By Graham Kings
The first religious experience that I can remember is getting under the nursery table to pray that the dancing mistress might be dead before we got to her dancing class.
This is how Gwen Raverat begins her chapter on Religion, in Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood (p. 210). Thankfully, her prayer was not answered. In this witty, autobiographical gem, she describes her growth amongst the academics and townspeople in the extraordinary, extended family of her grandfather, Charles Darwin.
After our move back to Cambridge for retirement in September 2020, I re-read Period Piece and it set me contemplating the genre of memoir. Currently my wife, Alison, and I are enjoying David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I read a chapter aloud before supper each day. I only realized recently that Dickens includes key autobiographical elements and that he wrote it, as he did his other novels, in installments.
Christopher Hibbert, in his introduction to the 1983 Folio edition of David Copperfield, states that “before all else it is a novel of memory, a blend of experience and imagination” (p. xvi). Shortly before writing it, Dickens had started his autobiography. Hibbert describes Dickens’s friendship with his future biographer, John Forster. He says that Dickens intended
the manuscript to be found among his papers after his death; but he could not bring himself to finish it. He entrusted the earlier pages to Forster and then, so he told Mrs Henry Winter, the former Maria Beadnell with whom as a young man he had been so desperately in love, he burned the rest…His description of [Copperfield’s] distress at being put to work in Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse in Blackfriars is taken almost word for word from the account of his own experiences at Warren’s which he gave to Forster. (ibid.)
As I began to ponder writing a memoir, at this liminal moment, I thought writing in installments may be a good method to follow.
So this is the first installment: the preface. Usually, the preface is written after the book is finished. Here, it is written first, proleptically.
Challenge and Temptation
In April 1974, soon after my conversion to Christ at Hertford College, Oxford, on January 20, I was helped by Oliver O’Donovan, then a tutor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, to think through my vocation. Thirty-one years later, on September 25, 2005, at St. Mary’s Church, Islington, London, Oliver kindly preached at the 25th anniversary of my ordination:
Graham’s ministry was a gift to Islington from Kenya and from Cambridge. One day he will be a gift from Islington to somewhere else. The stay may be long, it may be short. The main thing is, it must not cease to be, even while he sits here in the Vicarage, a journey around the world. The whole Scriptures, the whole apostolic doctrine, the whole Christian life, the whole world church must break in on Islington through his ministry.
This was very moving and challenging to hear at the time and later to read.
There are, at least, two dangerous temptations of “remembering”: not being thankful to God for everything; and being boastful in our thanks by comparing ourselves to others.
In an earlier sermon, expounding Philippians 3:13, at Christ Church, Oxford, Oliver had given pertinent advice about memories:
Thankful memory transfers events out of our own field of action into the record of God’s deeds for us. Our past becomes transparent to him and to his works. Whatever your mind may be stocked with, Paul says to his readers, God will require you to add this measure of distance, too; no memory, whether good or ill, can be good for us, until we have made it over to him by thanksgiving, and so freed ourselves from its hold.
So, “Making over our memories to God by thanksgiving” is significant. Remembering coram Deo (in the presence — literally the face — of God), with thanksgiving, is the essence of Augustine’s Confessions, which are all addressed to God. In Book 10 he ruminates on memory:
Great is the power of memory; it is an awe-inspiring thing, my God, a profound and limitless multiplicity. And this thing is the mind, and this I myself am. What then am I, O my God? What is my nature? It is various and manifold and immeasurable: behold the numberless fields and caves and caverns of memory, each immeasurably full of an innumerable variety of things. (Confessions 10.12)
There is still, however, a subtle temptation in thanksgiving, as was made clear by Jesus in his parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14):
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
Oh dear! How on earth may one write of memories authentically and responsibly, with thanksgiving, in humility, and coram Deo?
Why Write a Memoir?
Why should anyone write a memoir? Good reasons may include: for documentation; for learning from the past; and for celebrating God’s goodness. Bad reasons may include: for self-aggrandizement; for scoring points over others; and for making money. Many interweave a mixture of reasons.
