All of my earliest childhood memories are Indian. My parents had been doing their missionary training at one of the Selly Oak colleges in Birmingham when I was born, and the three of us arrive together in India when I was aged about 18 months old.
We lived most of the next 12 years in a small rural town called Jammalamadugu, in the Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh, in the Rayalaseema Diocese of the CSI.
A few years later, my sister was born in India, in the CMC hospital in Vellore, even sharing the initial of her name CMC with the hospital she was born in.
If you wanted to understand some of our Indian heritage as a family, you might share the confusion that the Registrar of Births had when my father went to register my sister Catrionaâ€™s birth.
â€œSo, your daughter was born in India, so her nationality is Indian!â€ â€œWell, no, said my father, she has the same nationality as me, and I am British.â€
â€œOk, said the birth Registrar, so where were you born?â€ My father explained that as his parents had previously also been medical missionaries in India, in Chik Ballapur, near Bangalore, so he William Cutting had in fact been born in India.
â€œThen she is Indian! replied the Registrar!â€ Well, no, explained my father patiently, he was British because his father was British.
â€œSo where was your father born?â€ Well, said my father, his father Cecil Cuttingâ€™s parents had actually also been missionaries in India, as teachers, since 1893, so his father had also been born in Ranikhet, then later lived in Benares/Varanasi in India.
â€œSo she IS Indian!â€ exclaimed the Registrar, triumphantly!
There was the a scurry to provide birth certificates and marriage certificates for my father William Cutting, my grand father Cecil Cutting, and my great-grandfather also William Cutting, before my sister could have her nationality confirmed as British. Which was complicated, as there were no Birth certificates in the 1850s when my great grandfather William was bornâ€¦ A Baptism Certificate fortunately sufficed.
(From a sermon preached on the Centenary of the World War 1 Armistice)
Around the church are a number of pictures of a young First World War soldier.
Letâ€™s hear a bit of his story.
He was the son of a missionary teacher family who were living and working in India, as he approached secondary school age, Cecil George was sent to boarding school.
The young scholar was at a school just over a mile from here, at Eltham College.
He was a lively student, who particularly loved his sport. Athletics; and cricket mainly.
The school regularly played other teams, and had several matches against the world famous local cricketer, WG Grace.
Thereâ€™s a record of a match where the great WG was bowling against the young Cecil George.
Cecil George was one of the best all rounders in the team.
But not on this occasion.
Cecil George, bowled out by WG, for a duck!
He left school in July 1915 age 18. He was not called up at once, and the Academic year 1915-16 he spent at Imperial College reading Chemistry.
Then he was called up at the end of the Summer term of 1916. Cecil George was Gazetted as of the 27 Nov 1916 and recorded in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
He did his basic training in the Infantry. At the end of this they asked:
â€œWho has Matric Maths?â€ â€œI do!â€ Says Cecil George. â€œRight, if you can count more than two legs, you are going to be in the Cavalry!â€
Off he goes and does the basic training for the Cavalry in Exeter.
At the end of that basic cavalry training they said
â€œWho has Higher Maths?â€ â€œI do !â€ says Cecil George. â€œRight, if you can plot graphs and trajectories, you are going to be in the Artillery!â€
So off he goes and does the basic training for the gunners.
He ended up a with the Royal Garrison Artillery on the Selonica Front, not far from the Greek border across into Turkey.
The RGA was often supported by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) who had devised a system where pilots could use wireless telegraphy to help the artillery hit specific targets. Years later it became clear that Cecil George was involved going up in these â€˜string bagâ€™ aeroplanes of that era, as a â€œspotterâ€ for targets! This was very early in the history of flight, and must have been some adventure for the young soldier!
I was introduced to The Bright Field by a friend, Robin, whilst we were on a course a few years back.
