I left school at 16, and worked for the War
Damage Commission as a clerk, but I had a strong urge to offer
myself for ordination. An ex-naval chaplain told me of the Society
of the Sacred Mission's Kelham College, which prepared men without
a university education.
I was accepted for a year's testing in the junior
section, and then returned for the four-year course
following National Service as a pilot officer in the RAF.
The SSM sent me on to read history at
university. Then I worked in the college as a chaplain and
tutor, and through the '60s as sub-warden. I left the order in
1970, but I continued to teach history in theological institutions
and universities till recently.
George Every was my history tutor at Kelham. He
fascinated me in the way the experience and search for God is
institutionalised by the Church, and the way politics, the economy,
and culture change the effectiveness of its institutionalised
forms. History is the story we tell to understand ourselves and the
world we live in; so historians are necessary to open people's
minds to prophets, and gatekeepers safeguarding the past.
I married in 1971, and had three children. In
1973, Kelham closed, and the SSM moved to Milton Keynes. Ralph
Martin, who was then heading the Society in England, asked me if
I'd join them with my growing family, as he explored new ways of
being SSM in a changing world. We were with them for four years,
and then I continued to pursue change in various roles.
It used to be said that what happens to the religious
communities today, happens in the Church tomorrow. The
growth in the Anglican communities after the war reached its peak
in the mid-'60s, when a rapid decline began. Ralph Martin was
prophetic, which is why we went back to the SSM to join him in
Milton Keynes; and his book, which I've been editing, illustrates
his vision and commitment.
When religious communities, which had been at
the heart of education and mission, found themselves on the edge, I
left; but Martin decided to stay, and, as the UK Provincial, he
took radical moves to create a new community culture in the new
world of the second half of the 20th century. After eight years he
was removed from office, and went on postings round the world. He
tried to make the SSM relevant, more inclusive, more humane, more
concerned with the common good than with personal holiness.
We've got to change. We've absolutely got to
change, and it's desperate. People can't even begin to understand
what the Bible says about God, or how the Church has tried to image
My passionate plea is that we have to reinvent
God. God is real, I'm sure of that, but the way we talk
about him, or image him - that's got to be exposed as humanity's
attempt to express the inexpressible. Church has to be more about
imaging God in its activity: foodbanks, treating people as human
beings born in the image of God - not as naughty children who have
to learn the Creed or do things that their instinct tells them are
wrong before they're allowed to be part of the show.
When the issue of women priests emerged,
Archbishop Runcie sent me to America to get the feel of it all. I
tried to persuade him, unsuccessfully, that we'd got to adopt women
priests. Later, as a historian, I wrote and spoke on Richard Hooker
and change, in relation to the Church's acceptance of
As a historical theologian, I went back to
Hooker, and interpreted him as someone who saw the necessity of
change. I think Linda Woodhead is absolutely spot on with her "two
cheers" comments on this recent Synod: they see crisis, and they're
trying to put things right, but no one has come out clearly for a
policy of inclusivity.
We must include people before quizzing them about what
they believe. Get people on the PCC, get them to join in
those things they can, get insight into how you may share faith and
worship, and change it in an ongoing process. Accept people for
what they are, with the DNA of God in them (the theology of
Hooker); then we can begin to address the crisis. I'm against the
idea of a tight little group of people being more and more holy,
and then going to the ramparts of secularism to invite people in.
They won't come in, because we won't accept them as they
In my village, we're now a multifaceted rural
benefice with seven PCCs, and one very good priest with a part-time
SSM to help her. No one should be asked to do this. This sort of
situation was debated in the General Synod, and there are various
reports about trying to make some impact. But it is not just about
"management": it's also missionary strategy.
Theological education is all changing, isn't
it? Somewhere like Cuddesdon has done an extraordinarily
good job with Martyn Percy in charge of the team till recently. It
has modernised the plant, and built a church financed by some
resident nuns, so worship is at the heart of it. They've a variety
of courses for residential students, some doing degrees at Oxford
and Oxford Brookes; and the authorities have sited the
non-residential Oxford Ministry Course there, of which I was
Principal in the '80s and '90s. There is also a course for lay
people. It's a very good pattern for theological education and
I taught at Cuddesdon and St Stephen's until a few years
ago, and used to teach on Wycliffe summer programmes. My
perception is that they've all improved. Wycliffe and St Stephen's
now are "permanent private halls" of Oxford University; so they're
inspected for quality of academic performance and community life.
And the three colleges have a partnership arrangement.
My wife and I are members of Contemplative
Fire, in Fresh Expressions, and I was a trustee and
occasional teacher. The growing exploration of the integration of
traditional communities with Fresh Expressions is exactly what
Martin had in mind in the '70s. Similarly, the Archbishop's
initiative at Lambeth, where he has recently engaged a prior and is
setting up a quasi-monastic community, is to be warmly
I'm now 82, post-cancer and post-stroke, living
with my wife in a village where we've been for 33 years. I work in
the mornings at my writing, or see people from my previous
ministries. We have seven grandchildren, and enjoy being with them
enormously. I'm happiest when I'm with my family. A group of local
"wrestlers" meet with me monthly for a seminar on God and the
During the Blitz we lived in London, and my
father was in the Marines. Then, of course, I had a notion of a
Supreme Being to whom we prayed to keep us safe. After the war, at
Kelham, I began to experience the concept of God as something to be
wrestled with intellectually.
Wrestling isn't a very peaceful image, I know,
but it's one that's been with me. It feels to me a twin thing: you
wrestle intellectually because there are big intellectual questions
- and, as secularism overtakes us, it's very important to be doing
this in public, and listening to people's difficulties as well as
our own. But then, in the quiet of the chapel, where you repeat the
Psalms - the psalmists were wrestlers, for heaven's sake, which is
why I like morning and evening prayer - you've the sense of the
numinous: glimpses of God, which is all I've ever got. God says,
"You shall not see my face - you shall see only my rear parts."
I've just been catching a glimpse of God's rear parts.
God's winning. I read people like Etty
Hillesum. She's been so important to me. If we dive in to worship,
we're no longer wrestling but opening ourselves to the
I've been a football referee, and I love
tennis. I'm hopeless at DIY.
Church bells are the most reassuring sound to
me. We didn't have them during the war.
A religious bigot last made me really angry.
Herbert Kelly said: "You're never wholly wrong, except when you
think you're wholly right."
I don't pray for anything. Prayer for me is
being in the presence, or not.
When you know you're going to die, probably
sooner rather than later, I don't think you can't say illness isn't
a great deal, but. . . My little grandson of five said: "You're not
going to die yet, are you? What happens when you die?" I said:
"Well, Freddie, everyone's done it, so it must be all right." He
said: "OK, but don't do it yet, Granddad." It's a totally
untheological and unacceptable answer, but that's how it is. We
might be surprised - or there might be nothing; but one goes on in
hope and expectation that God, who infuses the universe, knows
what's going on. And if he knows what's going on, it's not so
important that we do.
I'd choose to be locked in a church with Richard
Hooker, whose imprint on the Church of England helped to
make it the open and inclusive Church it's still struggling to be.
He understood history.
Fr Vincent Strudwick was talking to Terence Handley
Towards a New Day: A monk's story by Ralph Martin SSM is
edited by Vincent Strudwick (DLT £16.99 (CT Bookshop