Hearing him prompted me to look back at some ‘John Newton’ photos I took a while back.
Robin Meredith-Jones, actor & friend, has for many years been doing a show base on John Newton, also (inevitably) called ‘Amazing Grace’. On the 200 anniversary of John Newton’s ‘promotion to glory’ on 21 December 1807, Robin and his wife Christine Way did a version of the show in the London City church of St Mary’s Woolnoth, where John Newton was vicar for 28 years.
Most people know that Newton was involved in the slave trade – though not all are aware that Newton was himself a white slave briefly early on, after an altercation with a the captain of a slave ship he was crewing on.
What is well documented is John Newton’s conversion to the Christian faith, and his penning of the famous hymn Amazing Grace.
All of my earliest childhood memories are Indian. My parents had been doing their missionary training at one of the Selly Oak colleges in Birmingham when I was born, and the three of us arrive together in India when I was aged about 18 months old.
We lived most of the next 12 years in a small rural town called Jammalamadugu, in the Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh, in the Rayalaseema Diocese of the CSI.
A few years later, my sister was born in India, in the CMC hospital in Vellore, even sharing the initial of her name CMC with the hospital she was born in.
If you wanted to understand some of our Indian heritage as a family, you might share the confusion that the Registrar of Births had when my father went to register my sister Catriona’s birth.
“So, your daughter was born in India, so her nationality is Indian!” “Well, no, said my father, she has the same nationality as me, and I am British.”
“Ok, said the birth Registrar, so where were you born?” My father explained that as his parents had previously also been medical missionaries in India, in Chik Ballapur, near Bangalore, so he William Cutting had in fact been born in India.
“Then she is Indian! replied the Registrar!” Well, no, explained my father patiently, he was British because his father was British.
“So where was your father born?” Well, said my father, his father Cecil Cutting’s parents had actually also been missionaries in India, as teachers, since 1893, so his father had also been born in Ranikhet, then later lived in Benares/Varanasi in India.
“So she IS Indian!” exclaimed the Registrar, triumphantly!
There was the a scurry to provide birth certificates and marriage certificates for my father William Cutting, my grand father Cecil Cutting, and my great-grandfather also William Cutting, before my sister could have her nationality confirmed as British. Which was complicated, as there were no Birth certificates in the 1850s when my great grandfather William was born… A Baptism Certificate fortunately sufficed.
(From a sermon preached on the Centenary of the World War 1 Armistice)
Around the church are a number of pictures of a young First World War soldier.
Let’s hear a bit of his story.
He was the son of a missionary teacher family who were living and working in India, as he approached secondary school age, Cecil George was sent to boarding school.
The young scholar was at a school just over a mile from here, at Eltham College.
He was a lively student, who particularly loved his sport. Athletics; and cricket mainly.
The school regularly played other teams, and had several matches against the world famous local cricketer, WG Grace.
There’s a record of a match where the great WG was bowling against the young Cecil George.
Cecil George was one of the best all rounders in the team.
But not on this occasion.
Cecil George, bowled out by WG, for a duck!
He left school in July 1915 age 18. He was not called up at once, and the Academic year 1915-16 he spent at Imperial College reading Chemistry.
Then he was called up at the end of the Summer term of 1916. Cecil George was Gazetted as of the 27 Nov 1916 and recorded in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
He did his basic training in the Infantry. At the end of this they asked:
“Who has Matric Maths?” “I do!” Says Cecil George. “Right, if you can count more than two legs, you are going to be in the Cavalry!”
Off he goes and does the basic training for the Cavalry in Exeter.
At the end of that basic cavalry training they said
“Who has Higher Maths?” “I do !” says Cecil George. “Right, if you can plot graphs and trajectories, you are going to be in the Artillery!”
So off he goes and does the basic training for the gunners.
He ended up a with the Royal Garrison Artillery on the Selonica Front, not far from the Greek border across into Turkey.
The RGA was often supported by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) who had devised a system where pilots could use wireless telegraphy to help the artillery hit specific targets. Years later it became clear that Cecil George was involved going up in these ‘string bag’ aeroplanes of that era, as a “spotter” for targets! This was very early in the history of flight, and must have been some adventure for the young soldier!
I was introduced to The Bright Field by a friend, Robin, whilst we were on a course a few years back.
