Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Walsingham Baby

Crossing the Line - Part 4

Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.

My father never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with berretta on special occasions.  David and Irene were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.

After a second curacy in Doncaster, he and mum moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.  He was priest in charge of the church at Downley, a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.

The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious.  The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall.  Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment.  Irene took on her role as vicar’s wife and David served the village community as parish priest but kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.

There was one thing missing from their lives however.  Irene in particular longed for a baby but they tried without success.  Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did nothing to encourage them and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.

Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention.  They drank the water from the sacred well and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady.  They asked for a child.

The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in deep anguish “pouring out her soul to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1).  Hannah made a deal with God, that if her prayer was heard and God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life.  I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.

Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered.  From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Swanage, Dorset and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at The Shrubbery in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.

Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David chose a name with meaning.  They named me Benedict which means blessing.  Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady.  Often this was during the big annual pilgrimage in May, joining the other pilgrims in the great procession and the open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.

As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer before Our Lady at Walsingham.  Sometimes it feels like a secret joke between me and God when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality but it has also taught me an important lesson.  We do not always understand the faith and spirituality of others and sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong.  If God is happy to be at work through different expressions of faith, who are we to condemn them?

Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour.  His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”  Then his daughter would come up to him, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”   So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” but they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together.  Reasons like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”.  So he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he would also long for them to play tennis with each other.

So often that is what we are like as Christians, all wanting to play with God but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other.  We separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches and choose who we will play with, work with, pray with.  In the end, of course, we are all children of God.

So I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit neatly into my carefully worked out theology.  It reminds me that walking with God is much more messy than our well-ordered categories and that being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.

Sadly, my parents still had this lesson to learn.  Within a few months of my birth, their closed minds to other Christians would turn our lives upside down, and it would take 3 years of upheaval for them to understand the wideness of God’s grace.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Shylvia Shishons

Granny holding David

Crossing the Line - part 3

My father didn’t have a good start in life.  A few weeks after his birth in 1932, David’s mother died of complications from the delivery.  His father John was heartbroken and retreated further into himself, which left granny to bring David up.

She was a formidable woman who ruled the household with absolute authority.  She was one of those strong working class Lancastrian women who had a matriarchal power which defied any gender stereotype.  And she was to all intents and purposes, David’s mum.

They lived in a working class terrace house in Bolton Lancashire, together with their extended family.

Things didn’t get any easier for David either.  When he was two, he developed a severe ear infection and in the days before antibiotics, David was taken into hospital.  Soon they were told that there was nothing that could be done but Granny was having none of it.  When the doctors had given up on him, she took him home against medical advice, and in a supreme act of will, nursed him back to life.

The trauma of the illness took its toll however. His hearing loss was substantial and lifelong.  He didn’t speak for over a year, only beginning to utter words again when he was 4 years old.   When he did start to speak he had a speech impediment and would say ‘Sh’ instead of ‘S’ – something which continued into adult life and led to more than his fair share of ridicule.

Anyone else would have simply been happy that he could speak again, but Granny didn’t give up there, pushing him into school and through school, believing in him no matter what.

When he was 11, she made sure that he was given a place at the Church Institute (now Canon Slade School) and he began to attend Bolton Parish Church.  This was his first encounter with the Church, and it planted many seeds which would grow later.  He sang in the choir but also loved the snooker halls opposite his school which resulted in him having to re-sit his A-levels before being offered a place at Liverpool University to study Physics.  Coming from a working class family in Lancashire, he was the first in his family to even dream of going to University, and Granny must have been so proud.  Her hard work had paid off.

It was in Liverpool that his faith grew and developed at the Parish Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas opposite the Royal Liver Building and Princes Dock.   He discovered the ritual and spirituality of the Anglo-Catholic tradition.  When a visiting preacher said, “The question is not ‘Should you be ordained?’ but rather ‘Why shouldn’t you?’” David knew God was calling him to be a priest, even with his speech impediment.

In his final year at University, he went to a vocations selection conference, where his vocation to the priesthood was confirmed, but he was thought to be too much of a ‘narrow minded scientist’ to go straight to theological college.  Instead he was told to go and spend a year ‘broadening his mind’.

They suggested working in a bookshop, but David’s rebellious side kicked in.  Instead of finding a nice comfortable bookshop in which to while the time away, he joined the Industrial Mission, moved to Sheffield and got a manual job on the shop floor in one of the city’s huge steelworks. There in the noise and heat of heavy industry, he lived out his faith and calling at the sharp end of working life.