Curiously, it is Hillsborough that has brought the poem very much back to mind. Let’s have a reminder of the poem first, and fabulously, there is an audio/file of RS Thomas reading it himself linked below:
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had treasure in it. I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I’ve blogged before that I was a local curate at the time, and involved in some of the immediate aftermath. One of my strong memories, as I walked back down ‘the tunnel’ a couple of times afterwards, was the contrast of the bright green playing field in the sun seen from the shadows of the tunnel.
The field is so inviting. You can see it. You can almost touch it. There’s ramp, a slope down to it. It’s just … there.
There is an American sports movie called the Field of Dreams, encapsulating the draw – particularly but not exclusively – for some men to sports, to team games, and to the playing field, or pitch, or ground, since many sports are popular, like soccer or golf, which you can play indoors or outdoors if you have the right equipment for this.
Hymns ‘don’t often make good theology’ – though they may be better at theology than movies are. But even here we may get glimpsesof heaven, as Ray Kinsella found in the film.
John Kinsella: Is this heaven?
Ray Kinsella: It’s Iowa.
John Kinsella: Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven. [starts to walk away]
Ray Kinsella: Is there a heaven?
John Kinsella: Oh yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true. [Ray looks around, seeing his wife playing with their daughter on the porch]
Ray Kinsella: Maybe this is heaven. The Field of Dreams – 1989 Phil Alden Robinson Universal/TriStar
Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to treasure in a field, and to a pearl of unfathomable value, of great price; in Matt 13:44-46. Both are images that R.S. Thomas specifically references in the poem. Not a great surprise, perhaps, for the Welsh priest/poet that he was.
That field. Seen it. Forgotten it. But now having seen it again, illuminated, incandescent, Thomas goes on: I realise now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
These sports grounds, these football fields are often a focus for hurrying on to a receding future, [or] hankering afteran imagined past. Many memories of matches remembered; of dreams and hopes for the future. The rise and fall of emotion; the tears wept, the joy unconfined. They hold a sense of the numinous about them – the singing, swaying, the shared liturgy and language – even prayers (!) – they are almost religious in their fervour. No wonder some talk of sport as their faith, of the great venues as their cathedrals, temples. Bill Shankly, powerfully linked to Liverpool, is famously quoted as saying“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.
I was recently reading back some of the witness stories of a number of Hillsborough survivors, and the camaraderie, the shared experience was a powerful memory; some saying the ‘we all came last year and we wanted to all come back again this year’ before the full portent of this particular pilgrimage unfurled before them.
Even after the catastrophe, faith remains a part of the story. I recalled in the previous blog post how 4 fans came in to our Hillsborough-local church on the Sunday morning, just hours later. To another one of those ‘thin places‘ where heaven comes closer to touching earth. To come to seek, to pray, to place a loved one lost in to the hands of God. Nearly every anniversary since the first, there has been significant input of hymns & prayers, along with speeches & memories, at each of the ceremonies.
In the poem, Thomas looks: to the miracle … to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Looking back to the 15 April 1989, though much remains sharp in the mind of each of those most closely affected by Hillsborough, inevitable some of the memories become a little faded, a bit more transitory each year; the images of the ever-youthful 96 remain unchanged, even as ‘those who are left grow old‘. Perhaps that is why there is still such a strong sense of hope around Hillsborough – a very Liverpool – characteristic, the city with two cathedrals linked by a street called Hope.
For RS Thomas, the brightness that has shone on this field leads at last to the eternity that awaits you. May it lead to eternity for you too.
I recently had to collect some prayers based around the Lord’s Prayer; some I sourced elsewhere, some I wrote myself. They are gathered together under the stanzas of the Prayer.
Our Father, who art in heaven
A Prayer to God our Father
Lord God, Jesus taught us to call you Father. Help us to grow in our understanding of you, that we may better each day learn to trust you, and to love you.
Remind us of the thrill a toddler feels when being swept up securely in a fatherâ€™s arms; help us share in the glee of a child playing pranks with a parent.
