From that profound moment onwards I was ready for the radical theology of David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham. And I could never look another person in the face without seeing the image of the Divine.
As such I have to care as much for the poorest, as for myself. My father sought for an explanation for everything. He was extraordinarily inquisitive, and always full of wonder. And he had a true vocation. We were relatively poor, but God would always, he believed, provide. And He did.
I commend, incidentally, the marriage of priests if only on the selfish grounds that they can create the most magnificent homes for their children!
I survived the death of my father without loss of faith. In fact it strengthened me, for in a relatively unheavy way, I felt I had to carry on his work. But I never thought seriously about becoming a priest. Maybe the call of the wild was too strong; maybe I was already becoming too questioning of religious dogma. I was interested in the world around me, and I had inherited my father’s love of people. So I became a schoolteacher. Many of you will have experienced similar thoughts.
My career path had one significant, unique, difference. I knew a lot about teaching and about young people, years before I became a teacher. As a young university student I had set up an organisation to send expeditions of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year old youngsters, staffed by university students, to spend the greater part of each summer holiday living on uninhabited islands in the Hebrides. In the close proximity of lively youngsters, themselves much excited by the beauty of the world around them, I came to sense in their questioning an echo of my own unanswered questions. It gave me, I think, a particular empathy for the search which teenagers always wish to make for themselves – “Don’t you tell me what you think, I want to find this out for myself”.
And so, in the mid-1960s, I became a teacher of Geography and Religious Studies at Manchester Grammar School, and in 1972 moved to Alleyne’s School, Stevenage, as Deputy Head, two years later becoming Head (one of the youngest in the country at the time). My theology was still that of William Paley and my father, and my philosophic position was that of Descartes. I was a Dualist. Religion and science were both important to me but they were separate. I was embarrassed, however, when trying to argue such a position with colleagues who told a different story, and I knew with increasing certitude that intellectually the two sets of ideas really had to come together. However, for some thirty years I ignored this challenge.
Let me take you straight through to a discussion I was party to in San Francisco in 1998. It was the first meeting I attended of Gorbachev’s State of the World Forum, the annual meeting of some nine hundred of the world’s most outstanding thinkers and scientists. It was there that I heard an eminent Austrian biologist say, with the greatest of sincerity “The future sanity of the world depends on the coming together of two great disciplines that haven’t spoken together for more than a hundred years – Biology and Theology”. In a split second I was back to that conversation between my father and my future headteacher. Fifty years on I found all my senses alert to a challenge I had long tried to ignore.
So, if I felt I had been in denial, that denial appeared to be far longer than my own lifetime. The “How” of life, as it were, was being studied in a very different way to the “Why” of life. If spiritual truths were as important as I believed them to be, why had we allowed them to be so marginalized?
My attempt to convince that troubled, suicidal seventeen year old based on philosophy and religious concepts, could not bring solace to a young mind shaped by the theoretical advances of modern science. My denial, and the denial of others like me, was increasingly out of step with the assumed “mores” of modern society as well. If, in 1965, I could assume that the justification for my position was that of being “in loco parentis”, by 1995 there was such confusion about the role of parents, that the underlying principle for how teachers thought they should operate, was in tatters.
If we need any “proof” of this confusion, look no further than last Saturday’s Guardian. Emmanuel College, Gateshead, is a highly successful City Technology College (a Tory initiative) designated as a Beacon School (by Labour) and which received an outstanding Ofsted report; parents love it and it is oversubscribed three times. It’s Headteacher, and many of its staff, are of a “fundamentalist” Christian tradition. The Headteacher wrote in 1997 “To teach children that they are nothing more than developed mutations who involve from something akin to a monkey, and that death is the end of everything, is hardly going to engender within them a sense of purpose, self-worth and self-respect”.
“That’s right”, I said to myself over breakfast, as I thought back to that suicidal seventeen year old all those years ago.
Recently the Head has gone on to say “Clearly schools are required to teach evolutionary theory. We agree that they should teach evolution as a theory and a faith position… schools should teach the creation theory literally as depicted in Genesis. Ultimately both creation and evolution are faith positions”.
This began to sound intellectually devious. “Two ways of coming to the same conclusion” my Dualist background argued, but surely we can be more reasonable than that. Are we to assume that the advances made in our understanding of science in the last two hundred years are not also “inspirational” and sacred?