His mind was broadened in more ways than one.   Despite wondering if he was called to a celibate life, he met Irene there.  They had a lot in common – they were both form working class households – both their lives had been touched by a deeply rooted Anglo-Catholic vision of Christian faith which embraced everyone in a deeply incarnational pattern of life – and both felt called to the religious life. 
(See “My mother was a nun”)

At the end of his time in Sheffield, David went to St Stephen’s House in Oxford (affectionately known as ‘Staggers’) to train for ordination but Irene was never far from his thoughts.  One Wednesday in his second year, he went to Arthur Couratin - his formidable college principal - and said “Irene is going into hospital in Sheffield for an operation and I need to marry her straight away.”  In the heavily cloistered, male environment of St Stephen’s House, he was more than a little surprised when Arthur said “Well you better go and marry her then!”

David phoned her on Thursday – having already arranged a special licence for the wedding - to tell Irene that they “were going to be married on Saturday” and could she get a wedding cake?  On Friday morning, Irene walked into Walsh’s (the big department store in Sheffield) to order the cake.  When she was asked for the date of the wedding she said “tomorrow” which caused more than a little shock.  After checking with the bakery however, they accepted the order as long as she realised that “the icing may be a little wet”.

After the wedding, they were apart once more as David returned to Oxford.  Women were treated with great suspicion at St Stephen’s House – unless you were the principal’s sisters who acted as chaperone on the few occasions when Irene was allowed to visit.  Even though they were now married, Irene was only allowed to see David in the presence of Arthur’s sisters and was not allowed to stay at the college, having to sleep in a convent down the road instead.

On 16th June 1957, David was ordained deacon in Sheffield Cathedral, and went with Irene to Arbourthorne where he was to serve his curacy.  It was a large social housing estate on the outskirts of Sheffield.  David’s ordained ministry had begun.

On his first Sunday, David was asked to read the Banns of Marriage in the service.  He picked up the book and to his horror, he found that he had to read the Banns for “Sylvia Sissons, spinster of the parish of St Swithuns”.   The speech impediment from his childhood had been an issue all his life.  He had received speech therapy at theological college, but this was a test that few would relish.

Amazingly he read the Banns perfectly.  The 4-year-old boy who could hardly speak, yet who had become the first in his family to go to University and had followed God’s call to ordination, found that the God who had called him would not let him down.

First published after my Father's death in 2016.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

My mother was a nun

Crossing the Line - Part 2

Irene was born in the slums of Sheffield in 1927.  The first home she knew was Dragon Yard, a courtyard tenement where everyone hung out their washing together in the middle, under the smoke and pollution of the industry which surrounded them.  Steel works and foundries were the backbone of Sheffield but her small family never benefitted from the jobs the industry brought.  She was an only child.

Her father didn’t have a skill.  He worked as a casual labourer when he could get work and when he wasn’t too drunk.  Money was almost non-existent.  On the days when he got work, he would drink most of his pay on the way home.  On the days he didn’t work, there was nothing.  Her mother was a slight woman, less than 5 feet tall, who suffered regular beatings from her husband when he came home drunk.  For Irene, this was normal life.

If it had not been for the kindness of others, I am sure she would not have survived to adulthood.  There was a prostitute who lived in Dragon Yard too.  She used to give my mum money for chips.  There were also richer relatives who did what they could from time to time.  Her mother was related to Sir Henry Coward who founded the Huddersfield Choral Society – a choir of world-wide renown. One day, out of the blue, Irene remembered a car drawing up outside their home.  This was unheard of.  Out of it stepped Sir Henry and she was dumb-struck as he came to their house and had tea with her mother. Before he left he put half a crown in Irene’s hand with a smile.  She had never seen so much money.

She also had an older cousin, Madge, who lived in Manchester.  She had married a successful businessman and she taught ballet.  They had no children at that time.  Before Mum went to secondary school Madge had her over to stay.  She bought Irene a uniform for school and took her to the ballet school.  Mum was in heaven.  The visit finished with a professional photograph of my mum as a ballerina.

But then Mum went back to the daily grind of home.  At some point she was diagnosed with malnutrition and sent to a sanatorium for children recovering from TB.  For a term she lived there Monday to Friday and went home at weekends. Slowly she grew in strength fuelled by proper meals and fresh air.

