I was a small but determined twenty-two-year-old when I found myself bearing down on the trough at St Sidwell’s Manse. That was the moment I first saw her, Elizabeth I mean. The Reverend Doctor Elizabeth Randolph, famously renegade but indisputably brilliant vicar of St Sidwell’s. Formerly a parish church in typical decline, St Sidwell’s had been transformed single-handedly by the Reverend Randolph into a thronging pioneer ministry in the heart of the ancient City of Exeter. It was frequented by sceptics, free-thinkers, Humanists, atheists, agnostics, Philosophical and Secular Buddhists, Humanistic Jews, religious naturalists, non-theist or post-theistic Christians from among the Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers and other denominations, and contemporary luminaries, academics and progressive thinkers of every kind. What they all had in common was the view that knowledge ought to be acquired through reason and empirical evidence, the desire to live an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and the determination to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society.
A rational outlook, when combined with this commitment to living a good life and building a good society, was what defined Elizabeth’s own brand of Humanism; a Humanism which embraced many cultural aspects of religion – those compatible with universal human rights and freedoms – but which stopped short of assumptions and assertions beyond that which was demonstrably true. The humility and inclusiveness of this approach appealed to many nonreligious people and to nondogmatic people of faith who had become resistant to the labels and tribalism of the past. As far as I was concerned, The Randolph Centre for Humanist and Progressive Spirituality was the future. The Church of England had done its best to be rid of Elizabeth of course, but her many supporters would not allow it, and coming as she did from an illustrious dynasty of clergy, albeit one with a tendency towards rule-breaking (in a famously jovial sort of way), the powers that be were disposed to be more tolerant in her case. Social class had much to do with this of course, and Elizabeth was very much aware of the privileges she had inherited.
Unfortunately, the closest I could get to Elizabeth was a placement in the nearby parish of St Michael’s. There I was condemned to the tutelage of one Reverend Fergus Morley-Wright, reputed to be the biggest buffoon in the county, manipulated by all and sundry in his parish from the great to the small, and consequently undergoing a more or less continuous round of humiliation. I was darned if I was going to be dragged into one of his hair-brained schemes, but it became apparent that Elizabeth was strangely fond of the creature, and it was for this reason alone that for the duration of what was, after all, the very first of our communal feasts, I permitted my guard to stand at ease.
The rectory kitchen captured the essence of what the Japanese called wabi-sabi, albeit with a very English aesthetic; that sweet spot between symmetry and chaos, flourishing and decay, that makes one feel one might just about belong in this world after-all. Parked at a defiantly misshapen solid oak table, one that had probably witnessed the vicissitudes of multiple generations of clergy and their families, I found myself in reflective mood, absent-mindedly fondling one of its many splendid knots. It was as well to meditate when I did. Moments later, baser instincts prevailed, with the arrival of steaming broccoli and stilton soup and the most effusive loaf of bread I had ever seen. These came with plates of smoked salmon, a cheese board, olives, pickles, salads and coleslaw, and to the rear, something tantalizingly concealed under an embroidered napkin which was later introduced to us as moist strawberry and apple cake. Everything that could be, was ravishingly homemade, and possessed of that wholesome, bucolic charm, which not even the finest of packaged foods could reproduce. Such a vision was quite capable of stripping the famished guest of all her usual manners and decorum. However, just as I was feeling an alarming loss of self-control, I was steadied – rescued from what would have been a thoroughly disgraceful exhibition of greed – by the ensuing conversation.
‘Everything is big these days Elizabeth’, said Fergus, gazing into the middle distance, and arranging himself in a chair. He looked uncannily like a bewildered faun, who upon his first visit to a human abode, was attempting to get to grips with the furniture.
‘Big data, big history, big, err, well, people?’ he continued, gingerly.
‘Indeed,’ replied Elizabeth warmly, ‘which is why my next sermon will be about another kind of big, something I’m calling Big Culture.’
