Questions and answers

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Langwathby. River Eden left, Settle-Carlisle right

I’ve recently been asked to answer questions about my life. Here are some of them with my responses.

Family and growing up

I suppose I’m a border reiver, a hybrid Cumbrian Scot. I was born in Carlisle and brought up 20 miles south along the river Eden in Langwathby. I retain Cumbrian flat vowels as evidence.

Arthur, my father, was the second of five children of William, a Langwathby farmer and merchant, and Janet (née Dobinson) his gentle, somewhat patrician north Cumbrian wife from Roman Wall territory. Jeanne, my mother, was the second of five daughters of the Kirkoswald butcher Stanley Cranston and his wife Nellie (née Reid), a miner’s daughter from Fife. My sister was born during the Second World War when things were very tight. I was born in the expansive post-war period when we’d “never had it so good”. So essentially we were both only children with childhoods that were quite dissimilar.

We lived in a house where my paternal grandparents had lived before they moved across the road next to Arthur’s sister’s family. Up the hill were Arthur’s youngest brother with his family, lording it over the rest of the village more than just geographically. To complete this vignette of the Monkhouses, Arthur’s eldest brother was a Methodist minister in Carlisle, and another worked in a bank in Carlisle and sang tenor in the Cathedral choir. It wasn’t until I started organ lessons that I knew anything of our common interest in church music.

Nellie was reputed to be the youngest of 16 children. She went into service in Edinburgh in her teens. My cousin told me that she, a somewhat statuesque lady, was more than occasionally to be found in the pub dragging her husband out. Typical Methodists. Stanley liked to be called Stan by his grandchildren, and I assumed that was another nickname for a grandfather, like Pop or Papa. It never dawned on me that it was short for Stanley until I was a teenager.

CranstonsNellie and Stan had five daughters, from left to right Stella, Anne, Helen, Jeanne, Margaret (Stella and Margaret were twins—I might have them wrong way round). Anne,the eldest lived in Carlisle, Jeanne my mother came to Langwathby after nursing at Wrightington and Bradford Royal Infirmary, Helen went to Darlington, and the twins ended up in Warwickshire. I have photos of the Cranston sisters, most striking with high cheekbones and almond eyes. Like Nellie when she was young, they look Slavic, oriental almost. I wonder about Nellie’s ancestry, and whether a sailor from the east contributed to their—and my—gene pool. Maybe that accounts for my interest in Russian Orthodoxy.

1950s Langwathby

11My father was fascinated with all things automotive, and spent the Second World War as driver and batman to a General in Greenock on the Clyde. We had a green Morris MRM 261 and so were able to get away from time to time, but with few private cars in the village, most of my school contemporaries were not so fortunate. There’s a picture of my sister and me in Trafalgar Square: she looks about 12 so I must have been about 4.

The village school was next to the railway station on the Settle-Carlisle. You could get trains from the village to Leeds, Bradford and Blackburn as well as, of course, Carlisle and Skipton. There was maybe even a stopping train to Edinburgh that went up the Waverley line. The daily passing of the Thames-Clyde and Thames-Forth expresses was eagerly awaited especially if school playtimes coincided.

Despite living less than 100 yards from school, I was made to stay for school dinners. The emetic qualities of the tapioca, rice pudding and semolina, were memorable: great globules of pearly snot in a mixture of vomitus and semen, not that I could have put it like that then. I never ate puddings, so as punishment was kept in the whole dinner break, deprived of playtime. I found books to read.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADaily assembly consisted of a hymn and a prayer. It was a C of E school, though I don’t remember the Vicar ever visiting, and prayers were from the Book of Common Prayer. This Methodist child was bowled over by the language, especially the one that goes “defend us in the same … neither run into any kind of danger … ordered by thy governance”. The words, the syntax, the poetry, the other-worldliness—entrancing to this 6 year old. It didn’t feature every day, but as soon as the Headmistress began “O Lord and heavenly father” my antennae twitched. And they say the BCP has no mission value.

