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Book review: Jesus and Jellied Eels: Making sense of my life by Laurie Green

by
16 February 2024

Lyle Dennen reviews the memoirs of a bishop rooted in east London

THE title of Bishop Laurie Green’s new autobiography, Jesus and Jellied Eels, is an apt symbol of the tensions and differences that his life’s story reconciles into an unified and exciting whole. When I am given a clerical autobiography, my heart says the words recently made famous by our King: “Oh dear, oh dear.” But, in this book, Green writes beautifully, and fills his story with humour, humility, honesty, humanity, and profound insights into poverty, exclusion, justice, compassion, and compelling faith.

Jellied eels, in the title, stand for the difficulties of the East End poverty into which he was born. The vulnerability of getting a job, food, and a place to live were enough to drive his family to be staunch Communists. Yet, the East End community was filled with laughter, music, and caring for one’s fellows. As a young boy, still in school, he worked in a jellied-eel factory. Laurie had significant learning difficulties, but, after taking the examination twice, got into a grammar school, and then even into King’s College, London. He was torn, in that he felt that people like him did not belong there, and yet he loved being there: he loved learning.

The Jesus part of the book’s title probably begins when he was only 12 years old. One evening, he looked out of his window on the crowded street and had a mystic vision of wholeness and Jesus Christ. Compassion for those in poverty and the mystic reality of Jesus were to become the two poles of his life.

At that time, he wanted to join the youth club, because pretty girls were there. But he had to attend evensong to join. Green met there the Vicar, one of those Anglo-Catholic slum priests, who stood for compassion for the poor, social justice, and the beauty of worship. Green was hooked. He went to King’s College to read theology, in order to be ordained a priest in the Church of England. He did a placement in a hospital for young people with learning difficulties and discovered that his learning problems and deep sense of inadequacy were not due to his East End background, but to his dyslexia. He was ordained, served in two poor Birmingham parishes, and then was made Director of the famous Aston Training Scheme for clergy.

It was there that he developed contextual theology. This was an exciting method of doing theology by not starting with first principles and then applying to situations, but, rather, starting with the real-life situations of people and then developing your reality and truths from those circumstances. Leonardo Boff, the great Brazilian theologian, described Green’s book on contextual theology as the first genuine British liberation theology.

diocese of chelmsford/Ian rathboneLaurie Green, soon to be Bishop of Bradwell, in his Poplar study in 1992

Green was then called to become Rector of All Saints’, Poplar: called back to the East End, called back home. His parents were waiting for him, his wife, and their children on the front steps of the Vicarage with cups of traditional East End tea. All Saints’, Poplar, was a parish that stretched from the abject poverty of the estates to the great financial centre of Canary Wharf. It was during the years here at All Saints’ that he profoundly felt the two aspects of his life cohere: Jesus and jellied eels.

This was made clear to Laurie when Sid the churchwarden said: “Hello, Father, how you doin’, son?” — the respect to the learned priest, the affection to the East End son. Green sees that his two aspects are one hybrid nature. Then, the bishop goes into a deep reflection on Jesus’ words: “Who do you say that I am?” He goes from his discovery of his own hybrid nature to seeing how the humanity and divinity of Jesus can be regarded, likewise, as a hybrid whole — and that all of us should try to discover how our own fractured, divided natures can become a hybrid whole, too.


The Ven. Dr Lyle Dennen is a former Archdeacon of Hackney, in London.

 

Jesus and Jellied Eels: Making sense of my life
Laurie Green
Brimstone Press £9.99
‎(978-1-906385-90-3)
Church Times Bookshop £8.99

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