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Diary: Graham James

28 April 2023

ISTOCK

Rites of passage

I WAS at Exeter Cathedral, preaching for Holy Week, when an email arrived asking whether I was available to celebrate the eucharist on Easter Day at a Cornish church.

Trevenson Church, in Pool, is one of two chapels-of-ease in the parish of Illogan, between Redruth and Camborne. The people there had found themselves unexpectedly without a priest. Since I was returning from Exeter to Cornwall after preaching at the liturgy on Good Friday, I agreed to go. Pool is where my father’s family lived.

It was at Trevenson Church that my father was baptised in 1907. My paternal grandparents did not go to church or chapel, but they took their infant son “to be done” soon after he was born. It is a reminder that not everyone went to church before the First World War, although infant baptism was a socially necessary ritual.

My grandparents had been married the previous year at Illogan Parish Church. The wedding took place at 8 a.m., the earliest possible legal time (when did that last happen, I wonder?). There could not have been much of a wedding breakfast, since my grandfather went to work afterwards. He was a tin miner.

My grandmother (aged just 16 at her marriage) returned home after the service to help my great-grandmother, who was a washerwoman. She had supported herself entirely by her own efforts since being widowed at the age of 23, when she was left with two small children.

The state pension was introduced in 1909. When my great-grandmother qualified for her five shillings a week, at first she refused to take it. She could not believe that she was being given something for nothing by the Government. The story in our family was that she said: “They’ll want it back some day.” Her rugged independence was amazing.

The Edwardian era was definitely not a better age than our own, but it does seem that people of scarcely any means were blessed with great dignity and self-respect.

 

Life lessons

IT WAS not just the location of my Easter Day service which prompted these reflections. Within a few days of my visit to Trevenson, our son Dominic was married in London. It was (to understate it) a rather more leisurely affair than my grandparents’ wedding.

There have been massive changes — both in our family and wider society — in three generations. Dominic is 38, and was marrying for the first time. By that age, his great-grandfather had already developed silicosis, which killed so many tin miners. He would die just after his 52nd birthday, long after he had become unfit for work in the mine. No one at the time thought that he died young.

A high proportion of guests at Dominic’s wedding were graduates. Education has transformed our family. That transformation began when my father, a surface labourer at South Crofty tin mine in the 1930s, studied for five years at night school for a mining engineer’s diploma. This proved to be a passport to a job as an assayer in London, and a different life. He endured a lot of scorn locally for being a swot (having left school at 14). I doubt I’d be writing this column if he had not borne that grief, or possessed so much determination.

 

Vacant possession

BOTH Exeter Cathedral and Trevenson Church had choirs leading the worship. The music at Exeter was memorable. I always find Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of the Passion of St John moving on Good Friday, but, this year, its drama (the three soloists were exceptional) brought tears to my eyes — not helpful when you are about to preach.

Trevenson’s choir of ten may not have had the same professional training as Exeter’s choristers, but they led the congregation with Easter joy and conviction. There were 33 in church, and we sang with vigour — like Methodists, which seemed very appropriate, given the locality.

As recently as 1979, there were 16 Methodist chapels in the Anglican parish of Illogan (I think there were more than 30 in the 1950s). Now, only one is left, such is the dramatic decline of Cornish Methodism. It has had a knock-on negative impact on Cornish Anglicanism, which had benefited over the years from a continuous flow of Methodists embracing the Church of England, many seeking a richer sacramental life. Methodism had always been better in Cornwall at converting working people to Christ, probably because it was so largely a lay-led movement.

I drove home from Trevenson past the Methodist chapel where my father was converted, and where he met and married my mother. The “For Sale” sign is outside. The chapel looks bereft. That wasn’t a thrilling Easter moment.

 

New horizons

BEFORE Holy Week, the last time I had preached in Exeter Cathedral was for the ordination of deacons in early September. I had just delivered my final address at the ordination retreat when we heard that the Queen had died. For some hours, we had no idea whether the ordination would go ahead. It did, and those new deacons were almost certainly the first to swear allegiance to King Charles III.

They began their ordained life just as a man in his mid-seventies became the monarch for many millions, after the longest training and formation period any Prince of Wales has ever known. I’ve long ago reached the age when policemen (and now bishops) look young, but, since the King is two years older than I am, the monarch is still my senior, as has been the case throughout my life.

Perhaps the Coronation will encourage those of us already in our eighth decade to realise that there are still fresh opportunities in life. May God bless the King and give him grace and strength.

 

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro. He reviews the book God Save the King, here.

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