As we feel the lifting angst of the teenager taking insoluble homework problems to a parent who can unlock answers; and the adrenaline rush of the learner driver discovering new skills with dad, so may we feel our relationship with you broadening, enriching and deepening.
Father God, may your love for us be reflected back in our love for you. Amen.
A Fatherâ€™s Prayer
Lord, I need your special care. Like your earthly father, Joseph, I want to do God’s will, even if I may not always understand. Make me gentle and self less in the care of my family and children; help me guide them in the toils and troubles, the happiness and wonders of this life.
Lectionary and church diary purists hate it: that ‘Christmas nowadays appears to start in about October, and be over by Christmas Eve’, or certainly by Boxing Day. That’s not Christmas – clergy are heard muttering – that’s Advent… However, maintaining the cry that ‘the Christmas season starts on Christmas Day and carries on until the feast of Epiphany’ is about as useful as King Canute commanding the halt of the incoming tide; despite the popularity of the carol ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’.
However, one multinational still upholds tradition – the Apple iTunes Appstore!
The App Store provides a 12 free gifts over the traditional Christmas period, with a variety of music, videos and apps for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers. The variety is deliberately diverse – meaning that some items you might find excruciating – but you will probably find several you like. If you have appropriate Apple devices, try out the 12 days app. You probably wont find ‘5 Gold Rings’ – but you might have some fun, sing along with the carol, and celebrate the Christmas Season in it’s traditional position. And keep some grumpy liturgists happy.
On 6th of June 1556, Thomas Harland and John Oswald, were amongst the ‘Protestant Martyrs’ burnt at the stake in Lewes. Harland, a carpenter, and Oswald, a ‘husbandman’ or farm worker, were both residents of Woodmancote, near Henfield in Sussex. After the English Reformation, and the opportunity of having services and hearing the Bible read in English, they were reluctant to come under Queen Mary’s edict that the church and services should return to Roman Catholicism, and in Latin. For this they were tried for heresy.
To Thomas Harland I finde in the Byshop of Londons Registers, to be obiected for not commyng to Church. Whereunto he aunswered: that after the Masse was restored, hee neuer had will to heare the same, because (sayde he) it was in Latin, whiche hee dyd not vnderstand: and therfore as good (quoth he) neuer a whitte, as neuer the better.
Answere of Tho. Harland.
Lesslie Newbigin was a Presbyterian minister and missionary who – considering that background, and not really approving of church hierarchies – rather surprisingly became a Bishop of the united Church of South India at it’s formation in 1947. In fact not once, but twice – first in the Madurai-Ramnad diocese, then later as bishop of Madras, as Chennai was then known. In between, he was in Geneva with the World Council of Churches. On ‘retiring’ from Madras in 1974, Lesslie & Helen Newbigin made their way back to Britain overland using local buses, carrying just a couple of suitcases and a rucksack – I love that; sort of reverse hippy, on so many levels!
The ‘Leaps of Christ’ was part of the theme taken by Bishop John Hind at the Chichester Diocesan Synod recently. I had heard of this Old English poem, but on being re-introduced to it, it led me to explore some of the wonderful Advent and Christmas within it.
Hearing him prompted me to look back at some â€˜John Newtonâ€™ photos I took a while back.
Robin Meredith-Jones, actor & friend, has for many years been doing a show base on John Newton, also (inevitably) called â€˜Amazing Graceâ€™. On the 200 anniversary of John Newtonâ€™s â€˜promotion to gloryâ€™ on 21 December 1807, Robin and his wife Christine Way did a version of the show in the London City church of St Maryâ€™s Woolnoth, where John Newton was vicar for 28 years.
Most people know that Newton was involved in the slave trade – though not all are aware that Newton was himself a white slave briefly early on, after an altercation with a the captain of a slave ship he was crewing on.
What is well documented is John Newtonâ€™s conversion to the Christian faith, and his penning of the famous hymn Amazing Grace.