THIS is a book for those who have wrestled with their faith and vocation in the light of John Robinson’s Honest to God; those who are relatively untouched by late-20th-century liberalism, but are prepared to give it a fair hearing; and, by no means least, those who simply enjoy a well-written memoir that is both personally engaging and theologically challenging.
For Peter Francis, raised in a comfortable middle-class home, public-school religion coupled with middle-stump Anglican conformity did little to endear him to the church that he rarely attended, and which he disliked when he did. Destined for the family’s legal practice, he surprised himself and others by declaring that he wanted “to go into the Church”.
Notwithstanding his only occasional church attendance, he was taken seriously as an ordinand, and was encouraged to read theology at St Andrews University, and then to train at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. Honest to God had already opened his mind to radical theology, and John Hick’s lectures at Birmingham gave a boost to his evolving liberalism. At St Andrews, he had become involved in the Christian Union. which he describes with wit and a sense of retrospective incredulity. He was soon ‘‘moving away from a narrow understanding of faith that was supernatural, sin-laden and which prevented me from being me”.
His curacy convinced him that this “was the job I most wanted to do”, and made him all the more committed to “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” theology and ecclesiology as the only plausible way to be pastorally Christ-like, and intellectually honest. In relation to continuing debates about race, sexuality, and gender, he embraced inclusion as key to a faith no longer bound to historic formularies and traditional hierarchies.
Seven years as chaplain of St Mary’s College in the East End of London provided an opportunity to model non-patriarchal ministry and worship with feminist theology promoted and practised, often in the face of episcopal opposition.
A return to Scotland gave him the chance to test his liberal and liberationist theology first as rector of a charge in Ayshire, and then as Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow. While, in both contexts, numbers increased, and his “drawbridge-down” practice of inclusion proved popular with many, he also experienced a good deal of resistance. Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith attracted him, and this radical faith, together with both marital and mental-health crises, prompted him to apply for the post of Warden of St Deiniol’s (now Gladstone’s) Library in Hawarden, north Wales.
Here, he had the opportunity to modernise a venerable institution, and widen the circle of acceptance with the active promotion of ecumenical, interfaith, feminist, and LGTBQ engagement. A whole chapter is devoted to the defence of Gladstone’s reputation in the face of attacks on his connection with slave ownership.
Clearly, Francis had finally found at Hawarden a place where his theological odyssey, cultural enthusiasms, and personal happiness could find fulfilment in the company of such radical luminaries as Cupitt, Jack Spong, and Richard Holloway — and the support of a new family.
Francis’s journey is one with which many can identify, and many others need to understand. However much some may feel that he has dedicated himself to taking leave of God, there is a profound sense of God’s not letting go of him — and therein lies a lesson for us all.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
The Widening Circle of Us: A theological memoir
University of Chester Press £15.99