Curiously, it is Hillsborough that has brought the poem very much back to mind. Let’s have a reminder of the poem first, and there is an audio/file of RS Thomas reading it himself linked below:
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had treasure in it. I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I’ve blogged before that I was a local curate at the time, and involved in some of the immediate aftermath. One of my strong memories, as I walked back down ‘the tunnel’ a couple of times afterwards, was the contrast of the bright green playing field in the sun seen from the shadows of the tunnel.
The field is so inviting. You can see it. You can almost touch it. There’s ramp, a slope down to it. It’s just … there.
There is an American sports movie called the Field of Dreams, encapsulating the draw – particularly but not exclusively – for some men to sports, to team games, and to the playing field, or pitch, or ground.
Hymns don’t often make good theology – though they may be better at theology than movies are. But even here we may get glimpsesof heaven, as Ray Kinsella found in the film.
John Kinsella: Is this heaven?
Ray Kinsella: It’s Iowa.
John Kinsella: Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven. [starts to walk away]
Ray Kinsella: Is there a heaven?
John Kinsella: Oh yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true. [Ray looks around, seeing his wife playing with their daughter on the porch]
Ray Kinsella: Maybe this is heaven. The Field of Dreams – 1989 Phil Alden Robinson Universal/TriStar
Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to treasure in a field, and to a pearl of unfathomable value, of great price; in Matt 13:44-46. Both are images that R.S.Thomas specifically references in the poem. Not a great surprise, perhaps, for the Welsh priest/poet that he was.
That field. Seen it. Forgotten it. But now having seen it again, illuminated, incandescent, Thomas goes on: I realise now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
These sports grounds, these football fields are often a focus for hurrying on to a receding future, [or] hankering afteran imagined past. Many memories of matches remembered; of dreams and hopes for the future. The rise and fall of emotion; the tears wept, the joy unconfined. They hold a sense of the numinous about them – the singing, swaying, the shared liturgy and language – even prayers (!) – they are almost religious in their fervour. No wonder some talk of sport as their faith, of the great venues as their cathedrals, temples. Bill Shankly, powerfully linked to Liverpool, is famously quoted as saying“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.
I was recently reading back some of the witness stories of a number of Hillsborough survivors, and the camaraderie, the shared experience was a powerful memory; some saying the ‘we all came last year and we wanted to all come back again this year’ before the full portent of this particular pilgrimage unfurled before them.
Even after the catastrophe, faith remains a part of the story. I recalled in the previous blog post how 4 fans came in to our local church on the Sunday morning, just hours later. To another one of those ‘thin places‘ where heaven comes closer to touching earth. To come to seek, to pray, to place a loved one lost in to the hands of God. Nearly every anniversary since the first, there has been significant input of hymns & prayers, along with speeches & memories, at each of the ceremonies.
In the poem, Thomas looks: to the miracle … to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Looking back to the 15 April 1989, though much remains sharp in the mind of each of those most closely affected by Hillsborough, inevitable some of the memories become a little faded, a bit more transitory each year; the images of the ever-youthful 96 remain unchanged, even as ‘those who are left grow old‘. Perhaps that is why there is still such a strong sense of hope around Hillsborough – a very Liverpool – characteristic, the city with two cathedrals linked by a street called Hope.
For RS Thomas, the brightness that has shone on this field leads at last to the eternity that awaits you. May it lead to eternity for you too.
A few years ago, with members of two local parishes, I joined a pilgrimage to Holy Island, Lindisfarne. It is a significant place of pilgrimage still, as it has been for nearly a millennium and a half, when St Aidan came from that other famous holy island Iona, to found the new monastery in AD634.
A chance to re-visit recently reminded me of my previous experience, and I looked out some old photos, and a book of the journey, which some may be interested in glancing at.
St Aidan and St Cuthbert have been important characters on my northern horizon, particularly since my ordaining bishop David Lunn was a great fan of ‘our long established British christian saints, here spreading the gospel long before Augustine or any of those other johnny-come-lately Romans’.
The Celtic Cristian saints used to speak of ‘thin places’ where heaven comes very close to touching earth.
It’s 275 days to Christmas – or thanks to Irenaus who’s quick ‘nine months counting back from Christmas’ calculation called the 25 March The Feast of the Annunciation.