This statement was met with silent incomprehension on all sides, and Fergus’s eyes seemed to swivel from side to side with the sheer effort of thought. Seeing this, Elizabeth continued,
‘Big Culture is a celebration of the best that humanity has to offer in terms of the arts, humanities, faiths and philosophies that have characterized the world’s many cultures. By distilling the liquid gold from our present and past, and equally by ridding ourselves of the dross, we may just find our way to meeting today’s global challenges and safeguarding our democracy. It’s the only way we will ever be worthy of the name Sapiens, which as you both know, means ‘wise’.’
When a further pause elicited no response but signalled no decline in interest either, she expanded on her theme:
‘Every culture has its good and evil aspects, its strengths and its weaknesses, though one might argue that some cultures are more corrupt than others, across time, and more controversially, space. It is easy to say the fascist culture of Nazi Germany was exceptionally degenerate, for example, it being consigned to the annals of history, but more difficult to make comparisons in the present without giving offense. However, controversial or not, Big Culture must include a critical process, however painful that may be, yet as far as possible with objectivity, without prejudice, and with equal respect for individual persons regardless of their cultural background. And, it should always, for the sake of courtesy, begin with honest criticism of one’s own culture, an exercise which demands a good measure of humility. I might for example, begin by pointing to the failings of contemporary British culture; its mindless acquisitiveness, its vulgar fetish for celebrity, the anti-intellectualism that makes a taboo of everything that really matters, not to mention the epidemic of social isolation, overwhelming loneliness, and a poverty of social skills eased only by an excess of alcohol. Our aspirational classes are often the worst. Soured by ruthless competition and riddled with status anxiety, they no longer know how to form real relationships, since these require mutual vulnerability, and they have exchanged imaginative and reflective thought with a treadmill of overblown busyness of the purely utilitarian sort. We have these potentially fatal cultural flaws like every other human society, even though we often feel as if we are the lucky, superior ones, but once we have engaged with this self-critical process, we can look to other cultures, including our own past cultures and present sub-cultures, to see if any provide clues to living better. I am confident that we will find inspiration in the ideas and practices we find, not for us to simply copy, but to reinterpret in the light of our own knowledge and adapt to our own circumstances. Only Big Culture perspectives can help in the age of globalization and the cosmopolitan city. The narrow religious and political ideologies of our predecessors simply will not do. They have lost all credibility. Unlike many of my peers in the church who see this as a tragedy and rattle on about the end of Christendom, I see it as a great opportunity. With Big Culture, we will see a revival in human inventiveness. We will see some of the old ideas and practices remodeled for a new age. We will take our foot out of the grave of outdated institutions and absurd beliefs, and renew a more authentic pursuit of excellence and virtue. We will not flounder in confusion as the traditionalists, ironically, insist, but prove ourselves just as resourceful as ever, redefining what it means to be successful, based on a richer, more inclusive culture and… I could go on but I see I’m talking far too much as usual; an almost universal flaw among clergy I’m afraid.’
Fergus had developed a slightly dazed look, and I detected even a creeping pallor. He looked like someone who had given ‘A Brief History of Time’ a fair shot but had come over a bit faint. Meanwhile, I tried to hide a rapt expression, which would have come over too servile, and would have given unnecessary insight into the advanced state of my ignorance. I was all eyes and ears to learn from the best in the trade, and eager to volunteer my services to this remarkable woman and her Centre for Humanist and Progressive Spirituality at the first opportunity but I was never one for fawning. This was the first time I had heard Elizabeth speak about her work in person. Her address was impossibly polished, though simmering with quiet passion, and notably without affectation. She reminded me of a broadcaster rather than the stereotypical vicar, except that she did not ooze self-satisfaction or reek of cronyism as so many of those people do. On the contrary, Elizabeth was wonderfully and fearlessly honest, and without hint of apology for the intellectual rigor of her conversation. Fergus too, to give him his due, was remarkably at home in his own skin. He made no effort to moderate his natural eccentricities; the falsetto laughter, the contortions of the face, and the rather antiquated use of language; all were delivered with abandon.