Eden Valley in the 1950s

It was isolated. There was no M6. The Pennines to the east meant that for much of the dark year we were cut off from Hexham and Scotch Corner. When my aunt and family visited from Darlington, they were gone by 3 pm to ensure safe passage over Stainmore. The road over Shap with snail-pace nose-to-tail traffic, impassible for much of the winter, meant that journeys south were fraught and slow. I still think southerners begin at Lancaster. To the north was Scotland, and we went that way more than south or east, not least because of friends in Greenock. Trips west to Keswick don’t feature much on my radar. My abiding images of the Lake District are of gloom, pines, rain and hills that fence me in.

So it was part of England, but detached from England. At school we sang songs about the Scots ravaging Carlisle, and about dreadful Sassenachs. It was almost Scottish and had been Scottish, but it was not Scotland. It was fiercely independent-minded and self-reliant. But—and this affected me deeply—intensely closed minded, anti-intellectual, socially conservative and oppressive.

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Tilting train near Penrith

And this did not begin to change for two decades, when the M6 snaked its way up through the Lune gorge (I was in the third year at Cambridge by then), and electrification of the West Coast Main Line a couple of years later, Penrith and Carlisle gaining a rail service undreamt of by 19th century engineers.

Studies and work as an anatomist

I was moulded into medicine by my parents. I’m not aware of ever having had any choice. I qualified as a doctor in 1975 after three years at Queens’ College Cambridge where I read Medical Sciences (2 years) and History of Art (1 year), and three years clinical studies in King’s College Hospital, London.

Things that stand out in my intellectual formation include (1) realising that as human beings we are apes in the long line of evolution from primaeval soup; (2) embryology—we carry our structural and genetic history with us; (3) the year spent in History of Art where I began to learn to think (as opposed to remember) at the feet of such luminaries as Anthony Symondson and David Watkin. It was a most entertaining and transformative year in all sorts of ways.

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Rex Coupland

In 1975 as a final year medical student it became clear that the practice of medicine was not for me. I spent much of my time fearful that I would do the wrong thing; the responsibility was terrible. I can’t remember things unless I have a framework to hang them on, and in medicine there’s an awful lot of random stuff to remember. But I never forgot my fascination with the history of the human form—evolution and embryology—so I approached several medical schools to see if there was any scope for a job in that. I ended up as Anatomy Demonstrator, or Temporary Lecturer as it was called, at the then new medical school at Nottingham. That grew into a permanent Lectureship.

I must have been a disappointment to the Professor, the late great Rex Coupland, because I was interested in teaching and student welfare—pastoral stuff—and he pointed out that I had no future unless I made a research name for myself. This was not what I wanted to hear. Nevertheless I managed to get a PhD and a few papers published.

In the mid 80s, when the Universities were being squeezed by the Thatcher government, I saw that my future at Nottingham after Rex’s imminent retirement would be precarious. In early 1987 I saw an advert for Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which despite its title is the biggest Irish medical school, and I applied. On 3 January 1988—not a great time of year to be arriving in a foreign jurisdiction for a new job—we rolled off Sealink ship St Columba at Dun Laoghaire: Susan and me, with Victoria (12), Hugh (10) and Edward (8). Hugh and Edward were choristers at Southwell and Ripon respectively, where they remained until secondary school in south Dublin. With ferries and airports and one thing and another that was a very fraught few years. It affected our wellbeing. I wouldn’t do it again.

As a result of death, resignation and retirement, I found myself as essentially a one-man show. The arrangements for handling cadavers for dissection were redolent of Frankenstein’s laboratory in a Hammer horror, and having come from the new set-up at Nottingham, the medical course was if anything worse. I set about modernising both, and had some pretty awkward fights for money and for the place of anatomy, not only from colleagues begrudging the quality of our teaching, but also from educationalists who were beginning to maintain that medical students didn’t need to know facts so long as they could look and act ‘caring’. It was hard work.