The fact that it regularly chimes with Passiontide does not go unnoticed, creating interesting theological resonances at this time of year. However, it does mean that at times, clashing with Holy Week, the feast gets ‘bounced’, as it has this year, on to the 8 April. It does not stop me at least remembering the feast today, especially as –
I was inducted as vicar to my first incumbency on the Feast of The Annunciation, and it remains a profoundly formational season for me. The great call delivered by Gabriel to Mary, and her response of “Lord, I am your servant – let it be to me according to your will“ seems entirely appropriate for anyone launching in to a new ministry, which I was 17 year ago today – and again, as I will be starting another new ministry shortly after the ‘transferred date’ for the Annunciation this year too.
In Holy Week, many clergy re-affirm their call to ministry at the Chrism Service, and to have “I am your servant – let it be to me according to your will“ in the forefront of our minds can’t but help sustain ministry, whether ordained or not.
Please come and join us at Southwark Cathedral on 14 April 2013.
Alastair’s installation, along with Archdeacon colleagues Jane Steen and Chris Skilton, takes place at 3pm. The original announcement was made back in December at Henfield, and at Southwark and Chichester.
Friends who wish to come, please do! It would help to have a rough idea on numbers, by emailing or texting/ringing 07736 676106 that you’d like to come.
Those who would like to robe, choir dress with black shoes please.
We would love to see you!
Alastair, Kay, Hannah & Laura
(We are probably moving at the end of May, to Sydenham/Forest Hill. Address on the linked pdf – please update address books! Personal email addresses and mobile numbers as they were.)
I recently had to collect some prayers based around the Lord’s Prayer; some I sourced elsewhere, some I wrote myself. They are gathered together under the stanzas of the Prayer.
Our Father, who art in heaven
A Prayer to God our Father
Lord God, Jesus taught us to call you Father. Help us to grow in our understanding of you, that we may better each day learn to trust you, and to love you.
Remind us of the thrill a toddler feels when being swept up securely in a father’s arms; help us share in the glee of a child playing pranks with a parent.
As we feel the lifting angst of the teenager taking insoluble homework problems to a parent who can unlock answers; and the adrenaline rush of the learner driver discovering new skills with dad, so may we feel our relationship with you broadening, enriching and deepening.
Father God, may your love for us be reflected back in our love for you. Amen.
A Father’s Prayer
Lord, I need your special care. Like your earthly father, Joseph, I want to do God’s will, even if I may not always understand. Make me gentle and self less in the care of my family and children; help me guide them in the toils and troubles, the happiness and wonders of this life.
Lectionary and church diary purists hate it: that ‘Christmas nowadays appears to start in about October, and be over by Christmas Eve’, or certainly by Boxing Day. That’s not Christmas – clergy are heard muttering – that’s Advent… However, maintaining the cry that ‘the Christmas season starts on Christmas Day and carries on until the feast of Epiphany’ is about as useful as King Canute commanding the halt of the incoming tide; despite the popularity of the carol ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’.
However, one multinational still upholds tradition – the Apple iTunes Appstore!
The App Store provides a 12 free gifts over the traditional Christmas period, with a variety of music, videos and apps for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers. The variety is deliberately diverse – meaning that some items you might find excruciating – but you will probably find several you like. If you have appropriate Apple devices, try out the 12 days app. You probably wont find ‘5 Gold Rings’ – but you might have some fun, sing along with the carol, and celebrate the Christmas Season in it’s traditional position. And keep some grumpy liturgists happy.
I’ve been visiting Christchurch for over 20 years, and love it’s iconic cathedral which dominates the horizon is such a prominent feature of the Cathedral Square. Or was. Until the first earthquake, a magnitude 7.1, on 4 September 2010; which caused enough superficial damage for the cathedral to close for three weeks; and then the supposedly smaller but much more devastating 6.3 one on 22 February 2011 which toppled the spire, and the 6.4 one on 13 June 2011, that took out the main Rose Window on the west wall, and made most of the rest of the building so unsafe.
This was not the first major earthquake damage the cathedral had suffered – quakes in 1881, 1888, 1901, and 1922 all resulted in damage – the spire falling twice. When I visited the area this week, there were only about 6 tall buildings left in the CBD, all unsafe, one due to come down this week. The shocks still continue. There was another one this week measuring a mere 5.2, but enough to get the whole restricted area completely evacuated again.
Part of the reason for our visit to the area was to see a number of friends, and be with them, and to see and feel at least a little of what they were going through. We met our former neighbours, with their 9-year-old who for 6 months only felt safe enough to sleep if he was under a table; Continue reading “Is this ChristChurch’s Christopher Wren moment?”