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23 November 2010

by John Pridmore

Puzzled of Denver

I AROSE at dawn to join the men for their midweek meeting. Holy com­munion was celebrated at 7 a.m. The service was followed by a hearty break­fast and lively conversation about the Gospel of the week and the issues of the hour.

That was the bracing start of one of my memorable days this fall in the Episcopalian parish of St Gabriel’s, Denver, Colorado. I was the guest of the Rector, Chris, and his wife, “CJ”. I got a big welcome, too, from their bouncy dog “Bishop”, so named, no doubt, for his eagerness to lay paws on people.

My week in this lovely home was a benediction. Chris told me that he owes much, as do many American Evan­gelicals, to the ministry of John Stott. Certainly, St Gabriel’s — and the pastor and his family — are shining examples of the kind of Christianity that Dr Stott has com­mended so attractively both by his life and his writings.

Alas, Evangelicals no longer have a leader of Stott’s calibre. Ask who heads the Evangelical cause today, and you will be told any one of a dozen names. One name was put to me by one of the good men of St Gabriel’s. Getting his priorities right, he greeted me with the question, “How’s Nicky Gumbel?”

I told him that, as far as I knew, he was fine. His next question was “How’s his Vicar?” I told my new friend that, if he meant Holy Trinity, Brompton, Nicky Gumbel is the Vicar. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “you’re thinking of his predecessor, Sandy Millar.”

“That’s him!” he said.

“He was consecrated as a bishop in Uganda,” I told him.

My friend was evidently stunned by this news, and took a moment to digest it. Finally he protested: “But he doesn’t even speak Ugandan!”

Secrets of childhood

WHAT brought me to the “mile-high city” was an invitation from Jerome Berryman, the creator of Godly Play, to work with him at the Centre for the Theology of Child­hood, recently relocated from Houston, Texas.

Our task — punctuated by fre­quent excursions to Starbucks — was to test a hypothesis: the claim that our spirituality is hard-wired into us; that it is an innate aspect of who we are. A related claim is that our spirituality flourishes in child­hood but that, alas, it often atrophies and dies as we grow up.

Evidence for or against these theories must be sought in what chil­dren tell us, and in what adults recall of their childhood. Jerome and I are working in the latter area, looking at published autobiographies of child­hood. Their titles suggest that they constitute a rich field of enquiry.

There is a Happy Land, Sunshine before Seven, Farewell Happy Fields, and so on. Many of these books are more than charming memoirs. Frank Kendon tells us that his purpose in writing The Small Years, his chronicle of a Victorian boyhood in a Kentish village, was “to wrestle with the angel of childhood till he tells me his secret”.

It is too early to say where our re­search will take us, but the evidence so far suggests that two influences that can seriously damage a child’s spir­itual health are religion and education.

Penn experiment

THE Arch Street Friends Meeting House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the world’s largest Quaker meeting-place. The house was built in the early 1800s on land originally given to the Quakers by William Penn him­self, as a burial ground for their members.

Apart from the human heart, Quakers do not really do holy sites. If they did, this would be a place of pil­grimage. As it is, the Meeting House gets visitors from all over the world. My wife, my stepson, and I were there for morning worship on the last Sunday of our transatlantic trip.

In the blessed silence, my mind drifted — or was led — into reflec­tion on the witness of Penn. Like Tolstoy, Penn was naïve enough to sup­pose that society could be or­dered and governed by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. Naïve or not, for 70 years or so Penn’s “holy ex­peri­ment” more or less worked.

Before we left, I picked up a pamphlet about some of the notable former members of the Arch Street Meeting. The most influential of these was the 19th-century social reformer Lucretia Mott. She suffered from dyspepsia, and the memory that her maiden name was Coffin. She was also a leader in three great social movements: freedom for slaves, votes for women, and opposition to war. Most church leaders (all male, of course) tried to shut her up. They failed to do so. I wonder what they did then. “Personal Ordinariates” had not been invented.

Familiar drumbeat

AS SOON as we were back from the US, I whizzed up to Wakefield to speak at a diocesan day-conference on “Rites of Passage”. Beating my usual drum, I complained that the Church of England’s policy about the admission of children to holy com­munion is a very great nonsense. I pointed out yet again that every time the sacrament is administered to an expectant mother, two people receive it. And, for the umpteenth time, I pleaded for someone to please tell me why we excommunicate children merely because they are born.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney.

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