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Letters to the Editor

07 June 2019

Academic theology and chaplains, Mrs May’s premiership, and St Columba’s Cave


Academic theology and chaplains

From Professor Helen Bond

Sir, — In response to your report “Theology Faculties ‘could disappear’ unless more female and ethnic-minority staff are recruited” (News, 31 May), it seems very odd to put the drop in undergraduate student numbers down to the number of elderly white males in theology and religious-studies departments (and this is not the major conclusion of the British Academy report on which your report is based).

Edinburgh’s comparatively large intake (90 at undergraduate level last academic year, 79 at postgraduate) might be linked to our Athena Swan silver award for gender inclusiveness, our largely female School Management Group, or the 16 per cent of teaching staff who are from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds; but I doubt that’s the full story.

Most students make their decisions about what to study at university long before they look at our websites or meet us at open days. If applications are falling across the sector, it is because young people aren’t being shown the value of studying religious beliefs in the history of human relations, literary and artistic imagination, or current world politics.

All of us who care about the subject need to play our part here. If we don’t, we have only ourselves to blame.

School of Divinity
New College
Mound Place
Edinburgh EH1 2LX


From Canon Cecil Heatley

Sir, — I was pleased to read: “As student pastoral needs grow, universities increasingly depend on chaplains to supplement other student support services” (News, 31 May). As one who always refers students from my church, however, I have been very disappointed in the response from various chaplains. The attitude is usually: “We are here and they will be welcome.”

Is it politically incorrect to send them an invitation to tea or coffee? For rather shy young people, particularly from an African family such a proactive approach could be really fruitful.

Flat 37, Sheppards College
Bromley BR1 1PF


Lambeth Palace’s policy on opening its clergy-disciplinary archives 

From Canon Nicholas Cranfield

Sir, — The late Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper’s research has provided Adam Sisman with much material for a biography, The Professor and the Parson, of the Anglican priest Robert Parkin Peters, who died in 2005.

Lambeth Palace has apparently refused to allow access to the extensive file held about this serial fantasist, bigamist, and con man which is regrettable, not just in terms of the biography, but for what it appears to say about the Church and its record-holding.

It prompts the question what other files might say about other clergy with regard to claims that might be heard against them.

In a period when all institutions are being pressed for greater transparency, and in which the Church has not always appeared to be willing to recognise its own responsibilities, Lambeth Palace should surely offer an example of ensuring that historic files are fully available.

Releasing selective information on a case-by-case basis when asked is not going to offer reassurance. Suspicion that the Church knows more than it ever says will remain until such transparency can be achieved.

10 Duke Humphrey Road
London SE3 0TY

[The book is to be reviewed in our Summer Books special on 28 June. Editor]


Missing elements in a tale from the Antarctic 

From Mr Harold Toms

Sir, — I was interested in the report (News, 31 May) about the Revd Arnold Spencer-Smith celebrating the most southerly eucharist at Cape Evans in Antarctica. This story was told in my reply to the question “Who were the first Christians to follow Christ’s command, ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ on the continent of Antarctica?” (Out of the Question, 13 September 2002).

Shortly after that answer was published, British newspapers picked up the interesting story about a wallet that had been found behind a bunk in the Cape Evans hut during some maintenance work (actually in 1999). After extensive investigations, it was established that this wallet had belonged to Arnold Spencer-Smith, his death being the reason it had not been missed and remained hidden for the subsequent 84 years.

Both in this new account and in my earlier version, no mention has been made of the two men who tried desperately to save Spencer-Smith after his health had broken down. They were (Henry) Ernest Wild, the brother of Shackleton’s second-in-command, Frank Wild, and Ernest Joyce, a veteran of four expeditions from Antarctic exploration’s “heroic age”.

They carried him for hundreds of miles on a sledge, eventually the nominal commander of the party (Aeneas Mackintosh) also had to be carried on the sledge. Spencer-Smith died just two days from safety. Joyce and Wild were both awarded the Albert Medal for their efforts to save the lives of Mackintosh and Spencer-Smith, in Wild’s case posthumously as he had died in the Royal Naval Hospital, Malta, in March 1918, after contracting typhoid having returned to active Naval service in the war.

