Sunday, 30 June 2013

Complicated Evangelical

(This is an article I wrote for the Spirited Exchanges group in 2009)

Frequently throughout my life as a Christian moving in evangelical circles, I have felt as though I were on the outside, standing in the rain-swept darkness looking through the window at those gathered happily round the fireside. Wanting to join them, I nevertheless have been unable to find a door which would open for me. I have blamed myself for this sense of not belonging, and have felt incredibly guilty.
However, over the years a number of costly realisations have made me increasingly comfortable in being who I am as God’s child.
Accepting what has happened in the past
I have learned to accept that I was wounded as a child by the way some aspects of Christian faith were communicated to me. I recognise that my personality made me susceptible to this wounding, and also that the words which I experienced as pain were spoken in love, but nevertheless the wounds were real. It was easy to assume that it was ‘my fault’ that I was wounded, since I had somehow been unable to exercise the right kind of faith, and it has been liberating to accept that I was not to blame.
I expect I was assured as a young child of God’s love for me, but what I absorbed was a sense that I needed to be born again, and, crucially, that God would not be pleased with me until I had joined the glad company of the saved. However, my attempts to connect with God, my urgent prayers seemed to be to be unheard, and therefore futile. Experiencing nothing of the unforgettably joyful transformation which I believed conversion to be, I continued as child and teenager to feel myself remote from a silent, disapproving God.
I was also wounded by my church’s teaching about ‘the Rapture’, the coming of Jesus prior to the end of time to take true believers to himself. The rest of humanity would be ‘left behind’ to face a God-forsaken anguish, ‘the Great Tribulation.’  How many times when my parents were not where I expected them to be was I gripped with terror that the Lord had come and I had been left? More than once, driven by thus fear, I called up someone in the church, only to put the phone down without speaking when I heard their voice, massively reassured that, after all the Lord had not come. Not that day anyway.
And there was the self-inflicted wound of yielding to the quiet pressure to say I had been ‘born again’, and living a lie for several years as a teenager, pretending to be a true believer in my church’s terms when I felt in my heart that I was deceiving them. And the deepest wound of all was not being believed when I confessed to this hypocrisy. Each Sunday I took the bread and wine in trembling expectation of instant judgement.
At last, when I was 21, oppressed by my own anxieties, by the domestic political crisis in late 1973 and by that autumn’s Arab-Israeli war which suggested to those around me that the Lord must surely come soon, some words from the Bible awakened in me. Responding to them, I received a sense of God’s love and acceptance which brought significant changes to my life, though I still struggled with baggage from the past. I began reading the Bible conscientiously and immersed myself in the printed sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and there were times when God seemed very close.
Accepting my personality
A second costly realisation was that I must accept my personality. It always puzzled me that while those sitting in the pews around me seemed to find church services, sermons and hymn-singing meaningful, almost always these left me completely untouched. I occasionally remarked in my perplexity that the only services I felt in any way blessed by were those in which I myself was taking part.
Give me comfortable space, a book, pen and paper and the creative voice of God plants thoughts in my heart. But in church, sitting on hard pews, surrounded by the rest of the congregation, distracted by other people’s singing and speaking it’s almost impossible to focus on God. I came to realise that the way church is structured meets the needs of extroverts, those who draw energy from people around them, while doing little for introverts who encounter God as, alone, they find healing space.
More specifically, I had to accept that I am prone to fairly severe anxiety and depression which I understand in retrospect made me susceptible to the wounds I suffered as a child. ‘Very hard to treat,’ said the pessimistic psychiatrist whom I visited when in my early 30s. But my GP identified an antidepressant which I have taken on a low dosage ever since, and which ameliorates many of the symptoms, though I still struggle with a tendency to negativism and a low-grade melancholy which dulls my sense of God.
Accepting what was already mine
I realised, thirdly, that while in evangelical circles there is much emphasis on longing for more of God for me the emphasis should be on recognising and appreciating what I already have. When I was a teenager in the 60s, we heard whispers of the charismatic renewal which was under way in some churches, and it seemed both fascinating and alien.  Twenty years later, charismatic expressions of Christianity had become more mainstream, and the church I was attending had a visit from the members of a ministry team from a well-known Baptist charismatic church who encouraged us to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Later I attended sessions on the same theme at the evangelical festival Spring Harvest. On both occasions I called out to God to receive his Spirit, and on both occasions, it seemed that God was absolutely silent.
‘Wasn’t that wonderful?’ said someone at Spring Harvest who, like me, had stood up to receive the Spirit. ‘Yes,’ I lied, utterly miserable. The next day I sought help from one of the leaders of the session, who did little more to help than sending me off to read Catherine Marshall’s book Something more. But gradually I came to understand that I should focus not on seeking something more, but on embracing what I already had as God’s unique, precious, grace-blessed son. Even though my sense of his presence was intermittent, even though I heard his creative voice relatively infrequently, I was nonetheless secure in his love.
Accepting the questions
More recently, I have also come to realise that it’s OK to question evangelical assumptions. Until I approached the age of 40, I had no issues with traditional evangelical understandings of theology. But I began to find myself confronted by questions demanding answers. Is the Bible’s portrayal of an eternal hell truly compatible with the Bible’s portrayal of a just and loving God – is infinite punishment a just sentence for finite sins? Does the traditional Christian theology of suffering - which regards it as the sad consequence of human sinfulness – adequately explain why a God whose heart throbs with love for humanity does nothing when confronted with a dying, malnourished child? Is it just to condemn people who are gay to the very core to a life of celibacy? What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired when the editorial processes are very evident, and it looks on the face of it like any other human book?
I shrank from questions like these, but I knew that if I was to be true to myself I couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist. In the process of searching for answers, I realised that those other, less conservative ways of looking at theology which previously I’d assumed were beyond the pale might be equally valid ways of thinking about God.
Accepting that others are on the same journey
It was important for me to realise that in this journeying, in this questioning, I was not alone. Many of the books which helped and affirmed me on my journey will be familiar to readers of Spirited Exchanges. I remember standing in the kitchen reading Dave Tomlinson’s Post-evangelical, punching the air and exclaiming ‘Yes!’ in sheer joy at discovering a kindred spirit. Later I found Brian MacLaren’s A new kind of Christian and its sequels equally affirming. One author whose work particularly helped me was Dr Anne Townsend a former missionary in Thailand and Director of Care Trust who described in an article in The Tablet in November 1996 and in her book Faith without Pretending her growing sense of mismatch between the person she tried to be outwardly as she struggled to conform to evangelical expectations and the person she actually was.
Ultimately, as she writes in The Table, she joined ‘former evangelical Christians from the more fundamentalist end of evangelicalism who have recently accepted the terror, isolation and guilt of moving away from their familiar religious pathways.’
A further book which helped was Alan Jamieson’s A churchless faith which introduced me to the idea that there are stages in our faith development, and that one stage involves an agonised questioning of all we have held to be true. This wilderness battle can, however, ultimately gift us a deeply-rooted set of beliefs which may be similar to those we held earlier, or may be radically different, but in either case are truly personal and wholly-owned – since what we believe we have tested and proved for ourselves.
It was good to find such fellow-travellers through the medium of the printed word, because it seemed to me that few of the folk I knew would understand the journey I had embarked on.

