THE legacy of the writer, journalist, and Christian apologist Malcolm Muggeridge can be viewed in retrospect as one of accurate prophecy in many areas. Although he did not always get it right, he expressed legitimate concern on many of the issues of our time: sexual permissiveness, immigration, ethical questions over advances in medical science, the spread of Islam, lowering of standards in the media, the fantasy world introduced by technology, and others.
Tomorrow will be the 25th anniversary of his death, and it is many years since he was most active, broadcasting regularly on radio and television. But a few months ago, we found him still able to make headlines — and as controversially as ever.
Back in 1957, the reports condemned an untimely article “Does England really need a Queen?”, an unpatriotic contribution, if full of insights, on the future problems for a monarchy in the new age of media. This year, however, he was accused of being a “serially incontinent groper”.
From a niece, the president of his literary society, and a priest of the Church of England, some righteous indignation and denial might be expected. But in truth such so-called “revelations” came as no surprise to me. My uncle Malcolm himself had long admitted in print to the irresistible attractions of the flesh — expressing remorse and retrospective disdain.
The biographies written after his death pull no punches: St Mugg was always a sobriquet given to him with some irony. The words of his biographer Gregory Wolfe sum it up neatly: “Sex and death, passion and futility, compulsion and guilt were the poles of emotion that marked Malcolm’s sexual life from beginning to end.”
MUGGERIDGE spent the early part of his career variously teaching, and working as a writer and journalist in Egypt, Russia, and India. He therefore experienced political oppression, affliction, and poverty in abundance, while becoming conscious at first hand of the global and social undercurrents of the 1930s.
His life looks like a series of disconnected adventures, punctuated with exotic liaisons, mishaps, and recurring bouts of depression, mixed with occasional self-loathing.
Serving as a more-than-capable intelligence agent in the Second World War, he progressed to deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, and then editor of Punch during the 1950s. Radio and television celebrity followed, and he became a mainstay of British media output, with growing international recognition.
IT WAS at this time that he rediscovered his faith in a living Christ, but first found the need to put his personal life into better order. For him, it implied a dramatic move to abstemiousness and asceticism.
Having taken his share of the world’s pleasures in full measure, he was now more than prepared to preach on the virtues of abstinence, and rail against the more permissive age. He also expressed his growing disillusionment with the 20th century’s materialist utopian dreams.
Jesus Rediscovered, published in 1969, was a bestseller, in the mould of John Robinson’s Honest to God. It was followed by Jesus: The man who lives. For Muggeridge, embracing Christianity was necessarily always going to be a question of faith, not one of rational proof.
He wrote: “The story of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels is true to the degree that it can be, and is, believed; its truth must be looked for in the hearts of believers rather than in history.”
He would argue that sufficient evidence of humanity’s spiritual dimension lay in the artistic excellence of the Church, as reflected in the Book of Common Prayer, and in its inspirational music, great paintings, stained glass, and sculpture, and in the challenging architecture of cathedrals.
While firmly believing in a God and the primary importance of faith, Muggeridge was catholic in his taste, and routinely dismissive of the Church of England, describing it doctrinally and administratively in a parlous position, and liturgically disordered. Fifty years on from such comments, he might be surprised to find that not only has the C of E survived, but in many places is flourishing. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982, when he was 79.
I CAME to know Muggeridge well in my teens from family occasions and many visits to Park Cottage in Robertsbridge, his home in Sussex. By the 1960s, he and his lovely wife, Kitty, had taken up an ascetic rural life there, acquiring chickens and later bees.
I remember taking exceedingly long country walks with him. Always with stick in hand, he maintained a determined pace, even in advanced age. I would return exhausted mentally and physically, having engaged in much stimulating conversation and sometimes argument.
Muggeridge is buried with other members of the family in the C of E churchyard of St Mary Magdalene’s, Whatlington, Sussex. For a pilgrim, his headstone bears the apt epitaph “Valiant for Truth”. There had certainly been a time when “Worldly Wiseman” might have been more accurate.
The Revd Sally Muggeridge is Assistant Curate of St Stephen Walbrook, in the City of London.
She will be preaching at St Mary Magdalene’s, Whatlington, on Sunday to mark the anniversary of her uncle’s death (www.sallymuggeridge.com).