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Interview: Vincent Strudwick, historical theologian

27 March 2015

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 God.

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 gays. 

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 are. 

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 training. 

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 welcomed. 

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 Church. 

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 presence. 

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 MacMath.

Towards a New Day: A monk's story by Ralph Martin SSM is edited by Vincent Strudwick (DLT £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.29).

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