After a quiet few minutes in which we chewed audibly, ruminating like a herd of cows, and in which I was disappointed to find that engorgement was fast approaching before I had had my rightful share of cake, I noticed some distinctly anomalous movement opposite – more anomalous than usual that is. Fergus was oscillating upon his stand and clearing his throat in such a way as to suggest he was gearing up for some kind of elaborate response to the Big Culture proposition. The tension I was already feeling about the middle, was overshadowed by another uncomfortable sensation one experiences in that region in anticipation of a thing too cringe-worthy to be borne.
‘Dear me, Elizabeth, that all sounds awfully complicated. The way I see it is that we would do well to look at the indigenous cultures or First Nations if we want to learn a thing or two about wisdom. Only yesterday I was reading about…’ Then there was silence. Fergus appeared to be missing in action, the mouth hung open, and he was frowning deeply. Apparently, the act of voicing his opinion had caused him to think better of it, either that or he had lost his thread altogether. This was no doubt to our collective advantage. However, I wondered whether Elizabeth would pick up on the subject of indigenous cultures, for somewhere within Fergus’s skull, a connection had been made that did appear to have some validity. Elizabeth muttered something about indigenous cultures being of great importance to any Big Culture project, especially given our need to regain an older understanding and respect for the ecosystems of which we are a part. However, she was busy with some brie and toasted walnut salad, and having sampled it myself, I could hardly blame her for being a little preoccupied.
After an interlude, in which Elizabeth fetched a couple of extra serving spoons – a shortfall in serving spoons being a matter requiring urgent attention – I eventually plucked up the courage to speak.
‘I’m wondering’, I said tentatively, ‘do you think there really is hope for humanity, given the mess we’re all in?’
Elizabeth fixed me with a determined stare.
‘We are living at a critical time for our species and for our planet as a whole,’ she said firmly, ‘On the one hand, we face a number of existential threats of our own making, including climate change, pollution, mass extinction and the possibility of nuclear conflict, and on the other, we have reached a point in our history where the world’s educated classes have the knowledge, the tools and the global historical perspectives required to learn from our mistakes, overcome our cognitive biases and create a world order superior to anything that came before. Thus, when envisioning the future, we find ourselves in one moment starring into an abyss of mutual destruction, and in the next, marvelling at our potential for innovation and advancement. Never before has there been a more urgent need or a more opportune moment for the world’s many humanistic and progressive movements to come to the fore; movements which promote reason, and independent, critical thought; movements which demonstrate empathy and compassion, and which champion human rights and human flourishing in balance with the natural world. Only a marriage of humanistic ethics and scientific excellence, nourished by a greater understanding of human history and human nature, can save our planet and save us from ourselves – a species so deeply afflicted by its own weaknesses and destructive behaviours. The problems we face will require innovative, rational and evidence-based solutions, and while our priorities must be reversing environmental destruction and refraining from waging wars, we also have to worry about potential threats from unregulated artificial intelligence and bio-engineering technologies, and we have an urgent duty to end grave social injustices such as poverty, excessive wealth inequality, gender inequality, modern slavery, corruption and the persistence of bigotry and systemic racism. Our problems may seem insurmountable but I do believe we are capable of solving them if enough of us put our minds to it. It’s no good giving up or sitting back and hoping for the best. We must all play our part.’
This rousing speech was followed by a silence, not an awkward silence, but the silence of an unspoken ‘Amen’.
Fergus eventually broke that silence: ‘I must say’, he said, having retreated to more familiar territory, ‘that upon a much smaller scale, I too have had my challenges this week. One of our staples, a Mrs Hissop, came to me two days ago asking whether I had seen her husband. Apparently, he went away on business with a forwarding address but is reported by the proprietors of said address, to have since gone AWOL. She is convinced he is having some kind of dalliance with a younger woman, and described his activities as most assuredly that of, well, she used the words deluded, old, and fool, in that particular order. She insists I investigate the matter, locate the accused, and bring him to his senses. The whole thing sounds very ominous, very ominous indeed. However, I am quite sure I can get up some scheme to solve this mystery and put the matter to rights. It will of course demand those great machinations of the frontal cortex, for which I am especially well equipped. Indeed, be assured young Morven, the problems of St Michael’s parish are in the safest of hands.’
