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Diary: Graham James

08 April 2022


Silent witness

WHEN 144 children and adults were killed at Aberfan on a Friday morning in October 1966, thousands of sermons for that weekend were rewritten. Many of those homilies were said to have been the most heartfelt and gripping ever given by the preachers of the time, some of whom had tears in their eyes.

On the Sunday before Lent this year, three days after the invasion of Ukraine, preachers faced another great challenge. The epistle in the BCP lectionary was 1 Corinthians 13. St Paul’s eloquent exposition of faith, hope, and charity seemed mocked by events, as we peered through a glass darkly at our world. Yet the people of Ukraine have kept faith, exuded hope, and lived in steadfast charity with one another.

In the Common Worship lectionary, the Gospel that same day was the account of the transfiguration. Peter, James, and John — not usually lost for words — are reduced to silence by what they have seen. Events can be so momentous that even the most loquacious cannot easily find words. The Sunday before Lent this year was also one when silence was appropriate. The lectionary works!

Sometimes, world events cause familiar biblical passages to read as if you’ve come across them for the first time. I expect that may be our experience this Holy Week. It’s what makes me believe in the divine inspiration of scripture.

Elephant in the room

MANY of those Aberfan sermons years ago explored why God allowed such a tragedy to happen. It was not a natural disaster, of course, but the consequence of human error or callousness, depending on your view of things. Although I was only 15 at the time, I recall a lot of debate about why God allowed such suffering.

Is it a sign of our increasing secularity that few seem to be asking why God has allowed this tragic war in Ukraine? Perhaps it’s all too obvious that human pride, greed, and lust for power have caused it. But doesn’t that present a challenge to humanism, or to any morality based only on reason and common humanity? This is barely addressed in public discourse. Why?

Global village

IN 1938, Neville Chamberlain referred to the crisis between Germany and Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland as “a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”. Few in the UK would now describe any European country as “far away”.

After every service I’ve taken in Cornwall in recent weeks, someone has spoken either of family or friends living in Ukraine, or had personal or professional connections there. Europe feels smaller than it was. “Think globally, act locally” began as an environmental slogan (though, like much else, the origin of the phrase is disputed).

I thought of that phrase as a neighbour collected clothes, sleeping-bags, and other essentials for a Polish charity near by that was gathering them to transport to the Polish border. While making an online gift to the Disasters Emergency Committee was probably our more helpful contribution, there was something deeply moving about the solidarity in our street for refugees “far away”.

Still small voice

WHAT seems largely unheard in recent weeks is a strong pacifist voice. Perhaps broadcast and print media are not much interested, or I’ve just missed it. I’ve been thinking about pacifism among the clergy, after a visit to St Hilary, the village and church near Penzance. I was there for their feast day, and in preparation re-read Twenty Years at St Hilary written by the Revd Bernard Walke, St Hilary’s best-known incumbent in the 20th century.

Instituted just before the First World War, he was a committed pacifist, and made no secret of the fact. It did not make him popular. He would even share public platforms proclaiming the pacifist cause with Nonconformist ministers and Quakers, as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But he was not ecumenical in other ways. His introduction, on his arrival, of what used to be called “full Catholic privileges”, created plenty of controversy.

Gradually, he did win the affection of many villagers. In the 1920s, the first ever BBC outside broadcasts came from St Hilary’s, when the Christmas plays that Fr Walke organised (in which many of his parishioners took part) were listened to by millions, the Prime Minister included. Such fame may have had its downside. In 1932, Protestant agitators (mostly from Plymouth and London — “far away” in Cornish terms at the time) smashed many of the images in the church and left the building desolate, although they did permit Fr Walke to remove the Blessed Sacrament first. It broke both his heart and his health.

I’ve known St Hilary’s for more than 50 years. The destructive events there in the 1930s left a lingering sadness, which seeped into the stones. But the church building is now beautifully restored, and the congregation has grown considerably through the ministry of the Revd Jeff Risbridger. I think Fr Jeff is technically house-for-duty — except he’s moved from the vicarage into his own house. So he may now be called “no-house-for-duty”. That’s the sort of priest every parish can afford. And with “full Catholic privileges”, too!

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich, and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.

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