SOME years ago now, we hosted Shirley Williams overnight after she had given the Harold Wilson Lecture at Huddersfield. Among other things that evening, we talked of bishops in the House of Lords. She noted how a significant number of peers were working hard to call for Richard Harries to be made a life peer; their wish was granted, and he became Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the title picking up his Welsh roots, which he celebrates in this attractive autobiographical reflection (Feature, 31 March).
The book’s title indicates that it is more of a memoir than a formal autobiography. The pages breathe throughout a certain confidence, but failures are not swept away, and the writing is permeated by a consistent generosity.
Harries’s sheer cultural and intellectual range is itself remarkable. He is the author of more than 40 books focused on art, literature, politics, social issues, morality, and, of course, theology. Throughout, this is a gentle read, but always spiced with interest and good humour. Harries traces his roots with both realism and generosity. Religion hardly entered family life; his mother was the key figure, while his father struck a more distant image, to some extent on account of his military career. The family moved about within this country and also with a spell in Washington.
the authorThe young Richard Harries ice-skating with his mother and his brother Charles
The eighth chapter is undoubtedly the moment when the torch of faith lights the blue touch paper in Harries’s inner being and propels him to ordination. Here, we leave the measured prose and are treated to an exciting ride into the faith that would ultimately shape his entire life. Thereafter, we follow him into his curacy at Hampstead, then to a short period of teaching at the former theological college at Wells, and thereafter to a productive nine-year ministry at All Saints’, Fulham; by then, Harries’s ability with the media had already been discovered and put to good use with, first Prayer for the Day and then Thought for the Day, to which he still contributes with a natural finesse some fifty years on.
After Fulham, he moved to be the first Dean of King’s College, London, after it had ceased to be a theological college; he created the new role, contributing well beyond the bounds of the college, within wider society, as he has done throughout his ministry. His two decades as Bishop of Oxford are described in all their variety. We read of controversies — taking the Church Commissioners to court and then being caught up in the débâcle of Jeffrey John’s nomination to the see of Reading. The philosopher Anthony Kenny, now an agnostic, writes: “If I should undergo a deathbed conversion, there is no Christian priest I would rather have at my bedside than Richard Harries.” All in all, the Church of God and, indeed, the Church of England have been fortunate in all that Harries has given. Laus Deo!
The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is a former Bishop of Wakefield.
The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise
John Hunt Publishing £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09
Read an extract here and listen to an interview about the book here