John Henry Newman wrote his white hot Apologia Pro Vita Sua to correct Charles Kingsley’s accusation that he had always been, at heart, a secret Roman Catholic. Ronald Knox and Thomas Merton both wrote at pivotal moments: Knox’s Spiritual Aeneid explained his conversion to Catholicism and Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain — published in England as Elected Silence — recalled the background of his call to follow God into a Trappist monastery. Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham, wrote Retrospect on an Unimportant Life in his retirement. These are all beautiful works of literature, as well as moving testimonies, though the fourth is somewhat pompous in spite of its title.
The first extant autobiography in English is The Book of Margery Kempe, written in the early 15th century in Lynn, Norfolk, where she describes visiting Julian of Norwich in 1413. The manuscript is in the British Library and was only discovered in 1930. The British Library describes it thus:
The only known copy of the mystic, Margery Kempe’s autobiography, telling of her life and travels in England and on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Santiago de Compostela. The original was dictated by her to a priest of Lynn and this is probably a copy made from the original, perhaps under Margery’s supervision.
Margery Kempe, a mother of 14 children, was also a brewer and the owner of a horse-mill who later became a visionary and a mystic.
Two classic, perceptive diaries, both kept over nine years, are by the metropolitan civil servant Samuel Pepys (1660-1669) and rural priest Francis Kilvert (1870-1879). Contemporary diaries are clearly important as historical records.
What are my written sources for Nourishing Memories? Since my conversion in 1974, I have kept a hand-written spiritual journal (currently four volumes); from 1985-91, while serving at St Andrew’s College, Kabare, in the foothills of Mount Kenya, I wrote to my parents every week on aerogramme letters; from 1992-2000, I have my reports to the Henry Martyn Trust, when I lectured in mission studies and founded the Henry Martyn Centre (now the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide) in the Cambridge Theological Federation; as Vicar of Islington (2000-09) and partly during my time as Bishop of Sherborne (2009-15), my Fulcrum Newsletters 2005-11; as Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion, my monthly Interweavings articles 2015-2017; now in retirement my Ponderings.
Why should this particular person, at this particular time and place, early in retirement in Cambridge, write a memoir?
The clue may be in the participle “nourishing” in the title and its double meaning. I hope that, in the very acts of reflecting and recounting, I may be nourished by God and that these written memories may later be nourishing for others as they read of the nourishment I have received from innumerable people close to God, little-known as well as well-known.
Nourishing Memories follows on from my collections of poems, Nourishing Connections (Canterbury Press, 2020) and essays, Nourishing Mission: Theological Settings (Brill, forthcoming in 2021).
To guard against the temptations already mentioned, I will be writing these memories in cumulative installments and also sharing them first with my wife and then with two trusted, critical friends, who have kindly agreed to call me to account.
For inspiration in cumulative praise and thanksgiving, I have been rejoicing in the cosmic scope of the Benedicite from the Book of Common Prayer (“O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and magnify him for ever…”) and meditating on Psalm 136 (“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious: and his mercy endureth for ever…”). I have also been mindful of the Book of Common Prayer’s Litany (“From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred and malice, and all uncharitableness, Good Lord, deliver us”).
Finally, my heartfelt plea to the “Holy Spirit: Remembrancer,” written at St Beunos, North Wales in 2017, is:
O Holy Spirit, Giver of Life,
Illumine my sin,
Which lurks and creeps in darkness:
Give me your life,
Which swirls and leads into light.
O Holy Spirit, Inspirer of Languages,
Release my tongue
From cynical cursing,
To praise you, Father and Son,
With eloquent wisdom.
O Holy Spirit, Remembrancer,
Refresh my memory,
With words of Moses and Jesus,
To help me follow your ways
And imagine your future.
O Holy Spirit,
Cascading water, coursing down the mountainside,
Whirling wind, sweeping up the valley,
Flaming fire, crackling in the hearth,
Soothing oil, seeping into cracks of an old cricket bat,
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Graham Kings is honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Ely and research associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.