Accepting it’s OK to be real
The final thing I realised was the importance of being real, of not pretending to be what I am not but rather openly sharing with others my traveller’s tales. Yet this is far from easy. Life would be much more straightforward if I were an uncomplicated evangelical, but I’m not, and I never will be.

I still wrestle sometimes with fear and guilt and doubt. I still occasionally wonder if God is really there, and if my long struggle to be a person of authentic faith has been worthwhile. When heaven is silent I find myself questioning from time to time whether atheism or at least agnosticism would not be a more credible position.

But then come those quiet whispers in my heart which I’ve learned to identify as the voice of God; or some words or thoughts from the Bible suddenly come alive; or I look again at the evidence for Christ’s resurrection and am reminded that something inexplicable took place that first Easter morning; or I feel a stirring within me in the difficult days prompting me to choose goodness and truth;  or I wonder again how I with my history of brokenness ever attracted a wife, or coped as a father, or succeeded in my career, and again I realise that marriage and parenthood and work are precious God-given gifts and am convinced once more  that God is, and has been and always will be with me.

I have come to realise that while I’ve been standing looking through the window into the chapel where my evangelical brothers and sisters meet, if I lift my head I see that we are all part of a bigger family secure beneath the dome of a great cathedral whose walls of love shelter all who call upon God in the name of Jesus.