‘You see’, he added, still looking in my direction, ‘Elizabeth may be the philosophical brains of Exeter’s Anglican outfit, but I am quite definitely the master, when it comes to the solving of mysteries.’
I tried to disguise a sneer, while Elizabeth beamed with pleasure. ‘Ah’ she said, with tones of affection, ‘then you must tell me what you have in mind, once you have it in mind of course, and regale me with all your plans. Do not spare a single detail. Where will you start your search?’
‘Well, I will begin tomorrow by making enquiries with those persons who are aptly known as the ‘social hubs’ of my parish, namely a Mrs Ableton and a Mr McNeish (take note young Morven). These are bound to know something. Then, if that fails to dredge up a lead, I will apply promptly to Mrs Hissop for details of the colleague who is reported to have been bundled off with Mr Hissop in the company car.’
‘Hasn’t Mr Hissop (one of our esteemed local accountants, she added, in an aside to me) been buzzing around that O’Brien girl, the fidgety one with the red hair and the coy mannerisms?’
‘Maggy O’Brien, so I hear, though I seem always to be innocent of such observations.’
‘My dear Fergus…’ said Elizabeth, turning again towards me, ‘He wouldn’t notice an affair if it reached its climax in the front pew during Holy Communion.’ Then she laughed heartily at the thought.
I beamed, delighted by this candid exchange among clergy.
‘Well, I say!’ Fergus protested, albeit with a sparkle in the eye, ‘I’ll have you know, there are matters in which Fergus Morley-Wright is far more perceptive than most.’
‘And what might those be?’ replied Elizabeth, skeptically, but without a hint of the disdain I happened to be feeling for the man.
‘For a start, it has come to my attention that Mr Frottle, esteemed local solicitor (another aside for my benefit), has been frequenting a synagogue, and I am quite convinced he intends to abandon the Christian faith altogether and return lock, stock and barrel to his ancestral roots. He claims he has a Jewish ancestor you see, though so far back that it cannot even be verified and I’m certain this is no more than an excuse. As treasurer for St Michael’s, he will be leaving us all quite in the lurch, which is most inconvenient but far more vexing is the fact that I cannot get through to the man that he is quite at liberty to immerse himself whole-heartedly in the Jewish faith, without taking Jesus off the menu altogether. I mean, there are Messianic Jews aren’t there?’
‘Indeed, there are’ Elizabeth confirmed, ‘and it is possible for a progressive-minded person to blend the best of both faiths but we must remember that as we pass through the seasons of life, with their differing sensibilities, we cannot always find fulfilment in the same spiritual exercises or the same community. It may be that the particular people, teachings and practices at the synagogue are more appealing to George, given his current disposition and circumstances, and it could be that they hit the zeitgeist in general better than we do. If the former, he should be encouraged to go with our blessing. If the latter, then we should think about doing a better job of meeting contemporary needs before we find ourselves haemorrhaging congregants. This all depends of course on whether George really is leaving us, though I agree, it seems likely.’
‘Oh, too bad… too bad’, Fergus lamented.
‘Come, come, Fergus. Perhaps it will be just the thing to give a new lease of life to an old friend, and it’s not as if he’s moving abroad. You’ll still see him every now and then. We clergy must remember to act in our parishioners’ best interests, even when we’re talking about personal friends. I do understand though that you are very fond of George. It’ll be a wrench for him too, losing the old rhythms of familiar company.’
Fergus sighed gloomily, for she had seen all, but he soon rallied the old spirit.
