His was an eventful life lived out as a dean and bishop on a very public stage. So why did he give his autobiography this curious self-deprecating title? It sounds typically English, an understated - perhaps ironic - way of drawing attention to a career that captured the headlines and made him a household name even if he was not always fondly loved. After all, if you write three bulky volumes about yourself, you’ve got to think that the subject matter warrants it. But it’s not impossible that HHH, as he was known, was being sincere. He always acknowledged his modest working class background, said many times that he was not obviously born to be a prince of the church like his fellow bishops. Perhaps as he neared his end he began to see his career in a larger perspective where every life, however distinguished, is as little or nothing in the grand scheme of things. “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”
I would often think of HHH when I used to sit in his, and then my, study in that great medieval Deanery attached to Durham Cathedral. It’s hard not to be overawed by your predecessors especially when not one but two portraits of him hang in that amazing room. In such a place you can easily imagine you are someone, “think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” as St Paul says. These days a dean doesn’t have the leisure to offer as much to the public life of church and society as a century ago for all that I’m sure it remains a key part of the vocation in that office to do so. Decanal life is much (pre-)occupied by the immediate and never-ending concerns of a hungry cathedral, a diocese and a county, especially the first. In that sense, a dean has a less visible role outside Barchester than used to be the case. You could say that in his or her public profile, a dean lives a distinctly unimportant life.
But here’s the rub. Maybe HHH cottoned on to the fact that what made him interesting was not his dazzling public career but what went into making him a man. To me as his successor and, I admit it, a critical fan, what fascinated me was his ordinariness, his unimportance if you like. I wish he had allowed more of this to come to the surface in his Retrospect. You feel there is so much he doesn't tell you, imagines that what you really want to know about is the public persona, the performance on the national stage, the often dramatized account of this controversy or that, sometimes told, it has to be said, with a less than pleasing whiff of self-congratulation. Unimportant? Not really, not as he tells the story.I’ve now reached the life-stage HHH had got to when he started writing his mammoth account in 1942. I’m not as old as he was (yet), but I am now superannuated after forty years of ordained ministry. Retirement is inevitably a time to draw threads together, “gather the fragments so that nothing is lost”. You find yourself looking back on your life and glimpsing connections that you hadn’t quite seen before. The nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Kierkegaard famously said that “life has to be lived forwards but understood backwards”, a saying much quoted by Jung in his account of psychoanalysis. It’s not quite what Anselm meant when he talked about “faith seeking understanding”, yet as Augustine had found when he wrote his Confessions centuries before, knowing yourself and how you have come to be what you are is an essential aspect of “understanding”.
What I’ve been feeling for during these past months was put sharply in focus for me at church this morning. Another retired priest who like me has recently moved into the village asked me over coffee whether I’d ever written about my spiritual development. He knew something about my personal story and thought it was interesting. (Who wouldn’t be flattered? – for there’s nothing in the world that’s as fascinating as we are to ourselves!) I replied that while there’s plenty of autobiographical allusion in my writing and preaching (for ultimately, all we have to speak about is what we know and have learned and experienced), I have never tried to give it any conscious shape or structure. Indeed, I can’t begin to guess what that would look like, though others may be able to offer clues.I’m one of those people who best discovers what I think or believe as I speak or write it. I can have quite vague notions about something until I start writing it down or arguing it out, and then there comes, sometimes quite suddenly, that point of recognition, that eureka moment. That’s it! That’s what I believe! That's how the world is! That's how God may be! That’s perhaps who I am! Which is why I enjoy social media and blogging because like a journal, they hold up a mirror to the self that can be, often is, hidden from sight until the words disclose it.
So I am going to try an experiment and blog my own Retrospect. Not at Hensonian length, and not as a book like his with its somewhat artfully imposed narrative shape. I shall simply blog a few hundred words at a time on some of the key personal and spiritual themes that are significant to me and see what happens. I’m not going to say it’s either important or unimportant, though the story is certainly important to me. However ordinary we are, our lives are unique, unrehearsed dramas in which we get only one chance at being players. As for everyone else, it may be precisely what we have in common as human beings that makes each of us interesting to other people. My “truth”, the Kierkegaardian "truth for which we live and die" will not be the same as yours, but we are all walking the same path of trying to live authentically as men and women in the world – if, that is, awareness, emotional intelligence and wisdom matter to us. That’s the kind of stuff I want to try out in these blogs.So inspired by HHH, I’ll have a go. How many episodes? I've no idea. Maybe a dozen to see us through a year. You don’t have to read if you don’t want to. But I’d love to think that however we go about it we all want to seek and to find understanding. That's my goal (he says modestly). It’s much more fun - and we learn more - if we travel together in company. It's an unfinished story because tomorrow's experiences will cast new light on the past and present that will make even late autobiographical fragments provisional. It's also in search of a title. Any suggestions?