The other thing that got me into trouble with my colleagues was the strange notion that since the medical students paid our salaries (which they did at RCSI), we should actually listen to their concerns.

In about 2000 I was in my office in Dublin thinking what next? I’d had two textbooks published, still in print, and it came to me that it was time to move on. I took a sideways step into computer-assisted learning, but that did not turn out well for me, and after a couple of years I was back in UK as foundation anatomist at the new medical school in Derby.

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The perfect pastor

How has this affected ordained ministry?

I see theology and pastoralia through the lenses of evolution, embryology and medical science. It’s incarnational, of course, and I have no hesitation in saying that if theology and biology disagree then the theology needs to be modified or ditched. I’ve come to the view anyway that Jesus shows us the way to abundant life—no more, no less—and that doctrine is at best poetry and at worst oppressive nonsense. Theology is a human construct, so if our brains are evolving, theology must evolve too.

My training also leads me to value straightforwardness and candour. I am told that I’m frighteningly blunt. Telling the truth seems to be the most serious sin a priest can commit, for people expect a vicar merely to confirm their prejudices while drinking their tea.

What did you most enjoy in medical studies and practice?

In medical studies it was seeing that we humans, primates (apes not archbishops), mammals, vertebrates, chordates, all fit into the procession of life. I wonder how we will continue to evolve, or whether we’re the end of a road. I rather hope the latter, for we’ve so cocked things up that mass extinction would give the opportunity for a fresh start, Noah’s flood wise, with evolution doing a better job next time round. As I get older (I’m 67) I think it must be quite nice to be an orang-utan picking fleas out of a friend’s fur.

In my year as a full time medical practitioner one of my jobs was in Ear, Nose and Throat and Plastic Surgery where I enjoyed doing mucky stuff like wound cleaning and sucking out pus from mastoid cavities, and such like.

.. and most difficult?

Not letting people die with dignity. I’m haunted by an infant with biliary atresia who was repeatedly operated on merely, as I saw it, to provide practice for surgeons. Though I was at the bottom of the food chain, I was not without opinions, and one day I—a 26-year-old neophyte—had the temerity to voice them to the assembled professors and consultants, knowing that the parents were on my side. I think the response is best left to your imagination. I’m not a natural respecter of rank.

What was your first experience of God? How has that developed?

Beauty. I’ve already told you about my response to poetic language. For a boy who was fat, asthmatic, uninterested in football or cricket, and without any aspiration to spend his adult life knee deep in cow shit, life in 1950s Langwathby was universally grey and often cruel. When, through organ lessons at Carlisle Cathedral in the early 1960s, I discovered beauty, I was transfixed. I was able to combine this with what I’d learnt about beauty of humanity from Bible stories, and this began to forge a notion of the Divine. I was repelled by Christian Union types at Cambridge, confirming me on a theological journey towards what I have come to understand as the apophatic and mystical incarnated into the pragmatic and practical.

When did you take on ordained ministry?

I remember discussing the itch to seek ordination with the biology teacher at Penrith Grammar School. Back in Derby in 2003 someone who had known us in Nottingham asked me what plan I had for the future. I could hardly answer, and knew that that was the time to scratch the itch. Every door opened. I started training with the East Midlands Ministry Training Course in 2004, was deaconed in 2006, and priested in 2007.

The two years with EMMTC were intellectually the most stimulating of my life. I was fortunate to have as course Principal Michael Taylor, a former Catholic priest who had been through the hands of Ratzinger and Rahner amongst others, and provided a perfect stimulus for me. So for two of the three years I was setting up anatomy at Derby, I was also studying theology out of hours—well actually sometimes during hours …

Grief at Hugh’s death

It’s not two years yet, and I still find grief at the death of my elder son to be fierce and bitter. We don’t really have the verbal images for this, but it’s like being covered in a blanket that blots our sun, moon and stars, that makes it impossible to move, that extinguishes delight. For 18 months there was never a day without my hearing King David’s lament at the death of Absalom, 2 Samuel 18:33. That voice has largely faded now, but the aching lassitude, exhaustion and apathy persist.

