KITTED out from my clothing allowance, not just with uniforms but a beautiful country suit, a trilby, and a British Warm from the best tailors and outfitters in the St James’s area, I was commissioned into the Royal Signals at the beginning of 1956, and went to Catterick for a young officers’ course.
The young officers’ course was followed by a few months as part of the vast army that we then maintained in Germany, the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). It consisted of 80,000 personnel: the same number as the whole British Army today. I was attached to a Brigade Signals Squadron at Minden, in Germany. This was an interesting posting, because being at Brigade HQ, responsible for communication to the companies in the Brigade, you knew what was going on.
Much of the summer we spent out on exercise on the north German plains. The Cold War was at its height, and, in 1956, Soviet troops entered Hungary to suppress the October Revolution. In the same year, the autobahns were filled with endless convoys of British trucks on the move, as part of the response to the Suez Crisis.
I lived alone in the officers’ mess with the servants all to myself. When I arrived, the Intelligence officer went on holiday and asked me to look after his Mercedes car, his horse, and his two dogs. All this at scarcely 20.
After another period in Catterick to prepare for and take the Mechanical Sciences Qualification Exam, Part I, for entrance to Cambridge, I went out to Germany again to serve with a Heavy Radio Relay troop in Düsseldorf. This involved commanding what were called “hairy-arsed linesmen” as they rolled out very thick BICC cable, as part of the communications network back to Army Headquarters to what was then spelled München Gladback.
Although I served as a regular army officer, I fought no fiercer enemy than the soot in the Ruhr Valley and the wind in Catterick. Life was pleasant, and I did a fair amount of running for the regiment and the BAOR, including a trip to Berlin for an athletics event.
IT WAS during this couple of years that something happened that changed my whole life. The thought that had come into my mind about Christianity — that, if it was true, it ought to be central to my life — started to work its effect. I seemed to gravitate to friends for whom the Christian faith was important: one who had trained for ordination and who had dropped out a week before and who went into the army instead; another, an ex-art student who had wanted to be ordained but had not been selected; and an Evangelical ordinand doing National Service who was due to go on to Cambridge.
At the same time, I started to read around the faith. I even very occasionally went to a weekday service of holy communion in one of the regimental chapels in Catterick. A small step, but, if you are not used to it, to go to a service as one of the only two or three people present means overcoming certain inner barriers of embarrassment and shyness.
Insights came from strange quarters. One day, in Germany, I was reading Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy. The thesis of this book is that at the heart of all the great religions of the world is the imperative of self-giving, and the truth that we find ourselves by giving ourselves away.
It struck me that, if this was a widely shared moral truth, it was rooted in a spiritual truth about the nature of ultimate reality, and the sharpest focus of this was the Christian claim that God gives himself to us to the extent of becoming one with us.
The truth of the incarnation suddenly seemed to be the living focus of a wider truth. A continuous source of insight was provided by Lance Corporal John Halliburton. John had done a degree at Cambridge, and was doing National Service before going back to study at theological college. He was the most unsoldierly person in the regiment, with a shaggy, baggy battle dress and a waddling walk. But not much in the regiment happened without him. He ran the regimental office, was the regimental interpreter, ran the regimental dance band, the chapel, and the Bible-study group, and played the organ for services.
Late one night, when I was patrolling the barracks on Orderly Officer duty, I saw a small light on in one room. I went to find out what it was, and discovered John reading Owen Chadwick’s latest book, From Bossuet to Newman, a book about the development of doctrine.
When he was not doing any of these things, John used to sneak into the officers’ mess, and, in return for my sherry, talk theology to me. Sadly, we later came to disagree over the ordination of women.
ONE day some months earlier, in the library in Catterick, probably looking for a novel by Hardy or Balzac, I picked up a book of essays by Roman Catholic priests on why they had been ordained. I took it home and read it and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if one day I was ordained.”
It is a mystery why I picked up the book, and why I should have had that thought, because it was very far from the way I was actually planning my life. I was all set to go to Cambridge to read Mechanical Sciences, and religion still played a rather minor part in my life. Over the next few months, however, the thought recurred from time to time: “Wouldn’t it be funny if one day you were ordained.”
Then, serving in Germany, mentally preparing myself for Cambridge, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice when I retire from the army as a General with a good pension to spend my life as a country parson.” Then, smack, bang, another thought came. “Well, if that is what you are meant to be doing, you had better do it now.”
An inner volcano exploded. I never experienced a violent conversion to the Christian faith. Rather, it gradually seeped into me, drew me, and then firmly took hold of me. There is a line in The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century mystical work, later quoted by T. S. Eliot in The Four Quartets, which beautifully and succinctly sums up what happened to me over a period of 18 months or so. “The drawing of this love and the voice of this calling”; I was drawn by this love and responded to this calling.
It strengthened in the call not just to be a serious Christian with the faith at the centre of my life, but in the conviction that I was meant to be ordained. Not for one moment have I regretted it.
It was very strange. No clergyman had ever been a role model. In fact, just the opposite. The chaplain at my prep school struck me as a weed. The chaplain at Wellington was genial, but I did not know him, and he did not spiritually attract me. There were no clergy in my family.
Moreover, I had no experience of ordinary church life as a member of a congregation. My family had not gone to church when I was a young boy, and later I was away from home. I can indeed remember the one solitary time we did indeed go to church as a family, when we were living at Cobham. The Vicar of the neighbouring village of Stoke d’Abernon had a reputation as a good preacher; so my parents decided to go one Sunday and took me with them. I found the sermon an unbearable piece of ham acting.
So, there was absolutely nothing about the clergy or church life to attract me — indeed, I had no experience of parish life. I certainly wouldn’t even be put forward for a selection conference these days. A CACTM selection conference, as it was then called, was quickly arranged. I had been brought up to look a person in the eye and be confident; so, when the presiding bishop asked me whether I believed I had been called to ordination, I duly answered “Yes,” and was recommended. And I did believe it.
Back in New Quay on holiday after this, as I was walking down the street, I passed the grocer’s shop that always smelled of a mixture of bacon and furniture polish, when the owner, Maurice Williams, emerged from the gloom at the back out into the street to clasp me by the hand. “Oh, Richard,” he said, “I’m so glad to hear you’ve got a calling.”
Three times he repeated it, each time holding my hand tightly and pumping my arm up and down. “Oh, I’m so glad to hear you’ve got a calling.” And I was glad, too. If you had asked me what I thought I was called to do, I think I probably had a picture in my mind of knocking on the doors of some drab street in a grey northern town, bringing light and comfort to those inside.
Where this idea came from, I have no idea. I had no role model in which it featured. What it seems to indicate is that I thought people’s lives could be transformed and made much happier if they could see there was a real purpose in human life. I wanted them to see that the Christian faith gives us meaning and joy.
This is an edited extract from The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise by the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, published by John Hunt at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £16.99); 978-1-80341-162-0
Listen to an interview about the book here