Our brother McCheyne

This week the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly is debating a couple of controversial issues. It will be considering whether from a biblical point of view the land of Israel is a God-given territory, and discussing what the Church’s view should be on the involvement in ministry of folk in same-sex relationships.
This Tuesday was the 200th birthday of a hugely-influential Scottish minister, Robert Murray McCheyne. He died at the age of 29 in 1843 – weeks before the most divisive General Assembly in the Church of Scotland’s history, when 450 ministers left the Church to form the Free Church of Scotland over concerns that the state was diminishing the spiritual autonomy of the Church.
McCheyne was a man of passionate evangelical faith. He had discovered early in life through the example of his eldest brother David, who died in 1831 that morality is not enough, that if we are to please God we must seek from God forgiveness and grace.
The young minister, despite struggling with ill-health, served at St Peter’s Church in Dundee from 1836 until his death, committed to courageous, energetic preaching, to persistent prayer, and to extensive home-visiting in his parish, calling on up to 30 families in a day. He had in addition, a Scotland wide ministry.  Had he lived another seven weeks, he would have been among the 450 ministers who left the Church in May 1843.
I have learned through reading about McCheyne – about the bigness of God, and the extent of my imperfections when contrasted with God’s perfection. Some of McCheyne teachings I find I must disagree with – he seemed, for example, to see turning to God in very clear-cut, black-and-white terms when it seems to me that finding God is often a life-long journey rather than a decisive turning point.
But above all, I acknowledge Robert Murray McCheyne as a Christian brother, who knew and spoke of the glory of God, but also experienced the tenderness of the divine. ‘Live much in the smiles of God,’ he advised a fellow-minister. Somehow, through these words, I sense God smiling on me.
McCheyne was no stranger to disagreements within the Church. He worked closely with people from other denominations who shared his passion and theological convictions. But he was critical of what he called ‘the frigid Evangelical’ whose theology was entirely orthodox but ‘whose heart is cold in seeking the salvation of sinners.’
And he was opposed to the religion of the ‘moderates’, the other main grouping in the Church of Scotland at that time alongside the evangelicals. ‘It is confessed that many of our ministers do not preach the gospel – alas! Because they know it not.’
Now 450 ministers left the Church in 1843. 45 who identified themselves as evangelicals remained within the Church. Which left close to 700 other ministers. I fully recognise the danger of formal, outward religion, the religion which aspires to good living, and ideas about God while lacking humility and open-heartedness to the grace of God.
But it would be tragic, and hard to credit if there were not, among the moderates many who honestly sought God for themselves, and encouraged their congregations to seek God. I just wonder if Robert Murray McCheyne did not understand modes of living for and with God which were less dogmatic, quieter, less intense than his own.
McCheyne inspires us, but I believe his story also reminds us at a time of debate and disagreement within the Church of the need to be open to others and their thinking, as we reflect, evaluate and weigh what is said.
This is precisely what the report of the Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry invites us to do, as it sets out clearly the bible-based thinking on both sides of the issue.
I think whichever side of the debate we are on as Christians when dealing with controversial issues, we must be willing to learn, to have our thoughts challenged. We must create an environment in which it is acceptable to voice disagreement with grace, and we ourselves must be open to hearing the views of those who disagree with us.
But all of us, who genuinely believe in the mystery we know as God, and in humility seek God in the name of Jesus are God’s family, Christian brothers and sisters wherever our precise beliefs may position us on the Christian theological spectrum.
And we must all humbly seek that Christlikeness which so marked Robert Murray McChyene. In all our debate and struggle, our disagreements, our seeking and sharing glimpses of the glory of God may it be said of us as it was said of McCheyne ‘He is the most Jesus-like man (or ‘She is the most Jesus-like woman’) I have ever met with.’ 

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 23rd May 2013)

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Edmund Gosse: a Brethren childhood

Although I was born a century after the writer and critic Edmund Gosse the religious dimension of his childhood resonates with me deeply. In Father and Son published on 25 October 1907 Gosse describes his childhood and young adulthood. Following the death of his mother Emily in 1857 when he was just 7, his childhood centred round the towering presence of his father, the naturalist and deeply committed evangelical Christian Philip Gosse.

Edmund’s factual accuracy in Father and Son (as in some of his other works) has been questioned – his claim that his arrival on 21st September 1849 was not welcomed by the Gosses, for example, is demonstrably untrue. But the book is not, as it has sometimes been caricatured, a harsh, critical tirade against his father: in fact in its pages the younger Gosse appears warm, generous and lovingly respectful towards Philip.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the book is its description of a mid-Victorian upbringing within the Plymouth Brethren and the comparisons and contrasts with my own experiences as a child in the same branch of the Christian Church a hundred years later.