‘I heard there’s a new Rabbi there’, he said, ‘with a talent for rhetoric and philosophical debate, something that might appeal to George, I suppose, coming to terms as he is with the loss of his beloved Meg. It was all so very sudden and premature, you know. Even if he cannot find any definitive answers, as I who have spent my whole life searching have somehow failed to do, he may nonetheless benefit from a more rigorous process of exploration than I can provide. Indeed, it may prove essential, as you say, for his wellbeing.’
Fergus’s disappointment that Elizabeth did not share his view that Frottle should be persuaded to stay was plain to see, in spite of his efforts to arrive at the same conclusions. The impending loss of a colleague and friend stung all the more because it seemed, to Fergus, to signify the passing of an era. However, there rolled over his Eeyore-like dial a peculiar expression, more peculiar than was usual, as if something deeply troubling but of a rather different nature had just occurred to him.
‘George mentions this new Rabbi in some context or another every time I see him these days. All I ever hear is Aphra this and Aphra that! You don’t happen to know do you Elizabeth, whether this lady is by any chance an attractive female, and of somewhat tender years?’
I reeled, and not imperceptibly this time, at this infuriating and stereotypically male train of thought. Even I, new to the area as I was, had caught wind of the fact that the synagogue now had a Rabbi after many years of lay leadership, and that she was a woman. Yet here was Fergus, clearly assuming that a man could not possibly take so much as a thimbleful of interest in a woman and what she had to say, unless there was some underlying sexual motive.
The real shock, however, came from another quarter.
‘As it happens, said Elizabeth, she is rather attractive, and unmarried, and just shy of her fourth decade I believe.’
Fergus started violently as if struck from behind, disturbing his teacup such that the saucer was flooded with the murky substance. He now looked less like Eeyore and more like a startled tapir. I too looked askance, while feeling simultaneously ashamed that with those few words of Elizabeth’s, I had become just as suspicious as our male companion. Being young and innocent as I was, I had rather hoped that it might be possible for a man to admire a younger woman’s intellect, without wanting to sleep with her or possess her in some way, but experience kept trying to disabuse me of such a notion.
Watching Fergus fumble with his teacup, I was struck by how the very same beverage, which in one moment so enticed and beguiled, could in the next lose all its allure, merely upon a change of receptacle. The thinness of what made something desirable, or indeed repellent, was an revelation that stayed with me.
‘Good grief’, said Fergus, in a timorous voice, once he had steadied the china and begun dabbing at the spillage with a cloth handkerchief. ‘Poor old George. Is there no end to this march of remarkable women?’
At this display of male prejudice, I fumed inwardly. It seemed to me to be a perennial fault with men to immediately blame a woman (or women in general), for everything that went awry, when in this case as in most, it was some blundering brute of a man who lay at the root of the trouble. Frottle was approaching his fiftieth year, at the very least, which meant that from where I perched as a mere fledgling, he was just about fossilized. He ought to have known better than to behave in such a ludicrous way, and if anyone deserved our disapproval, it was him. I was about to make my feelings known when Elizabeth cut in.
‘No, I believe not. In fact, taking the long view of human history, this is only the start.’ She spoke, not haughtily, but certainly with the gleam of triumph.’
‘But how can a respectable man retain his dignity in such an age; the age of the demi-goddess?’ He stared upwards, as if the last phrase were scrawled somewhere across the sky, making me sick to the stomach.
‘In the same way you retain yours with me, Fergus dear.’ Elizabeth replied warmly, with a mischievous wink in my direction.
‘Ah but Elizabeth, with us it’s different. Everything you say goes straight through my head like one of those high-speed sub-atomic particles who looks at us and sees only empty space. I barely catch the gist before that too rattles its way out. Being in a perpetual state of incomprehension is hardly compatible with an infatuation.’
We all laughed.
In those early days, I secretly wondered why Elizabeth bothered with this prize idiot. Was she not ‘throwing pearls before swine’? I was still of an age perhaps, where one expects rather too much of some people and rather too little of others.