I AM writing on the morning after the Manchester bombing, of which I have nothing to say beyond the obvious horror. So, if the rest of the column strikes you as frivolous or shallow, I’m sorry. It is all about things that went on before, and will continue after.
The most thought-provoking stories of the week were the obituaries of the Revd Nicolas Stacey, who died this month, aged 89, and seems to me to have represented the very best of a Church that might have been. He was a rich man, a former naval officer, an Olympic sprinter with a history degree from Oxford, an excellent boss, and a discomfiting subordinate.
He had been convinced of the reality of sin by his wartime experiences — he had walked through Hiroshima two months after the bomb was dropped on the civilian population there — and then, except for a short spell as chaplain to the Bishop of Birmingham, worked in inner-city parishes until he gave up his ministry in despair at the immobility and lack of imagination of the Church.
He worked at Oxfam for two unhappy years, and then went on to run Kent Social Services for 11 happy ones. The rest of his life was spent in voluntary work. In his time in Woolwich, he founded a housing association using funds raised from rich Oxford chums, whom he forced to visit a housing shelter. It bought one house to start with — and now manages 70,000.
He was a man who got things done, and usually his superiors hated him for it. In particular, he saw that the parish structure was not working as it was supposed to. As Rector of Woolwich, he initiated the closure of one of his churches, and opened most of another to secular and community uses throughout the week. This was 40 or 50 years before the need for such measures became obvious to everyone; we still don’t know how long it will prove to have been before the need is translated into general action.
The Times notes that his departure from the ministry was hastened by a sub-editor: “Stacey’s social enterprise was financed by fees from his journalism, bingo sessions at the church and a discotheque and licensed bar in the crypt. His congregation tripled, but he regarded his efforts as a failure.
“When he wrote his article in The Observer in 1965 he pleaded with the paper to add a question mark after the headline ‘Mission Failure’. The editor refused. Stacey considered disowning the piece, but did not do so because his fee would pay for a curate’s annual salary. It proved costly. Bishop [Mervyn] Stockwood [the Bishop of Southwark], who had not been asked to clear the article, didn’t speak to him again. He resigned his post in 1968.”
“His fee [for one article] would have paid for a curate’s annual salary”: a note from a world now as lost as Atlantis.
None of the obituaries says anything about his theology, which is proper. But I think that he is the model of the posh-boy hero on whom Holy Trinity, Brompton, and perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury have pinned their hopes of leadership.
There is a lot to admire there, but also two warning notes. Bishop Stockwood’s concern for appearances over reality (what, in another context, Linda Woodhead and I called “management voodoo”) drove Mr Stacey out of his parish; and his 16-hour days were supported by an unpaid wife who worked the same hours to raise three children. She was the daughter of a viscount, and there is a limited supply of such women today.
THE multiple ironies of President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia led me back to the calm and well-informed Erasmus, The Economist’s blogger on religion, which is some of the very best journalism that you will find on the subject. He pointed out, in a post in 2014, that “Dissidents in Raqqa, the Syrian town that is IS’s proto-capital, say all 12 of the judges who now run its court system, adjudicating everything from property disputes to capital crimes, are Saudis.
“The group has also created a Saudi-style religious police, charged with rooting out vice and shooing the faithful to prayers. And as in IS-ruled zones, where churches and non-Sunni mosques have been blown up or converted to other uses, Saudi Arabia forbids non-Muslim religious practice. For instance, on September 5th Saudi police raided a house in Khafji, near the Kuwaiti border, and charged 27 Asian Christians with holding a church ceremony.”
The only improvement appears to be that the executioners in Saudi Arabia are professionals, who do their work in private and will allow their victims painkillers if requested.
OTHER recent, excellent articles by Erasmus included one on the resurgence of religious nationalism in Eastern Europe, and its links with authoritarian culture, which ended with an apocryphal story about Serbian politics which ought to be compulsory reading for all liberal democrats (upper- and lower-case): “A liberal candidate for office patiently explained his manifesto to a rustic voter, only to be told: ‘I think your policies are excellent, and I really hope you stage a military coup.’”
Nicolas Stacey would have understood.
Obituary of Nicolas Stacey