The Brethren meeting place I attended was very similar in layout to ‘The Room’ in Devon which Edmund describes. Each Sunday morning, the saints gathered in the corrugated iron hall, sitting on wooden benches around a plain wooden table on which, beneath a freshly-laundered white cloth, had been lovingly placed the bread on a polished silver plate and the wine in a large, silver goblet.

For an hour and a quarter, as prompted by the Holy Spirit, brethren would pray, announce hymns which would be sung unaccompanied, reflect on passages from the Bible until the climax of the meeting when someone would give thanks for the bread and the wine which would then pass from hand to hand as those who were ‘in fellowship’ (and this excluded the children) shared the Lord’s Supper.

At the evening ‘Gospel service’ the message of grace and forgiveness through Christ’s death was offered Sunday by Sunday to all who would listen, just as it was in Gosse’s Devon. Both his church and mine emphasised the imminence of Christ’s return to take his people to himself, and the urgent need to be ready in the light of this coming.

I was made very aware, as Edmund Gosse had been, of the challenge facing Christians to keep focussed on God’s will for our lives, and to avoid ‘worldliness’, although worldliness for Gosse was defined in a stricter way than it was for most of my generation of Christians. Storybooks were banned from the young Edmund’s house by his mother on the grounds that ‘to “tell a story”, that is, to compose fictitious narrative of any kind, was a sin’,  although after her death Philip gradually relaxed this ban. However, Philip discouraged Edmund’s attendance at children’s parties on spiritual grounds, and there is a famous (if possibly apocryphal) story of the father, who was deeply opposed to celebrating Christmas,  destroying a plum pudding which the servants had secretly given his son while describing it as an ‘accursed thing’.

Few restrictions were placed on my reading, but I was 11 before we had a television in the house, although TVs had been widely available for some years. Once we had our first set, my viewing was carefully monitored by my parents. I was never taken to the cinema – my first visit, when I was allowed to go on educational grounds to see a Greek tragedy as an early teenager was a sheer delight, as having endured Oedipus Rex  I revelled in the B movie, the first feature I’d ever seen. (It was Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn)  Even when I was 17, a school visit to the theatre to see Shaw’s Saint Joan was only permitted on the understanding that I didn’t ‘get a taste for the theatre.’

But over and above these specific warnings of ‘worldliness’ I had a pervading sense as a teenager that as the child of Christian parents I was somehow different, and that I should not engage too closely with those who were not believers.

The impression I’d formed  about Father and Son before reading it was that Edmund Gosse endured a very difficult childhood because of faith-related issues. Certainly the pain of watching his mother die cast a long shadow across his life and increased the pressures placed on him by his parents’ dedication of him to ‘the Lord’s Service’.  But I feel that the pain I suffered as a result of my religious upbringing was severer than that which Gosse endured, although it was the quite unintended result of the sincere desire of those around me to see me following in their footsteps of faith.

From as early as I can remember, I was conscious that I was not ‘saved’, not ‘born again’ and that before I could be sure of getting to heaven, I must reach out to God and ask him to forgive me, and receive his transforming grace. No matter how much I may have been told of God’s love for me (and I’m certain I would have been assured of this) what I remember is my sense of distance from God, of the great gulf fixed between him and me which could only be bridged if I could find the way to believe into what Christ had done for me.

As a child, Gosse seems to have been able to adopt the language of faith and say what was expected of him. In Father and Son he claims that there was always part of him which held out against Christianity, but superficially at least he embraced the faith and at the age of 10 he was baptised by immersion and welcomed into membership of the church his father led.

My childhood and adolescence were punctuated by crises when, wracked with guilt as a result of some sermon I’d heard, I would call out to God to forgive me, and then rise from my knees emotionally untouched with a sickening sense that God had not heard and not answered, and that I remained excluded from the community of Christians and alienated from an unreachable God.

Then there was the fear of the Rapture. In the theology of Philip Gosse and of the church tradition in which I grew up, the Second Coming of Christ to earth as a king and judge in which conservative Christians believe will be preceded by his return to the sky, from where he will ‘Rapture’ – seize up to be with him -  those who have entrusted their lives to him, leaving behind those who have rejected him to face the dire grief of a ‘tribulation‘ which will afflict the earth. Philip Gosse and like-minded believers found reference in the imagery of the Book of Revelation to contemporary figures such as Napoleon III, suggesting that the Rapture was close at hand.

