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Diary: Graham James

15 March 2024


Well lettered

I HAVE enjoyed re-reading the Letters of John Betjeman, prompted by the death on Candlemas of one of Betjeman’s correspondents, Anthony Barnes. He attended St John’s, Timberhill, in Norwich, a church never lacking in candles, or relics and lace, and fizzing with Catholic pizzazz.

From an early age, Anthony visited churches — frequently with Betjeman, a great friend of his parents. Anthony’s father was a producer in the Talks Department at the BBC when he talent-spotted Betjeman as a natural broadcaster. George Barnes went on to be the Controller of BBC Television, handling with remarkable skill the televising of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and was knighted afterwards by a grateful monarch.

Anthony chose a different path, working for firms such as ICI and Schweppes, before, in the 1980s, leading the Redundant Churches Fund, which later became the Churches Conservation Trust. His passion for churches was immense; but he was never locked in the past. His Anglo-Catholicism and his socialism went together, and he was active in the Labour Party until the Iraq war caused him to resign.

Anthony’s son Brendan reported that, shortly before Anthony died, in his 94th year, he had decided to re-read Sophocles in Greek to keep his mind active. Phew!


Read and delete

BETJEMAN pursued a vast correspondence with people of all ages. What impressed me about his letters to the teenage Anthony (and to other young people) was the serious way in which he engaged with them, treating them as equals and expressing his convictions uninhibitedly, whether about religion, architecture, or anything else. It was all laced with humour, especially about the foibles of human beings, including Betjeman’s laughter at himself.

The use of nicknames dates the letters, but, to receive such missives when young, as Anthony did, must have been a maturing experience. There is something about a handwritten letter which an email cannot match. I suppose the days of “Collected Letters” are gone. In a generation’s time, who will read the Collected Emails of even the most famous poet, let alone (perish the thought) the Collected WhatsApps? Deletion is probably best — already practised by some of our politicians.


Vanishing act

I HAVE got a love/hate relationship with the delete functions on my laptop. They are in daily use as I make vain attempts to clear my inbox. There is something immensely satisfying about permanently erasing several thousand “deleted items” so that they vanish into whatever limbo awaits emails without a home.

And yet, when it comes to documents such as reports or addresses over which I’ve spent hours in the past, I’m disinclined to cast them into outer darkness. A full filing cabinet would need to be thinned out, but it is simpler now just to buy more cloud storage. So, my squirrel-like tendencies fill the virtual filing cabinet. It would prompt a wonderful Betjeman poem, were he still around.

Lent offers an opportunity, not just for a proper clean-up of my computer, but of my life. If only it were as easy to delete the flaws in our characters as it is the accumulated evidence of those flaws. I wonder what Sophocles would have to say?


They have their exits

ON THE day — Candlemas — that Anthony Barnes died, I was presiding at a funeral in Truro Cathedral. Rodney Whiteman, a well-loved parish priest in Birmingham, and then an archdeacon in Truro for 16 years, had died on Christmas Day. (When I was first ordained, a week between a death and the funeral was thought quite a long time — what’s happened?)

The incarnation was at the heart of Rodney’s ministry; so there was something fitting about laying him to rest at the end of the great Christmas season. Early in December, my wife said, “I wonder if Rodney will wait until Christmas to die?” Prescient as ever.

My own father, also a priest, died on Christmas Day, 25 years ago. I’ve known many people who’ve waited to see members of their family before they died. I wonder whether clergy wait for greater festivals? I think I’d choose Corpus Christi — but not just yet.


Gifts of grace

EVERYONE at Rodney Whiteman’s funeral said how much he was loved. He treated his archdeaconry as if it were a large parish. He was always the last one at a bunfight in a church hall, frequently helping with the washing-up, with an ear for chit-chat.

We sometimes say of people that they have “no small talk”. Rodney had bucket-loads of it. He knew his people, and they knew him. It’s why he so frequently got his way when there was a rectory to be sold, or pastoral reorganisation to be accomplished. He was full of amusing stories, and loved jokes. I recall him enjoying a slightly risqué joke told by a friend of mine. At drinks after a service in Truro Cathedral, Rodney urged my friend to tell his joke to another priest. My friend demurred. “I can’t tell that here,” he said. Rodney responded, “My dear, I’m very sorry to inform you that God will hear that joke wherever you tell it.”

The humanity of Rodney — and his realism — was a reflection of a life open to God. He knew that he could not fool God, and he tried not to fool himself. Many of us try to do both, but we do not succeed.


Question of honour

“CAN an archdeacon be saved?” That was the question posed by John of Salisbury in the 12th century. “Can an archdeacon be loved?” might be a more apposite question in our own age, given the way our archdeacons labour so frequently at the messy end of church life.

Rodney was living proof that the answer to that question is an emphatic “Yes.” God bless our archdeacons. Despite their venerable title, they deserve more honour than they frequently get.


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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