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03 August 2012


THIS summer's International Conference on Children's Spirituality was held at the University of East Anglia. The architecture of UEA is that of the Soviet-occupied East Berlin I knew in the 1950s: external walls are cliffs of concrete. The problem with concrete is that it rots and goes a bilious green.

The campus has much in common with the Barbican, in London. Finding your way around is a challenge. "The end of all our exploring", T. S. Eliot says, "Will be to arrive where we started" - a truth we discovered when seeking breakfast.

THE theme of the conference was "Spirituality and Physicality". I was not sure about this topic. My PE lessons at school were rarely experiences of the transcendent. I was the child who, told to climb a rope, dangled at its foot like a corpse on a gibbet while the rest of the class looked on, howling with glee. Mercifully, prowess in the gym was not required of conference delegates, although we were invited to join in something called "Ultimate Frisbee".

My contribution to the forum was a paper: "The Spirituality of Recalled Childhoods". I talked about the writer and psychotherapist Elisaveta Fen, who grew up in Russia in the early years of the 20th century. As a little girl, she loved to dance. Recalling her childhood, she speaks of how she discovered in dancing "how a state of the body could become a means for attaining the exaltation of the spirit". Billy Elliot found the same.

Sadly, having two left feet, I have not made that discovery.

THE greatest autobiography of childhood in the English language is by Percy Lubbock. As a boy, Lubbock spent his school holidays with his grandparents in their Norfolk home, Earlham Hall. Half a century later, in his memoir, simply called Earlham, Lubbock recalls that "beautiful old house, red and mellow, spacious, and sunbathed".

He remembers his grandmother's affection for the house "as though it were a kind old nurse, faithful and worn, with whom we must be gentle". His grandmother would "lay her hand on a wall with a touch that seemed to stroke it softly". "The poor old place," she would say.

I know of no other autobiography of childhood - and I have read many in recent months - that captures so perfectly how children can soak up beauty and grow strong in spirit among those who love them. This child was marinated in love and loveliness. As I have read and reread his glowing story, I have often wondered whether Earlham Hall still stands, and what it is like today. At our conference, I found out.

Free for an hour, I wandered off the campus. A path through a wood brought me to the back of an old house. I recognised it straight away, although today its windows are boarded up, and high security-fencing prevented my stroking its walls as Lubbock's grandmother did.

Earlham Hall is now the home of the UEA's law school. Currently, it is being refurbished. I tried to explain to a man in a hard hat something of the house's story. He was polite, but not very interested. I turned back through the trees towards the campus and the conference - but not altogether sadly, "for the leaves were full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter".

ON 29 June 1927, T. S. Eliot was baptised. The ceremony took place behind the locked doors of Finstock church, in the Cotswolds. Apart from Eliot, there were only four others there: the clergyman who conducted the service, Eliot's two sponsors, and the verger. The next day, Eliot was confirmed by the Bishop of Oxford in his private chapel.

A question discussed on the platform at this year's T. S. Eliot Festival - held, as every year, at Little Gidding, "where prayer has been valid" - was whether faith made Eliot a better poet. The chairman of the T. S. Eliot Society, Hugh Black-Hawkins, contended that there was a falling-off in Eliot's poetry after his conversion; that Four Quartets is not as good a poem as The Waste Land. The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth argued that Eliot the Christian was just as good a poet as Eliot the agnostic.

I much enjoyed their sparkling exchanges, as I did the whole splendid festival. But I was aware of a larger question, lurking behind their conversation. Christian faith may or may not make you a better poet: the bigger question is whether it makes you a better person.

I wonder whether those for whom the answer to that question is obvious have entirely understood what is being asked.

THE annual "Moule Lecture" at Ridley Hall was given this year by Professor David Bebbington, he of "the Bebbington Quadrilateral". Evangelicalism's four pillars are, Bebbington says: a high view of the Bible, a focus on the cross, an insistence on the need for conversion, and what he calls "activism".

One reason why I was never much of an Evangelical, even when I vaguely was one, is that I have never regarded activism as a virtue. When I was chaplain at Ridley Hall, I worried that "the men" (as they all were then) were not getting enough sleep. Eventually, I managed to get morning chapel shifted from 7.10 a.m. to 7.30 a.m. I may have done little else for my Ridley students, but at least I got them an extra 20 minutes in bed.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton. 

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