Pillar of Society?
It is a well established fact, with many examples which might be quoted to prove the point, that from distant times right up to the present, the pulpit has been used as a sounding post from which personal opinions may be broadcast under the guise of expressing holy writ.
Further, it is not unknown that, those holding contrary views to the preacher are named, maybe shamed, but certainly left in no doubt that their views are perverse, possible heretical, and not to be left unchallenged. Aggressive confrontation is not in my nature, but with sadness in my heart, and possibly with tongue straying towards the inner lining of the cheek, I have based the words I wish to speak this morning as directly contradicting those of a very good friend. I cannot remain silent, although what was written was without any doubt done so in good faith. Nevertheless, Roy Wain, uncharacteristically, has got it wrong when in the latest edition of the always interesting, readable Hucklow calendar he linked my name to a pillar. In due course I shall explain why.
But not yet. For two reasons.
First, as is my wont, I feel the urge to digress. The digression is important for it provides background support for my, I was going to say views, but they are more than opinions, rather convictions. Secondly, as writers of murder mysteries will confirm, explanations are for the last page, otherwise readers lose interest, and listeners allow their attention to wander. I don’t want anyone dozing off before I’ve finished. No sermon ought to be accompanied by what is euphemistically referred to as deep breathing, as the eyes are rested.
On my shelves at home in what I have grandly named my study, are several books of biography and autobiography. One of my many defects, a weakness which I share with a large proportion of the population, is to enjoy gossip about other people’s secrets. Biographies are a rich quarry from which scandal may be mined. “Well, who would have thought?,” “Or fancy such goings on!” are phrases to set the pulses racing. But more seriously, admiration for the courage and determination which such non-fiction frequently reveals, is a source of inspiration in one’s own life.
One of the autobiographical books on my shelves is that of Leah Manning, a name which I suspect means nothing to most, if not, all present this morning. Yet Leah Manning was a remarkable lady; firm of purpose, with a passion for justice and a champion of the under-privileged. She was an intelligent, talented woman born in an age when clever, strong-willed women were not generally applauded, or welcomed. Society gave greater credence even to stupid men than to clever and articulate women.
It is not my intention this morning to go into many biographical details – possibly some other time – but a brief sketch may give a flavour of her life. Leah was born in the east end of London, brought up in the 1890’s in a middle-class, staunchly Methodist family. Her ancestors, silk merchants, were Huguenot émigrés who had fled to London from Lyon. Following her birth, her parents emigrated to Canada, leaving her to be brought up by grand-parents in a caring, loving environment. She trained as a teacher in Cambridge, and was still doing some teaching in a girls’ independent school in her eighties. Most of her teaching life though was spent in poor, downtown schools. She did voluntary nursing in the evenings after a day in school during the First World War, tending casualties from the dreadful battlefields of France and Flanders.
She became a radical left-wing socialist, persuaded to join the Fabian Society by a life-long friend, Hugh Dalton, who was destined to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945. Leah was a member of Parliament for just a year in 1930, and again from 1945-1950. Before the second World War she became President of the National Union of Teachers. Ever active in local politics, she opened and ran family planning clinics in the nineteen twenties and thirties, was something of a hell-raiser when fighting for the poor, particularly when women and children were the oppressed. A thorn in the side of bumbling bureaucrats, a practical helper to many a struggling family, her out-spoken left-wing views didn’t endear her to every-one, but her practical compassion made her many friends.
But what sticks in the memory after reading her autobiography is the final chapter. It is only one page long, so I will read it to you.
“It’s the system I hate,” shouted the young student at the demonstration. I had every sympathy with him. I had said the same when I was a student and had thought I could do something about it. Now, when I look back over a long life, I find I have been able to achieve nothing of what I had in mind, that things are worse in the world today than when I was eighteen.
It is true that under the Welfare State there are no children dying of malnutrition. But in other parts of the world they daily die from hunger. It is true that thousands of council houses have been built, but thousands still live in slums. I was a pacifist and shouted, “No more war.” Since I was eighteen there have been two world wars; there is war today in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the great powers constantly build weapons that are more and more horrific, with which to destroy civilisation. I do not know how I can still be an optimist, but when I feel a little depressed by this confrontation of my failures, I turn again to my favourite prayer from Michael Quoist’s Prayers of Life:
The bricklayer laid a brick on the bed of cement.
Then with a precise stroke of his trowel spread
And without a by-your-leave laid on another brick.
The foundations grew visibly.
The building rose tall and strong to shelter men.
I thought, Lord, of that brick buried in the darkness
at the base of the big building.
No one sees it, but it accomplishes its task and the
other bricks need it.
Lord, what difference if I am on the roof top or in the foundation of your building, so long as I stand faithfully in my place.
Leah Manning wrote that final chapter more than thirty years ago. (my copy of her book is priced both in £.s.d. and at £2.20) but it could have been written yesterday with no less accuracy.
I remember reading, a long time ago, that when Sir Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral with its great dome he planned no pillars to support the roof, believing, rightly, that it would remain firmly in place by virtue of the fact that the stresses were balanced, that his calculations established that the structure would stand secure without columns to hold it up. Others insisted that there be pillars, so they were built. But Wren told the builders to stop short of the roof, leaving a gap of a couple of feet at the top of each column. The gap could not be detected from ground level Thus was honour satisfied. Wren’s deception confirmed his own judgement without humiliating his opponents
I don’t know whether this story is true, but it sounds credible and I believe in it. In a great cathedral there may be many columns, those great pillars of stone which soar heavenwards and catch the eye are few in number, and maybe not all are needed. They are imposing, eye-catching but sometimes not strictly necessary.
But there are many times as many bricks and dressed stones in a great cathedral as pillars, some clearly visible but most unnoticed. Indeed some are below the ground, and others in obscure and hidden places. The strength of the structure is far more dependent on bricks than on pillars, always providing that they hold firm.
There is a place for pillars, but the numbers are limited and only the best are worthy to hold up the roof. But bricks in the millions are required, and my ambition is to be amongst them, and to be regarded, if at all, as a brick that stands firm.
Additionally, I want to be where many good friends, including Roy Wain, and all my many other friends and colleagues, will be.
Cannot speak for others, but for myself, please don’t call me a pillar. Sorry to denounce you in public, Roy.
I trust you will bide your time and get your own back. There is plenty of scope for that.
C.J. Rosling 10 January 2003
Hucklow 19 January 2003