at-Hackney we’ve been “going for growth”. Standing downwind, I savour this “fresh expression of church”.

The work in the churchyard has included the refurbishment of some of our handsome tombs. I’m pleased to see that they’ve done up the splendid Loddiges’ tomb. The Loddiges were great horticulturalists. Conrad Loddiges introduced rhubarb into Britain. Have I done anything half as useful, I wonder, in my time in Hackney?

Algy’s ladder

MONDAY 1 March 1880, was a good day for Algernon George Lawley, 5th Baron Wenlock. He was in India as the guest of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. He writes in his diary: “After tiffin, had a tremendous hooroosh after a rhino.”

Algy Lawley’s family owned half of Yorkshire. He went to Eton and Cambridge, where, as a peer of the realm, he could take a degree without sitting an exam. His student days were spent hunting and socialising with the fast set. But something else was obviously going on, because he ended up here, in the East End, as one of my predecessors. He was Rector of Hackney from 1897 to 1911, and lived a life of the utmost austerity, we’re told. He never went to any meetings. (“Who is going to do the visiting?” he asked.) He was much loved.


A day or two before I retired, a friend passed on to me a fascinating memoir of him (“printed for private circulation”). This rare book contains the text of his last sermon at St John’s, and I quoted from it in my own valedictory homily.

Algy Lawley spoke of what he owed to the saints of St John-at-Hackney. They were for him, he said, “a ladder of life, set up here on earth, in the most unlikely of spots, bringing us near to the Vision of God, in a land very far off, and yet near”. Amen to that.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore has recently retired as Rector of Hackney.

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