Similar believers in my generation discerned that the symbolism pointed to the Cold War, the European Common Market, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the rise of China as a superpower and predicted that Christ would soon appear for his people. As a teenager, this terrified me. If Christ came, my parents and all those who brought meaning and security to my life would be taken, and if I had not by then found God, I would face the unimaginable agony of being left behind. Whenever my parents were not where I expected them to be at a particular time I’d be dread-stricken. I’d phone someone I knew was a Christian, and when I heard their voice I’d put the phone down without saying a word, and collapse in relief. The Lord had not come. Not that day. But tomorrow…..?

For the most part, the young Edmund Gosse found it easy to build friendships with people who did not hold Christian beliefs, or who didn’t share his father’s passionate conviction. But during my teen years, I saw my contemporaries as belonging to one or other of two distinct groups – those who were ‘saved’ (the small group) and those who were not (a much larger group). I felt that I myself properly belonged to neither group. It seemed there was an invisible wall between me and those who believed since I did not share their certainty, and an equally impenetrable barrier between me and those who were not believers, who were at home in that unfamiliar cultural territory defined by James Bond, the Beatles and The Man from UNCLE. I lacked the confidence, integrity and relationship skills to connect with the members of either group, and although there was one precious friendship which I did not fully appreciate at the time, in general I felt excluded from both.

If Gosse was conscious of personal hypocrisy as a teenager he seems to have been remarkably free from guilt. I, on the other hand, was guilt-stricken. When I was about 15, someone asked me particularly pointedly whether I had become a Christian. For some reason I told what I knew even as I spoke to be a deliberate lie. Yes, I said. I had been saved, dating this spurious conversion from the most recent occasion when, gripped by guilt and longing during a sermon, I had cried out to God with no result that I was aware of.

This one lie led to others, and eventually I was baptised by immersion in the Baptist Church which my parents and I were by then attending. I did attend baptismal classes led by the minister, but regrettably he did not question me closely, or give me an opportunity to be real about my actual feelings and beliefs.

I anticipated my baptism and my first Lord’s Supper which would follow it with terror. Surely the Lord would be affronted by my hypocrisy and strike me dead. Well, I walked out of the baptismal tank, and swallowed the bread and wine, and lived. But as each Sunday after this approached bringing with it the inevitable Lord’s Supper again I was torn with fear and anguish. Would this be the week God’s patience ran out?

I longed to be able to find this elusive God, and told myself that if only I had the courage to admit my hypocrisy someone would help me. One of the lowest points in my life came when I shared the truth, and was told ‘Don’t be silly! Of course you’re a Christian. This is the devil getting at you,’ by someone whose own sense of security was perhaps threatened by my disclosure. What terrible act would I have to commit to persuade them I was not a believer? I fantasised about doing some terrible thing, and still not being believed, and flinging myself in despair from a city centre bridge. But I made no further attempts to share, and carried my inescapable burden of pain alone.

For these reasons, I believe I was led down badly by the Christian community in which I grew up. I do not label my experiences ‘abuse’, simply because the word implies intention to wound on the part of the abusers, while the Christians I knew, secure in their own beliefs, genuinely thought that in encouraging me to share their faith they were blessing me and seeking my long-term best interests. In additional, my own anxious and introspective personality made me more susceptible to suffering than were other kids brought up in a similar environment, although I realise that saying this brings me close to conceding that my anguish was my own fault, which it wasn’t. But what I experienced as pain, was offered as love.

Despite the similarities, I feel there was a fundamental difference between Edmund Gosse’s inner journey and mine. As a child, Gosse, aware of his ‘dedication’ to the Lord by his parents, felt ‘like a small and solitary bird caught….in a glittering cage.’ He continues: ‘I saw myself imprisoned for ever in the religious system which had caught me.’  Even at the age of 16, he tells us, ‘I was still but a bird fluttering in the net-work of my Father’s will, and incapable of the smallest independent action.’  If Gosse was struggling to get out of a system he felt was controlling him and plotting out his life ahead, I on the other hand felt excluded from the joyous and purposeful reality of the faith I saw in others around me and struggled to get in. For me, freedom was to be found on the inside.

