Both my parents were religions, though in different ways.
My father’s parents were members of the Church of England and would attend Holy Cross Church, Haltwhistle, regularly with the whole family. He had a particular memory of attending church the Sunday after his nanny drowned in the Tyne. That was in 1919 when he was seven years old. He told me that he discussed this death with his mother, but he cannot have done, as his mother died two years earlier, when he was just five. I know that he and his twin brother, Ken, once saw a ghost called the grey lady of Bellister (the name of the castle where they lived), and I think it is not coincidence that he later became interested in psychical research, and saw this as a bridge linking science and religion.
After taking his degree in Chemistry at Balliol College, Oxford, my father did a one-year theological diploma at Wycliffe Hall, also in Oxford, preparatory to entering the ministry. However, he changed his mind and became a private school teacher instead. He told me the reason was that he couldn’t accept the thirty-nine articles to which one is supposed to subscribe at a member of the Church of England.
I’ve often told clergymen this story about my father and they always say: ‘No one accepts all of the thirty-nine articles.’ My father was, however, a stickler for honesty, deriving from his admiration for the German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann. Looking at the ideas of Bultmann I’m quite surprised to realise that this source of my father’s belief bears a striking resemblance to my own current beliefs. Bultmann was a close friend of the existential philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and incorporated many existential ideas into his theology. He was also, like both my maternal grandfather and my father, a keen advocate of Biblical criticism.
One of the main sources of attraction between my parents when they were ‘courting’ was theology. They would read theological books together and discuss religious ideas at great length. However, my mother’s faith was of a much more mystical colour than my father’s. No doubt this fitted better with her artistic temperament. I can remember that in discussions with her my father would often accede to her arguments with rather little conviction, so doubt thinking it would be less trouble to agree. I have my mother’s paperback copy of a book about St Theresa of Avila. It is in several pieces, indicating that she must have read it numerous times.
Unlike my father, my mother only went to church when she felt like it (which wasn’t often), or when it was for some reason required. She had a healthy scepticism of ‘religious’ people, though if someone religious passed muster with her, she would become their admirer.
There is something rather curious about my religious upbringing, however. I have little memory of going to church at any other time than Christmas all the time we were at Shrewsbury, i.e. until I was around 10 years old. My father used to give Jeremy and me religious instruction, using books supplied by some religious organisation, into which we would each Sunday stick stamp-like pictures of Jesus, the disciples, the Holy Land and so on. It was only well into our time at Featherstone that we started to go to church every Sunday.
In my mind this change is associated with a walk with my godfather, Johnny Walker (or JPW) to the top of Orrest Head, near Windermere, in the Lake District. As we walked up through some woods I admitted that we didn’t go the church, at which he was deeply shocked. Looking out over the lake from the top of hill JPW told me that I would go to Hell if I didn’t correctly observe my religious duty, and told me to remind my parents of this. I have always since felt that, in a curious way, this incident was a kind of inversion of the story of the Devil taking Jesus up to high mountain and promising him all the treasures of this earth if he was bow down and worship him. I suspect, however, that my memory is not entirely to be trusted on this story.
[To be continued]
Some idea of my current religious thinking can be gauged from a talk I gave to Worthing Unitarians on Religious Identity.