When she was 12 her father died which set her free from the fear which accompanied his late-night returns after a night at the pub.  Around the same time war broke out and she learned to live in the shelters as bombs rained down on the industrial targets around her.  With her father gone, money was just a scarce, with her mother getting whatever piece work that she could.  It was never enough.

But around this time her life began to change.

The slums she had grown up in were cleared and the two of them were given a home in the recently completed council estate of Parson Cross.  Over the years Parson Cross has had its share of social deprivation, but it must have been like paradise to my mother and when I was a child she took me to visit the home which signalled this new chapter in her life.

It was at Parson Cross that she first came into contact with the Church.  There was a Church of England mission church, St Bernard’s, on the estate which was staffed by Kelham Fathers and Wantage Sisters.  The Kelham Fathers were monks from the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham in Nottinghamshire; and the Wantage Sisters were nuns from the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, Oxfordshire.  Together they opened up a brave new world for my mother.  A world of caring, where the monks and nuns put the needs of others first.  A world of community, where people of faith gathered together, supported each other and celebrated life and faith.  Her faith grew, as did her determination to escape from the world in which she had grown up.

Florence & Irene
When she left school at 16 with her school certificate she enrolled at secretarial college and learned a skill.  This skill led to work and new horizons opened up.  She had made a close friend, Florence, through Guides at church.  Together they had wonderful adventures as they escaped from the smoke of Sheffield and travelled the length of England on cycling holidays, staying in Youth Hostels and finding themselves surrounded by hopeful young men on more than one occasion.  They became life-long friends. 

Then when the opportunity came to train as a teacher, her horizons grew again and my mother now had another ambition – to join the convent at Wantage and become a nun.  It was partly her faith which led here there; partly the desire to emulate the nuns who had been such a positive influence on her life; and partly the egalitarian life of the convent.  As a nun you could be sat next to someone in chapel who had been born into the aristocracy, but as sisters together you were equals.  For someone who had been looked down on for all her early life, either in disdain or in pity, this was deeply attractive.

In 1948 she left her home in Sheffield and made the journey to Wantage in Oxfordshire to teach at the local school.   She lodged with a lovely couple who worked in the convent and lived only a field away from its hallowed ground.  Two years later she became a Postulant of the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin.  After several months scrubbing dishes in the convent kitchen, she progressed to the Noviciate, receiving her habit and a new name, Sister Irene Bernard.  As a novice she was posted to a mother and baby home in North London, looking after single mothers and their children.  She was put in charge of cooking the communal meals which terrified her, but at the end of the first evening meal the sister in charge said, “I knew you could do it – you’re from Yorkshire.”

Three years passed and she came towards the completion of her time as a Novice.  Soon she would take her final vows which would commit her to the lifelong task of poverty, chastity and obedience.  She felt she had found her niche in life – her calling – and as a full sister she could expect a varied and demanding life including postings to Africa or India to work in the mission field.
But as she approached this landmark everything changed.

Back in Sheffield, her mother had never adjusted to life without Irene.  Her health had never been good and as Irene’s final vows came closer she became convinced that she was dying.  Reluctantly Irene found herself leaving the convent she loved to look after her until she died, intending then to return and take her vows.

As time went on however, her mother didn’t die.  Irene soon became trapped in the role of carer to a woman she increasingly resented and unable to go back to the convent she loved.  The sense of disappointment must have been unbearable.  She had almost escaped.  She had got so close, but then found herself dragged back to everything she had worked so hard to escape from.  I don’t know how she coped.

Caught in this prison, it was her faith and her friends that kept her sane.  She continued to be active in her local church, got a job and carried on as best she could.

Then a little miracle occurred – one of those coincidences behind which it is possible to discern a greater hand at work.  She was asked by her vicar to go to an Evangelical church to talk to them about Anglo-Catholic spirituality with a young man who was going to train for ordination.  Like her, he was a committed Anglo-Catholic and he had also considered a monastic life (with the Kelham Fathers who had ministered in Irene’s parish).

David was living in Sheffield for a year before going to start his ordination training at St Stephen’s House in Oxford.  He had come to Sheffield to work in a steel-works with the Industrial Mission after his university degree, but he was also from a working-class home.  Going to University had been his escape and now he was on the path to becoming a priest.   They had a lot in common and after David went to Oxford to start his training, they kept in touch.

