Top critical review
29 people found this helpful
on 9 June 2012
Other reviewers find self-vindication for their varying positions. I write this from inside the Church, by which I mean the worldwide Church rather than the author's somewhat narrow experience of one particular brand.
So, inevitably, I found the book painful to read, yet there was nothing in it I did not already know and have not already considered in my own often ramshackle attempts to walk towards and with God.
This is painful autobiography, with flashes of wit, some erudition and much poetry. Its tones are brooding and often lugubrious; it is to be hoped that the author feels better for writing it, because, I for one, felt worse for reading it.
Better minds and pens than mine have already commented on this book, and I recommend the reviews of Richard Harries and Lavinia Byrne. Yet there is still more to be said, for Richard raises searching questions, even if most are directed at his own heart - and dare I say it, his romantic soul?
Samuel Johnson once wrote "that the parent of all memoirs is the ambition of being distinguished from the herd of mankind... Every man that is solicitous about the esteem of others is in a greater degree desirous of his own, and makes by consequence his first apology for his conduct to himself, and when he has once deceived his own heart... propagates the deceit in the world, without reluctance or consciousness of falsehood."
Substitute the terms "disappointed" and "disappointment" for "deceived" and "deceit", and one has a doorway into this melancholic memoir.
And the more I read it, the sadder I became, so much so that I did not want to finish it, a rare experience for me. My mood plummeted, for Richard's writing is evocative and powerful, and his connections with past times and lost places dominate not only his own experience, but also that of his reader.
Stark landscapes both outside and inside contain him, yet impose imprisonment instead of bestowing security. He tries to leave them, it seems, but carries their marks deep within, and he has been hurt by the many sorrowful and futile lives he has seen and the funerals he has presided over. He is in anguish over death and its futility, and he equates this with failure.
But the book had been given to me by a friend; so I knew I must finish it so that we could discuss it.
Richard charts a tough childhood in Alexandria, near Glasgow, followed by years of training during adolescence for a celibate Anglo-Catholic priesthood.
How wonderful such training could be, if entered into freely, in adulthood, understanding both the cost and the potential blessings. But how terrible to enter the fraught stages of dawning sexuality in such a cloistered and uncomprehending institution, encountering sexual appetite as sin, and experiencing withdrawal from celibacy as failure!
Richard's institutionalisation - and therefore his fight with and flight from it, is just one of many themes in his book, for he is, as is clear from his other writings, a deeply compassionate and complex character, whose desire to help people put him on more than one collision course with his particular brand of church.
Yet despite his later ordination and subsequent elevation as Bishop, notwithstanding his varied life experiences in Ghana and the US, the life he portrays is one of constant constraint within church institutions, and rather narrow ones at that.
Church, worldwide, is both terrible- full of cruel prejudice, irrational dogma and inhumane practices - and splendid, offering both interior and exterior experiences of immanence and celebration. Yet Richard mostly tells us of the narrowness and failure - for him, these always outweigh the joys. And indeed, joy is notable for its absence from this memoir. He often blames himself - more disappointments, another failure.
But Church is far wider than his experience, and in ditching one baby institution, Richard seems to have also ejected the bathwater, the God the Church seeks to worship and represent. He seems woefully ignorant of other denominations, and also portrays himself as frighteningly isolated, an isolation not of solitude, but of busyness.
He rightly takes issue with the Church's claim to representation, and also tilts at windmills of Biblical interpretation and doctrinal orthodoxy, but cannot find connections to God in its acts of worship, and so eventually is worn down by his experience of God's absence, having sought experiences of His presence.
He sees himself as a disappointed romantic, always searching for something or someone, just over the horizon, that ephemeral and elusive object of desire.
He makes many telling points in his criticisms of those who put principles before people, and his recounting of Anglican discussions concerning women's ordination and homosexuality at two Lambeth Conferences would be amusing if the attitudes had not been so unlovingly outrageous and the consequences had not been so disastrous.
Yet the very same "destruct" button within Anglicanism is also revealed in his own life, and his narrative consistently discloses not only his internal conflicts but also what was either an unwillingness or an inability to deploy tact and diplomacy.
Richard uses various poets to express and give added pathos to his concepts and sentiments. I wish he had also engaged with those who emphasise wonder, as one also finds in the prose of speculative fiction writers. His poetic choices are soul cries, but speak of resignation and pain- where is the transcendence, the hope? It is as if, reading Milton, one only studied "Il Penseroso", the thoughtful nightman of melancholy, and ignored "L'Allegro", the joyful state of daylight and delight.
Again, his theology takes him to hopelessness, whereas theology can take us to " the shores of mystery". He ignores the eschaton as no doubt he sees it as nothing more than wishful thinking. Instead, he comments that, "We live ourselves forward, and understand ourselves backward" (p271).
Yet it is the forward aspect of the eschaton that gives understanding and hope, as well as explaining death and limiting its bitterness.
Thus his account is as notable for its omissions as its inclusions- he has apparently never experienced the supernatural, and this inevitably has informed his reading of Scripture, while the absence of joy may arise from a neglect of the discipline of thanksgiving. His accounts of his family life also suggest available but unlearned lessons.
Others who know Richard well must correct me if these comments are a travesty of his life and work- worse, if they seem judgmental or unloving. The problem is that Richard has chosen to go public, and thus invites public comment. Like him, I seek grace and meaning.
His book closes, as it opens, with his tramping the hills of his homeland, and I hope and I pray -I hope he won't mind - that in this "grounding" he will yet find, or be found by, peace and the Presence, whose absence, according to this book anyway, seems to have been a hallmark of his life.
St Cuthman of Sussex