In the end, as he describes in Father and Son, Edmund Gosse rejected the faith he had been brought up in, and embraced ‘the human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself.’ This step away from his father’s faith was apparently much less clear-cut that this would suggest. According to Ann Thwaite’s biography Edmund Gosse: a literary landscape he still considered himself a Christian believer at the beginning of 1873, having realised that he could abandon some of the attitudes of the Brethren without abandoning Christ as well. But a year later, having faced possible death on a runaway horse, he told a friend that ‘the Christian revealed religion had never seemed so little worthy of belief.’

For my part, I finally came at the age of 21 to the point of accepting that the God I had always believed in was real, and that he accepted me. I suppose I had assumed that because my sense exclusion was so desperate, some dramatic divine intervention would be necessary if I were ever to encounter God. In fact my life was changed by a few words from the 16th chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells the story of a beggar named Lazarus stationed daily outside the house of a rich man, who pointedly ignores him and his need. Both Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus finds himself in heaven, the rich man in the hell he had never believed in or at least taken seriously.

‘Please send Lazarus back to my brothers to warn them of the existence of hell so that they can ensure they don’t come here too,’ the rich man begs. But his request is refused. ‘They have the Scriptures. If they won’t believe their message, then they won’t believe even if they’re warned by someone risen from the dead.’ The instant I read those words, I realised that not only did I have the whole Bible, but also the testimony of someone – Jesus – whom I believed had returned from the dead. What hope was there for me if I rejected this? Nothing more would be given, for nothing more was needed. God came to me in those few words from Jesus’ story, with an inrush of transforming joy, awakening in me a sense of his reality.

That day marked the beginning of a long journey as I explored the great story of the Christian pilgrimage, the story in which I now knew I belonged. I was often still perplexed by the frequent absence of any sense of God’s presence, but there were times on the journey when I felt touched by his love and experienced some healing of the hurts I had suffered.

Much later in life I encountered some of the questions which exercised Edmund Gosse’s sharp intellect as a teenager – questions about how a truly good God can allow suffering, questions about how reasonable it is to regard the Bible as God’s word to us. At the end of this process, the God I believed in was bigger and more mysterious than I imagined, and I had to learn to live with his silences, with the times of struggle and the unanswered questions, but I remain convinced that he is there, speaking, challenging, loving.

Edmund Gosse subtitled his book ‘A study of two temperaments,’ referring to his and his father’s which, he felt, were ‘perhaps innately antagonistic.’ I am very conscious of the fact that people with different personality types seem to experience Christianity with differing degrees of emotional engagement, and I think Christians need to learn not to expect other believers to experience God in exactly the same way as they themselves do.

Certainly my temperament is very different from Edmund Gosse’s – I am compliant and lacking in self-confidence, while Gosse was precociously aware of his own personhood. But I think there is a more fundamental difference between us. Gosse spoke of his ‘growing distaste for the Holy Scripture,’ a distaste which ‘scandalised’ him as his ‘desire was to continue to delight in those sacred pages.’ But he was so familiar with the Bible’s contents that for him they had the ‘colourless triteness of a story retold a hundred times’ and in turning to its pages he experienced an ‘invincible ennui’.

I can understand and empathise with questions about the divine inspiration and reliability of the Bible. But I can’t imagine anyone who has ever been surprised by joy as something in the Bible, no matter how familiar to them as words on  the page or ideas in the mind,  awakens in their heart with newly-minted relevance could ever speak as Gosse does of ‘invincible ennui’.  There may be days of ennui, yes, but it is not invincible since in my experience God will before too long again draw near, clothed in words, his voice stirring the waters of the heart.

So it seems to me that the gulf between the Father and the Son arises not so much from two temperaments as from what the Apostle Paul calls (and it’s a distinction Edmund was aware of)  ‘two natures’, the one awakened, alive, seeking the reality of God, the other somehow asleep, dead, closed to the divine.

Edmund Gosse concludes the main section of Father and Son with a description of an evening during his final year at school, a year in the course of which he experienced a resurgence of spiritual longing and perceptiveness. He looked from a window in the school across an evening landscape of profound beauty, and he sensed that the time had come. Christ must surely return. ’Come now Lord Jesus,’ he cried. ‘Come now and take me to be for ever with Thee in Thy Paradise.’  But nothing happened. The Lord did not come, and at that moment he says he realised that the Lord would never come - never invade his life, never break into history. I believe that what Gosse failed to realise, and what I failed to realise for so many years as a young person, was that the Lord was always there.