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Interview: Graham Turner, author and journalist

29 September 2017

‘Either you obey God’s voice, or you don’t bother’


Having had so many experiences of what, I’m sure, was God speaking to me, I decided to find out whether people of my own and other faiths have had similar experiences. That’s what my book That Other Voice is about. I chose to tell the most striking stories of people I already knew, and went to hear others.


I interviewed some British Muslims for a series of articles in the Daily Mail over 25 years ago. One of the boys interviewed rang me, quite out of the blue, and invited me to visit him in Oxford. Through him, I spent time with a community of Sufi Muslims in Jordan, who talk about an unlooked-for inward awaken­ing, or warid. Zen Buddhists speak of receiving sartori, a flooding into consciousness of insights pre­­viously undreamt of. Then there are stories such as that of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He’s had three epiphanies in his life.


This doesn’t surprise me at all, because I’ve had the same kind of experience. I’d been at an Anglican primary school with a girl called Jean Forster. I’d always liked her, but I didn’t love her at all. When we were both 29, it became very ob­­vious that her mother was keen that we should marry, because she liked my father.


Having given my life to God back in Singapore, I got on my knees, in digs in Harpenden — this was when I was working for The Sunday Times — and said: “If you want me to ask this girl to marry her, you’ll have to give me love for her which I really don’t have.” Jean came down to London to see friends, and I met her in Euston. What I asked for had happened, as soon as she came off the train. So I proposed to her im­­­mediately, and we celebrated with a British Rail meat pie.


I was married for 52 years to Jean, who was a magnificent woman. I’m now very happily married to Veronica, whose first husband was ordained, and who comes from a very different background to my own, which is fun.


Singapore? Well, I was in the Air Force, had a decent Oxbridge degree, very keen on cricket, quite keen on girls, no interest in religion. One evening after supper, a friend asked me: “Would you like to listen to God?” “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “I don’t believe in God.” “That doesn’t alter his situation in the least.” So he presented me with a piece of paper and a pencil, and asked me to think of four absolute moral standards of Jesus. Honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. “Write down what occurs to you.” The thought came to me: “You’re a dic­tator on the cricket team. Apolog­ise to your team.” “You’ve become a snob since going to university. Write and apologise to your par­ents.” And so on.


You may think it was a shock, which it was, but when I left that room I was walking on air. I knew from that point on that there was a God, and I wanted him to run my life. I did all the things: either you obey, or you don’t bother.


I had quiet times every morning from then on, with one gap: I was working at the BBC, and began to be more interested in my career than in letting God show me how to live, and all kinds of things went wrong.


It may well be lunacy, but it is a lunacy that’s yielded a lifetime of gifts and blessings. It’s required difficult decisions of obedience, but those always opened the door to fresh blessings. How can I help but be tremendously grateful for all I have been given?


For me, God is, and will remain, the ultimate mystery. But God is, in my experience, a loving presence who never goes away, and never lets you down.


The “speaking”, again in my own experience, comes in various strengths. Only once have I heard something akin to a voice. In other cases, they have been clearly formed thoughts or instructions, which came from inside me but were patently not mine. The Catholics call them interior locutions.


My book begins with the story of a Hindu doctor, and his striking experience of God speaking to him during his work. I think the Holy Spirit is a universal force. As for the voices of saints and angels, who am I to judge whether these were God’s voice or not? I’m not a credulous man, but I’m not inclined to be sceptical about such things. God, after all, is God.


How do you know God doesn’t speak strongly to dictators or terrorists — if not shout? People like ourselves so often refuse to pay attention to his voice. Like the Dean of Christ Church, I believe far more people have experienced God speaking to them than we imagine. It seems to me that you get guidance when you need it.


I don’t know if the voice is always male. It does sound like a male voice to me. How can you possibly have a view of God’s gender?


The key thing is obedience. If you’re told to do something, do it. Pro­vided it passes the test: you ask yourself, are you sure this is not the product of your own mind? Do the thoughts that you have match up to those four absolute moral standards? If in doubt, talk to wise friends who are trying to live the same way.


I began work as a trainee sub-editor with The Scotsman in Edinburgh, having turned down an offer from the BBC to become a management trainee because I was in a cinema when I heard “I want you to be a journalist.” I actually looked round to see who had said it. Then I went via The Sunday Times to the BBC as a reporter. It’s a mystery to me why the BBC asked me to become their economics correspondent, since I know next to nothing about eco­­nomics. Perhaps it was one of God’s jokes.


I don’t espouse any particular economic theory, but I believe in both free trade and in the respons­ibility of governments to help the needy and vulnerable among us. Yes, a lot of people are having a tough time at the moment, but I have immense faith in the skill and enterprise of our people.


When I left the BBC, I enjoyed working for the Daily Mail and both the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Journalists can be both cruel and thoughtless — I’ve been both, no doubt — but I think we should be grate­ful for those who have the courage to expose wrongdoing, and those who report from war zones.


A truly free media is at the very heart of our liberty. I’ve always thought highly of papers such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzer­land, and the Allgemeine Zeitung in Frankfurt; and I read Charles Moore with pleasure.


I’ve had so many influences in my life, but perhaps the most pivotal was that of Jim Benson, who cor­nered me into listening to God.


I love reading, walking, listening to music, and travelling with my new wife.


What I pray for most is somehow to be able, with all my selfishness, to live a life for others, and to set no limits on who and how my wife and I try to care for.


I have great hope for the future, not least because of the kindness of so-called ordinary people, which I see all the time — and because God is absolutely unfailing.


As for being locked in a church with anyone, I’d love to have the chance of asking my mother all that I should have asked her while she was still alive. And then there’s the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: to my mind, the most brilliant religious mind of our age.


Graham Turner was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

That Other Voice: In search of a God who speaks is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £12.99 (CT Bookshop, £11.70).

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