SIXTY years ago last month, I was called up. I exchanged the prim suburban home of my spoilt childhood for an army barrack-room.
I was now 23381256 Private Pridmore of the Royal West Kent Regiment, based in Maidstone. So began my National Service, and — as I have come to see — my education.
I write, these six decades later, from Brighton, deep in post-post-retirement territory. As the marbles roll down the road to join the pebbles on the beach, I find myself reflecting on the influence of those two years as a soldier on the rest of my life. And I toy with the possibility that there are some surprising connections between ministry and military service.
It seems a far-fetched idea, until we recall a certain Roman soldier who saw in one Jesus of Nazareth a capacity to command and obey analogous to his own.
I GOT off to a bad start. It had been drilled into me in my Crusader class that army life would provide plentiful opportunities for Christian witness. But, I was taught, I must make a clear stand from the start. On my first night, I must kneel down at the foot of my bed to pray (think Christopher Robin). I should then expect, so they confidently told me, that someone would throw his boots at me.
I must then show my meekness of spirit by rising before reveille next morning to clean these boots before returning them to their owner. The latter would be moved by my forbearance, and I, seizing the moment, would promptly lead him to the Lord.
It did not quite work out like that.
As required, I knelt at my bed to pray. There then followed a departure from the script. No boots were thrown. There was merely a brief stunned silence, a few guffaws, and a resumption of the bawdy exchanges that, immemorially, have been the mainstay of conversation between unbuttoned squaddies.
It then got worse. The salacious banter, with its astonishing disclosures of worlds with which I was unacquainted, forbade sleep. Clearly, it was time for another Christian stand. I raised my voice and said — these, more or less, were my exact words — “I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but would you chaps mind quietening down a bit?”
Apparently, they found my interjection funny, although at the time I didn’t see why. But I recall that there was a note of affection in their merriment and mockery. Later, I realised that I had been given a lesson in human kindness, an instance of that natural compassion for simpletons which is akin to the love of dumb animals.
It was my first hint of a characteristic of military life which I had not expected to meet: an unstated but no less real affection for oddballs. As a National Serviceman, I met senior NCOs of bowel-watering ferocity, but I never met a bully. I’m not sure I could say the same of my time as a Church of England clergyman. (Yes, I know that the whole story is a bit more complicated. I think of the four young people who died at Deepcut barracks. I knew one of their families well.)
PAThe 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, on board their troopship at Southampton, bound for Korea, in 1953
I SURVIVED basic training, even the daily inspection of my kit and turnout. I steeled myself for this ordeal by focusing on the cross, specifically the one surmounting the spire of St Luke’s, which I could see across the rooftops through the window opposite my bed. Today, I cannot sing the line “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes” without recalling how, at one time, sudden death seemed a more appealing prospect than appraisal by the inspecting officer approaching my bed.
After ten weeks’ “square-bashing”, I attended an “officers selection board”. There I was weighed and found wanting. But a transfer from the infantry, where clever-dicks are a liability, swiftly followed. So to the Intelligence Corps, whose cap badge is “a pansy resting on its laurels”.
Now there began to dawn on me an awareness that was to comfort me in my years as a clergyman. I realised that large institutions are essentially comic. The headquarters of the I-Corps in my time was a sprawl of huts in a Sussex woodland. Across the decades, it served as a kind of asylum for conscripts like me whose use to the army — or to anyone else for that matter — was far from clear.
Our days were filled with futile “fatigues”. I recall that, hidden deep in the woods around us, were several bath-houses, rarely used but, according to ancient protocol, requiring daily cleaning. That was a welcome task; for it was sufficiently discharged by taking a succession of leisurely baths in each of them in turn.
Eventually, I was posted to Berlin, where I was attached to an army job-centre as in-house spy-catcher. This was at the height of the Cold War — to be resumed in 2018 — and Berlin was its front line. On the strength of a mediocre O level in German, my job was to weed out the spies from among Berliners applying for employment with the British. I could recite the principal parts of several irregular German verbs, but that awareness proved insufficient to tell me which of my interviewees was a threat to the British military government’s security.
I CAME to see that the battiness of much army life, while outwardly requiring my grave unsmiling compliance, could inwardly afford unceasing delight. In like manner, when later I encountered a bishop arrayed like Solomon in all his glory, I could publicly do him every courtesy, while still savouring inwardly the absurdity of such a wardrobe around the shoulders, and such a confection on the head, of the servant of one whose trajectory was from eternity a kenosis, a dressing down.
But the learning from army days for which I give most thanks was an unlearning. It was the ridding of my mind of the only view of the atonement that I had ever known: the notion that a furious God had substituted his innocent son for us, punishing the poor boy instead of us so that we should get off scot free. I was only in my early twenties, but that malignant idea was already deeply rooted.
The beloved physician who excised the tumour was the Bishop of Maidstone and Chaplain to the Forces, the late Bishop Stanley Betts. (To voice his name is to hear the sound of trumpets.) Bishop Betts was an Evangelical, but one of an altogether different stripe from that of the conservative Evangelical subculture to which my Crusader class belonged. Betts was, after all, the lifelong friend of Charlie Moule.
BETTS was the speaker at a conference for National Service ordinands which I was sent on. His theme was the cross. He spoke of one of whom I had not heard: a God of love who took into his very being our sin, sorrow, and suffering, absorbing our affliction and iniquity without recoil.
Bishop Betts had served with distinction in the Second World War. He spoke de profundis, as had those famous Great War chaplains who had looked from mud to the cross. We think of G. A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”), of Noel Chavasse VC and bar, of Theodore Hardy VC, DSO, MC.
Bishop Betts’s reflections, the army’s most precious gift to me, sowed the seed of what I now see as a hermeneutic axiom as we engage with scripture and doctrine: the principle that we do not say — or sing — anything about God which could not have been uttered with integrity in the trenches. That principle would silence much of our more egregiously triumphalist hymnody, not to speak of those awful “worship songs”.
Do not say of God what could not have been said on the Somme, or in Belsen. During those ten weeks of basic training — on the parade ground, in the gym, on route-marches and night exercises, on the firing-range and assault courses — our lives were ruled by our platoon sergeant. This fierce but fair man had been among the first British soldiers to enter Belsen at the end of the Second World War. One night, while we were bulling our kit, he told us about what he had seen, and smelled, as he passed through its gates.
MINE was a “cushy number”, as we used to say. Many National Servicemen, such as those who served in Cyprus, Malaya, or Korea, had a far tougher time. But at least I learned from my two years the danger of succumbing to the comforting illusion that things were other than they were.
The last National Serviceman was demobbed in 1963. Those who went on to be ordained are all long out to grass. No doubt the Church is strengthened by our departure. Perhaps others are now providing the perspective on what matters, and what doesn’t, which time in the ranks taught us — a certain bloody-mindedness, shall we say?
The Revd John Pridmore was a Church Times diarist from 1994 to 2015. All his columns can be found in the Church Times online archive.