I have never been quite sure if they actually had a courtship.  When they both met Irene didn’t think priests should marry and David thought he was called to a celibate vocation, but at some point David decided to ask Irene to marry him.  Apparently, his proposal was so inept that Irene thought he was asking her for advice about marrying someone else and when she finally realised that he meant her, she turned him down.

Their friendship continued to grow however and on 24th November 1956, they were married at St Cecelia’s Parson Cross at just 36 hours’ notice.  Irene was going into hospital for surgery and they desperately wanted to be each other’s next of kin when she went in.  After a one-night honeymoon at the Nag’s Head in Castleton, David returned to the cloister of his theological college and Irene returned home to look after her mother, but it was the beginning of a profound and unexpected chapter in their lives.

They became life-long Oblates of the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage, thus continuing Irene’s relationship with the convent.  The years that followed saw Irene have a successful career in teaching, becoming head of department in a large comprehensive school.  She studied for a BA with the Open University, and trained as a Lay Reader in the Church.

Contrary to the rumours which circulated following their ‘quick marriage’ it was another seven years before they had a baby, and to this day I remain proud to say (with a wry smile) 
“My mother was a nun”.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

My Grandad drove a tram

Crossing the Line – Part 1

So where do I start? 

Perhaps with the people who made me and brought me up.  We were a small family.  I am an only child of parents who were both the only child in their families.

I only knew one of my grandparents.  The others were all dead before I was born.  And for the first 8 years of my life I hardly saw him either.  He was so totally different to my parents (or so it appeared) that it was sometimes difficult to believe that they had anything in common. 

A while ago, I remember doing one of those rather frivolous on-line quizzes which are supposed tell you something about yourself.  In a few questions, this one purported to reveal what social class you were, and my result was “Solidly Working Class”.  I laughed.  I am a clergyman, educated at Oxford, from an independent school, born of a vicar and a teacher.  Surely you can’t get much more middle class that that?

But as a thought about it, I also remembered that my parents were not from middle class homes, far from it, and neither were their parents.  Perhaps this frivolous quiz was revealing something about me which I had not identified before?  Perhaps I was more working class that I realised?

Grandad (back left) with friends before the War
My grandad was staunchly working class, deeply proud of his Lancashire working man’s values.  My parents had climbed the social ladder.  They had moved beyond their working class roots, aspiring to something more refined.

He lived in a rented bedsit in the same neighbourhood in Bolton where he had always lived.  We lived in a huge Victorian vicarage with a tennis court, bluebell wood, orchard and rose garden.  Our vicarage had old servant’s quarters in the attic which were bigger than his entire home.

He was a man of few words – preferring to keep his thoughts to himself most of the time.  He smoked 40 cigarettes a day and collected his Embassy tokens for treats or presents from the catalogue.  My parents were always talking – their jobs required it – and hated anything to do with smoking.

He loved working with his hands and the tool bench which he had made, contained the tools of his trade.  When my dad had become the first person in the family ever to go to university, grandad made him a beautiful desk out of old ammunition boxes.  By the time he had finished, no-one would have guessed the wood’s former purpose and today the desk is where I often go to write sermons or blogs, having been passed down to me, by my father in turn.  It still shines with that deep dark lustre of mahogany that has been lovingly worked to perfection.

He also made radios, and other ‘modern’ gadgets.  He did the whole thing, from designing the circuits to combining the components and making the cabinet which housed them.   I remember one in particular.  It had something like a liquid crystal display above the tuning dial with two glowing bars which came together when the radio signal was strong and drifted apart as the signal faded.  “To find the best signal” he would say, “you tune the radio until the bars are as close to each other as they can get”.   It was like magic to me.

When I was seven he gave me a model railway – not in a box, but laid out on an enormous table with a station, goods yard, village and level-crossing.  It was like my own small version of Legoland but made in wood and metal, and painted with loving care. 

When I was about 8, ill health brought him to live with us, and he made a 36” racing yacht for me, engaging me to help him at every stage.  I remember being given the awesome responsibility of pouring the molten lead into the mould he had made for the keel.  I remember him showing me how to steam strips of wood so that they would bend around the frame he had made to form the sleek lines of a racing hull.

