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Diary: Graham James

07 July 2023


Sins of the father

I’VE just read the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee’s new book about her family, An Uneasy Inheritance. I met her father, Philip, several times towards the end of his life, when he had discovered God — not something that Polly could tolerate, then or now. (She is opposed, vehemently, to all forms of religion.)

Although a generation older than me, Philip was, I thought, an exciting person: amazingly well-read, restless in his spiritual search, connected with a vast range of famous people, and yet willing to give the impression that the conversation of a young priest interested him.

Having read the book, I wonder whether he had any interesting conversations with Polly at that time. It seems not. She says of her father: “He was rather less curious about his children’s characters than the character of God.” Ouch! Philip Larkin’s dictum about what parents do to us comes to mind frequently when reading Polly’s memoir.


Without walls

MY FEW conversations with Philip Toynbee took place at Tymawr Convent, near Monmouth, the home of the Society of the Sacred Cross. The community is currently celebrating 100 years at Tymawr, having originally been founded in Chichester in 1914.

In the 1970s, Philip and his second wife, Sally, tried to form an ecological community at their house a few miles from the convent. Philip was a literary reviewer (a pillar of the Observer books pages for years), a poet, and a journalist. He was hopelessly ill-equipped for either communal living or ensuring that they could feed themselves from their small plot of land.

The Sisters at Tymawr were, by contrast, amazingly self-sufficient, and offered advice; but Philip became more interested in the religious life than in an ecological one. He found that the mind, spirit, and imagination of the nuns was wide and expansive, even if they rarely left their convent. He became an associate of the community at about the same time as I did — almost 50 years ago now.

In her book, Polly says of the nuns at Tymawr, “those wise nuns took him under their wing, discussed and disputed with him, offering calm.” Such generosity to a religious group is vanishingly rare in Polly’s writing, and a great tribute to those Sisters.


Living stones

I WAS at Tymawr recently for Associates Day. Tymawr was the first religious community I got to know. The late Sister Gillian Mary SSC (Obituary, 2 June) introduced me to it in the days when we were both undergraduates at the University of Lancaster, and she was exploring her vocation.

Even in the early 1970s, there were not many graduates who became contemplative nuns. All the Sisters whom I first knew have died, but the community still continues in the same tradition, with its gentle and yet expansive life. At one stage, it looked very unlikely that it would survive, but this Anglican order has renewed itself and lives on, fragile and small, but vital.

It is a little parable of the Church herself, passing through the generations. Or perhaps a family. We are all formed by forebears we hardly, or never, knew.


Not for turning

FOR families to function well, someone has to provide the substructure: to take care, to cook and clean, and so make things work. That’s what seems rare in much of Polly Toynbee’s wider family. It is full of academics, poets, writers, and aristocrats, most of whom have left a literary record, but neglected nurturing the infrastructure of family life. No wonder she calls it an “uneasy” inheritance. It may explain why describing the Church as a family can put people off the life of faith.

Despite that, the spiritual bonds of a church community give many of us a deep sense of belonging. Within the family of Truro Cathedral, one of the vergers, Robert Preston, has recently completed 40 years of continuous service. I expect there are still more years to come. He was properly celebrated and honoured on a recent Sunday.

Vergers in cathedrals (and parish churches fortunate to have them) do a great deal of the hidden domestic work that makes them places of welcome, worship, and prayer, providing the family infrastructure. It’s a largely hidden ministry, and thus frequently under-appreciated.

Like other bishops, I have been “verged” a lot, placing trust in vergers to take me to the right place. On one occasion, I was verged to the pulpit, and only on getting there did I realise that I was not the preacher; so we solemnly returned, as if it was all part of the ritual.


The substance of things

PHILIP TOYNBEE was by turns fascinated and mystified by such ecclesiastical rituals. That’s probably the right way to approach them. He saw Christian faith as a great new adventure. He died from cancer, aged 65, and, in his final months, weathered some terrible pain and suffering. Perhaps because faith was so new to him, he seemed to be given insights that not many of us possess.

About three weeks before he died, he was told that he could have another operation, but there was a substantial risk that he might die during surgery. He wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to be rendered helpless by pain, but nor did he want to die on the operating table. He would miss so much.

He said of his impending death: “I don’t want to be deprived of the proper stages of dying. I want to learn all I can from it.” It’s one of the best expressions of hope I’ve ever heard.


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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