The story of the Aurora has been largely forgotten, eclipsed by both Shackleton’s astonishing rescue story and, of course, the First World War. But, as I said in my earlier piece, the Aurora could be considered as the only successful British expedition from the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration, in that they actually achieved all of their objectives in laying depots for the expected transcontinental party.

99 Chapel Road, Tiptree
Essex CO5 0HP


Mrs May’s premiership 

From Dr Simon Radford

Sir, — There was something pitiable about Canon Angela Tilby’s defence of Theresa May’s premiership (Comment, 31 May). While the small coterie around David Cameron never seemed to warm to Mrs May (although he did appoint her to a great office of state), “poshness” does not seem an adequate charge on which to convict them.

Indeed, this strikes me as the personal politics that Canon Tilby later decries.

Her case is stronger, on the face of it, on the abuse suffered by Mrs May at the hands of prominent Tory commentators. This, however, goes far beyond Mrs May and has been a growing menace to civil discourse in politics over a decade or more, both online and off. While this abuse is noticeably worse for women, it is not confined to female politicians. But Canon Tilby tries to defend Mrs May’s record as PM by eliding it with the horrific nature of this abuse.

Canon Tilby argues that everyone else refuses to compromise and that 27 out of 28 countries agreed to the deal. A bad deal is a bad deal, and that the beneficiaries of a deal like it is not reason enough to accept it.

Both the result of the referendum and the numbers in Parliament made clear that any compromise that would be passed had to be one that united Tories keen to leave and Labour members who favoured a soft Brexit that protected working people first. Mrs May never seriously pursued this option, but instead went for a Tory Party First policy that saw her own party’s Jacobins destroy her, predictably.

The debate gender and popularity would be better saved for a worthier cause. For now, Mrs May’s place in history as PM is probably above only that of her predecessor: both were equally inept.

6 Holkham House, Stapylton Road
Barnet EN5 4JH


Chequered history of St Columba’s Cave 

From Dr Christopher Young

Sir, — Dr Nick Mayhew-Smith (Features, 17 May) began his journey in search of Celtic spirituality in St Columba’s Cave in Loch Caolisport, which at one time I knew well, as my wife and I worked with the late Marion Campbell of Kilberry on archaeological excavations from 1972 to 1976, the last of several campaigns going back to 1959. The purpose of the work was to return to the cave the accumulated deposits (Dr Mayhew-Smith’s black mould) that had been removed from the cave by a previous owner at the end of the 19th century to tidy it up and make it a seemly relic of Celtic Christianity, as opposed to its then current use as a net store by local fishermen. The excavation is reported in Christopher Tolan Smith’s monograph The Caves of Mid Argyll (2001).

The cave was certainly used for Christian purposes around the time of St Columba, as evidenced by the two pecked equal-arm crosses still faintly visible on the cave wall behind the altar. A flourishing early Christian community in the area is demonstrated by the rich assemblage of sixth- and seventh-century carved gravestones in the burial ground of Cladh a’ Bhile near by. The third cross on the cave wall is probably of the 11th century, and there is a ruined 13th-century chapel and later medieval burials close to the cave.

The archaeological evidence shows that, through time, the cave had other uses and cannot always have been regarded as sacred, even in the Christian era. It was at least visited from the Mesolithic era onwards. There was occupation from the late first millennium BCE, preceding its use at the time of St Columba.

Between the two phases of Christian religious use, the cave was used for iron-smelting and also for casting non-ferrous materials, suggesting that its sacred associations had at least temporarily been forgotten. Some of the later burials were, in fact, cut into layers of industrial waste. After the Reformation, the cave was eventually used as a net store for fishermen, suggesting that its sacred character was no longer well recognised. Its restoration followed Victorian publications recalling the cave’s association with St Columba.

Sacred places around the world remain sacred only for as long as they are believed to be, or are recognised as such. St Columba’s Cave provides excellent evidence of this through its use for entirely secular purposes in between periods of religious use.

23 London Road
Bicester OX26 6BU

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