About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Retrospect of an Unimportant Life?

The title isn’t mine. It was Bishop Herbert Hensley Henson who, nearing the end of his life in the 1940s wrote a long three volume autobiography Retrospect of an Unimportant Life. (I added the question mark myself.) He was a predecessor of mine in the Deanery at Durham, being Dean throughout the Great War. He was already getting a name for himself as a doughty controversialist, a reputation he cultivated as Bishop of Hereford and then Bishop of Durham. He preached, wrote, argued and hectored on the issues of the day – prohibition, trades union, divorce law, liturgical revision, disestablishment and National Socialism (to his great credit he was one of the few bishops to see through its blandishments to the awfulness the Third Reich would inevitably become).

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? 


  1. Delighted that this retrospective is beginning. I have always found the idea of 'wool-gathering' charming and evocative...the walks through sheep country, where tufts highlight the thorns, yet - if gathered - compose a small fleece...something to weave with, something to create warmth.

  2. fascinating. I'll be reading.
    It's making me wonder about blogging. Like you I 'understand' as a I talk and write but have no idea about blogging and wonder if i dare 'go public' -- but walking Dalesway on my own would be a great time to start. Any advice?

  3. If you want to discover the real man behind the mask of HHH then the best place to start is with Owen Chadwick's "Hensley Henson" which reveals more about him in 331pages than Henson does himself in three volumes. Alternatively Henson's "Bishoprick Papers are quite revealing of what maketh the man.

  4. I suspect that while the blog 'Retrospect' might be a good way of doing it, I think that a collation of the series might well make a book. Many people still don't read blogs, but would read a book written by you, particularly if it contains insights into 'what makes the man', because they will find bits of themselves there as well as seeing how God works in and though his people.

  5. On your Twitter Bishop Kings states that HHH knew of three types of clergy. I think Bishop Kings singular namesake got in there first and said it about the clergy of Lincolnshire long before HHH. I greatly admire HHH but my admiration for the saintly And blessed Edward King (Bidhop of Lincoln from 1885 to 1910) is even greater.

  6. What about your early memories? I talk about what I remember, and I realise how much things have changed in what seems very little time. You never went out without a hat, or gloves if you were a girl. That's why elderly men wear hats in the car. 1950s style! Just today I was at a National Trust property that had one of its rooms 1950s style. We told the room guide there was something missing, the little pot of spills on the mantel piece. I'm not really practising what I preach, I have to say! But your memories would actually get read. Do go ahead. Any social history is of interest. Title; An Eagle Learning to Fly?

  7. Retrospect was nothing more than an exercise in concealment. In her ecclesiastical novels Susan Howatch clearly based the character Alex Jardine, Bishop of Starbridge, upon HHH. On page 164 of "Absolute Truths" she writes the following - "Funny to think that all the while Alex was bucketing around as a great Prince of the Church, he was secretly scribbling away in that journal - and making a hash of it. He told me once that in the end his journal bore no relation to what was actually going on in his life, and of course that was why his awful autobiography, based on the journal, was such a travesty." Sometimes fact really can be stranger than fiction.

  8. Thanks for these good comments. I'm encouraged to press on and yes, Episode 1 will begin with early memories. Whether it will document much social history I'm not sure, but it may uncover themes that become important later on. Hadn't thought of stringing them together as a book (and I am aware of the peril of vainglory here, a temptation HHH wasn't altogether immune from in publishing his massive work that conceals as much as it reveals, as Father David accurately points out). Chadwick's biography is a masterpiece to which Peart-Binns' recent study adds little so far as the man himself is concerned. The "Retrospect" makes me wonder what the best autobiography would look like and whether any I have read comes close. Trouble is that most of the really interesting people in history have been too busy to write in this way. It's probably the last refuge of the lazy or superannuated. I'm intrigued by the possible title "An Eagle Learning to Fly". It reminds me of a sermon by John Habgood at Coventry in 1987. Taking Isaiah 40 ("They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint"), he said that Coventry had done some spectacular flying and running but hadn't yet learned to walk. So maybe in my 3rd Age, "An Eagle Learning to Walk"?

  9. Perhaps it is not a wise thing for the great and the good to write autobiographies but wait for someone to write their biography. I would suggest that George Bell's two volume work on Randall Davidson is among the best ecclesiastical biographies of the 20th century. Owen Chadwick's "Michael Ramsey - A Life" is also pretty high up in the list. Robert Runcie rather regretted that Humphrey Carpenter's "The Reluctant Archbishop" was published while he was still alive. George Carey's autobiographical "Know the Truth" is a Masterclass in retaliation for all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that he suffered during his Archiepiscopate at the hands of the media. As far as I am aware there is no biography of John Habgood, that would be a good project to undertake from someone who knew him well.

  10. Yes, Bell's Davidson is outstanding - read it as a student. The best account of early 20th century church history I know. Cosmo Lang (Lockhart) and William Temple (Iremonger) were not so well served. Haven't read Fisher. Chadwick is always good on anything he touches. I enjoyed Eric James on John Robinson. On Bell himself, Andrew Chandler's new book, which could have been longer, is worth reading. No doubt it will be updated as the Bell controversy unfolds. Not sure whether you are encouraging me or not, but as I am neither great nor (especially) good, perhaps your warning may not apply. I'm thinking of another title, "Ordinary Time".

  11. If "Ordinary Time" turns out to be of the same standard of excellence as "Christ in a Choppy Box" then I would certainly encourage you to embarque upon this endeavour. Like you, I couldn't quite face reading Edward Carpenter's "Archbishop Fisher - His Life and Times" although David Hein's "Geoffrey Fisher" offers a good and much shorter reassessment of the traditional picture of Fisher's primacy. On the front cover of the official biography is an image of Jacob Epstein's bronze bust of Fisher which is kept at Lambeth Palace.We learn from Runcie's official biography that during Ramsey's time at Lambeth Fisher's bust had to be put out of sight because Ramsey "trembled like a leaf every time he saw it."

  12. Your memories are important, Michael, whether you get a memoir published or not.