These were the things he had done with my dad when he was a child – model train sets and racing yachts were the pinnacle of their relationship, but my father had left these far behind as sixth form led to university, and then on to theological college and ordination.

That is not to say that grandad didn’t have his faults.  He could be deeply moody and his few words could move almost imperceptibly to sullen depression at the drop of a hat.  His dark moods could last for days when he would shuffle around in a world of his own, speaking to no-one. 

When he came to live with us for the final 5 years of his life, his smoking drove my mother mad, and his working class pride was the antithesis of everything she aspired to.  It wasn’t that her upbringing had been pretentious or snobbish – far from it.  In many ways it had been significantly harder than my dad’s.  Her father had been an unskilled, alcoholic labourer in Sheffield.  Work was casual and unreliable, and when he did get paid, he would drink the money on the way home before beating her mother savagely.  My mum had a childhood characterised by poverty, fear and malnutrition in the slums of Sheffield and I don’t know if she would have survived but for the kindness of a local prostitute who used to give her money for chips.  Where grandad enshrined working class dignity, she only knew working class misery and she had fought with everything she had to leave it far behind.

Perhaps the reason they clashed so often was that he reminded her of the things she had escaped from.  He didn’t drink, but his room was always thick with smoke.  He would watch ITV - she watched BBC.  She had a modern cylinder vacuum cleaner – he loved his old upright Hoover and he would tell me over and over again how and why it was different and better than these modern plastic gimmicks.  He was content to sit quietly in his chair in his room with his ashtray and his telly.  He didn’t care if he was on his own, and resented coming downstairs to family meals.  She wanted to go to dinner parties, talk to educated people, and develop her career to get as far away as possible from the origins which he continued to represent.

 And when he got moody, he really got moody.  I am sure that part of the reason for building model train sets and yachts with my dad, was to avoid really talking to him.  He was a very guarded man who had seen almost everyone he loved die, and he had built a wall around his heart to stop it ever being broken again. 

After his early 20’s were stolen in the trenches of the First World War, seeing his friends and comrades die, he was one of the very few of those who enlisted early to return home.  He then married but his wife died after giving birth to my dad.  He withdrew within himself more and more.  Then my dad almost died when he was 2 years old from an ear infection.  He was only saved by his grandmother taking him out of hospital when they had given up on saving him, slowly loving him back to life.  

He did eventually allow himself to love again, but could not show it, because his love was for his wife’s sister, also widowed.  The taboos which remained about such relationships were still strong in his community – when he was born it was still illegal to marry your dead wife’s sister and it was expressly prohibited in the Prayer Book.  Although that changed in 1907, the stigma and disapproval of such relationships was still strong, and it was only after the death of his mother-in-law many years later that they dared to express their love and get married.  She then died only 3 or 4 years later.

I suppose that his job as a tram driver suited him for that very reason.  Isolated in his cab, he could just get on with life without having to engage with other people.  He simply got the tram from A to B and back again as the world went on around him.  I think he started on the horse-drawn omnibus, moving to electric trams with the advent of new technology.  But when the trams were replaced by buses, he was unwilling to make another technological leap by learning to drive.  Instead he became a bus conductor for the rest of his working life.  I can imagine him as a character in the TV comedy “On the Buses” – suspicious of change, proudly working class, resentful of authority, and resistant to anything which would threaten his fragile status quo.

As a child, I do remember that whenever I got too close – whenever I started to penetrate the wall which he had erected around his heart – he would quietly distance himself again, not in a cruel or manipulative way, but to shore up his self-defence.

He died when I was 13.  The smoking finally got him and he had a stroke, aged 81.

After 3 months of an air purifier running non-stop in his room 24 hours a day, it still smelled of stale cigarettes, and when we took the pictures off the wall, they left clear rectangles like oases in the darkening layers of tar and nicotine which surrounded them.

Yet I learnt so much from him about enduring adversity and about retaining the right kind of pride & dignity, no matter what anyone else thought. 

I still have the yacht.  The train set went when I was a teenager because I needed money and space for a settee and a hi-fi.   But I still have the yacht we made.  When I look at it, I see a man who took pride in what he did – a man who was self-contained and resilient – but also a man who cut himself off from others out of fear of getting hurt again.

My grandad drove a tram.

Grandad, mum and me

(With Thanks to Sam Emms for the title graphic - thanks Sam!)

Click here for an Introduction to Crossing the Line