Speaking of Faith
John Miller, editor
Canterbury Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
WHEN the veteran Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow is himself being interviewed, and comments to his questioner, “My goodness, you have been assiduous,” you know that the ensuing conversation is likely to be compelling. Speaking of Faith collects edited transcripts of interviews given at Winchester Cathedral to John Miller by leading public figures in support of its £20.5-million appeal.
The book yields an impressive crop of intriguing vignettes. Snow recalls interviewing Margaret Thatcher and feeling as though “Matron’s told me off”; Frank Field MP tells of his own secret meeting with the same Prime Minister two days before her resignation. The novelist P. D. James recalls that in her childhood context one went to evensong if the family didn’t have servants; if there were servants, they could prepare the Sunday roast and so the family could attend a morning service.
Rowan Williams, interviewed shortly after the end of his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, describes the aesthetic virtues of Newport with delicious understatement, calling it “not superficially one of the more picturesque or charming towns in Wales. Coming from Oxford and having a house in the precincts of Christchurch [sic], a sixteenth century house with a beautiful view of Christchurch meadow, Newport felt a bit different.”
In several of the interviews, it is John Miller’s ability to tease out personal recollections, and trace how those have influenced later decisions, which proves especially valuable.
The Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin, speaks of how his childhood in Africa has shaped his outlook. He speaks candidly about lessons learnt from those from quite different Christian stables — for him, one example was an observation from an Australian Marist priest about moaning and mourning: “You know you are stuck when there is a lot of moaning and a lot of mourning. If we are moaning and mourning in the Church of England, we are just saying we are stuck. It is good if we admit we are stuck, because once that energy gets going, once we acknowledge we are stuck, by moaning and mourning, we might just reconnect with the vision that will lead to new life.”
One of the most poignant interviews is with Baroness James, who died only months later. She spoke of her great affection for the Church of England, and its established status: “there is a sort of openness, there’s a sort of tolerance, there’s a kind of accessibility about the Church, and I think it should be in the national Church, and I think it should be there for everybody who wants it.”
She also spoke quite beautifully and honestly about the realities of her Christian faith. “I find the dogma quite difficult to believe, and I think a lot of people do. And some of the miracles are extremely difficult to say I believe in, because I find I probably don’t. But I find as I get older that, although I believe less of the theology and less of the doctrine, what I do believe in, I believe in more strongly. Which really, I suppose, is the existence of God, the love of God, and the fact that I can communicate with him, and he communicates with us, that he is there as a present force.
“I can never change that, you see, because through a long life I have so many instances when he has been there for me. When I have prayed in desperate circumstances and have had an answer. I’m not going to start denying him now. It’s my life.”
In fact, P. D. James’s contribution is unusually theological in tone. For a book titled Speaking of Faith, relatively little about faith is spoken — indeed, at the end of his interview, Jon Snow notes “we haven’t talked about God. . . we haven’t talked about the church.”
For this reader, that relative lack of questioning about faith means that many of the conversations might have happened in an identical way at a literary festival. I was left wishing that an interviewee such as the BBC’s John Simpson, who mentioned his own worship in the Church of Ireland, had been asked how his journalistic work related to his faith.
But these are minor quibbles in relation to a book that repeatedly delights with its insights — and which, through the donation of its royalties, supports the maintenance of one of England’s great cathedrals.
The Revd Christopher Landau is Assistant Curate of St Luke’s, West Kilburn, and Emmanuel, Harrow Road, in the diocese of London, and is a former reporter for BBC Radio 4’s World at One and PM.