If one accepts that a father’s role is to protect his offspring, and if one manifestly has failed to do that, then one deserves to die. That is the logic that I had to confront, and if I had to confront it, then it may be that other people in my position must have to deal with it too.

Parishioners and colleagues are unobtrusively supportive, but a woman from another parish said to a colleague after 9 months that it was time I got over it. After all, she said, she’d buried two husbands. I can’t say I’m surprised. I didn’t want to be signed off, and indeed the regular weekly liturgy gave a structure to my life that I couldn’t have done without.

In the end you have to navigate the turbulence of grief for yourself, because it is yours alone and nobody else’s. There is very little to help fathers who lose adult offspring, most literature being concerned with mothers and the loss of babies or children. The only book I found helpful—very helpful indeed— is Inside grief, edited by Stephen Oliver.

Music

I learnt to play hymns in Methodist chapels, so I know how to use the organ to control a congregation—not a skill that many organists have. I’ve been organist and singer at churches in central London, Nunhead, Nottingham, Dublin (St Ann’s in the city centre) and Derby. Along the way I picked up a prize in the ARCO diploma, and managed to pass FRCO. I doubt I’d do either of those things now. My hearing is poor and my one functioning eye glaucomatous. Nevertheless, I recently gave a concert as part of a series at St Modwen’s and I was pleasantly surprised. As the organist said—he was turning pages for me—“you’ve not lost the magic”.

The blog

I can’t remember why I started the blog. It’s a mixture of autobiography, criticism, prophecy, theology, provocation and puerility. The muse scarpered when Hugh died and she hasn’t reappeared, though sometimes I think I glimpse her skulking round the corner. I’m so enraged by the crassness of the bishops and much that goes on in the church that were I to write about them the blog would soon descend into dyspeptic vitriol, so I promised myself that when I do start again it’ll not be about church stuff. Anyway who cares any more?

Favourite sound?

There are so many, all musical. Fauré Dolly; Bach 6 part Aus tiefer (BWV 686) – is there anything so profound? I play it over and over again and find something new each time; the opening of Handel Dettingen Te Deum—when the choir enters it’s like a rocket launch, at least under Simon Preston’s baton; Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Dvorak Slavonic Dances. Russian church music. I could go on.

NPG x104740; Maxwell Marsden ('Max') Bull by Antony Barrington Brown

Max Bull, ten years before I knew him

Greatest influences?

Max Bull, anatomist in Cambridge, Rex Coupland, anatomist in Nottingham, Andrew Seivewright, Carlisle organ teacher. And most of all my beloveds: Susan and the three people who have taught me most about myself, Victoria, Hugh and Edward.

What do you pray for most?

I’m not sure what prayer is other than a journey into one’s inner being. If pushed I’d say I ache for justice without which there will never be peace (John XXIII, Pacem in terris). I’m not sure that peace in the sense that we use that word is a Christian concept. We need to fight.

What makes you angry?

  • Political correctness, particularly that which sees working class white people marginalized.
  • People in government who live behind electric gates in the Cotswolds or the Home Counties and have no idea what ordinary people have to endure.
  • The anti-intellectualism and corporate managerialism of the bishops, Philip North excepted. It’s almost as if when they meet, their sherry is laced with rohypnol, the effects of which don’t wear off until they leave. Of course, I yield to no-one in my admiration for bishops, especially those to whom I have pledged canonical obedience over the years. Anyway, as a cradle Wesleyan I’m not sure what bishops are for other than the pastoral care of clergy.
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From our Tree of Life carpet (Qum)

What makes you happy?

I don’t think anyone has the right to be happy. We have a duty to contribute. But if you press me:

  • Intellectual eye-twinkling vitality.
  • Vibrant colours, especially red, in gardens, glass and fabrics.

What gives you hope for the future?

  • Biological processes that should wipe us out for a fresh start.
  • The intellectual suppleness and open-mindedness of young people. So of course the church is the ideal working environment for me …

 

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