A continuation of my memoir.
By Graham Kings
“I must confess, I was born at a very early age.”
— Groucho Marx
I make the same confession as Groucho Marx. Perhaps, though, it is worth considering whether we are born at the age of nine months? Conception and growth in the womb are indeed significant in the sight of God, and in the delving of psalmists and psychotherapists into God’s wondrous work:
For it was you who formed my inward parts,
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth. (Ps. 139:13-15)
The Hebrew word in verse 15, translated as “woven,” also implies “needlework” and “embroidering with colors.” “In the depths of the earth” still mystifies commentators: for me, it is a metaphor of the earth as a womb, parallel to verse 13, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” which resonates with Adam being formed from the earth (Gen. 2:7).
I was born at home, in my parents’ rented two-bedroomed flat, 1 Grange Court, Horace Road, Barkingside, Essex, just beyond the eastern edge of London, on October 10, 1953. My sister, Wendy, is two and half years older than me. My mother, Kathleen, grew up in Barkingside, and my father, Ralph, in Barking, nearby, famous for its Anglo-Saxon Abbey. I was delighted to discover that my first predecessor as Bishop of Sherborne, Aldhelm (d. 709), dedicated his De Virginitate to the nuns at Barking and that the Lambeth Palace Library copy has a cartoon of him presenting it to the Abbess.
In the City of London, my mother, before raising a family, worked was a telephonist and my father was a clerk, and later in management, in a shipping firm, the Peninsular and Orient Line (P&O). They married in 1948.
My mother’s father, Ernest Warren, worked in Stratford, east London, in the drapery department of the Co-op and her mother, Winnie (née Savage, the 13th of 13 children from Liverpool), raised four daughters and one son.
My father’s father, Sidney Kings, also worked in a shipping firm in the City, the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line, and his mother, Lily (née Cuthbert), worked in the local Post Office and raised two sons. When he was 90 my father dictated a 17-page memoir, which was typed up by his friend from church and included this description of his mother’s work:
Cashing up each evening was quite a mathematical feat: counting up the value of all the remaining stamps, Postal Orders, Dog Licences, cash in the till, and allowing for the telegrams sold, against the previous night’s figures.
He recorded meeting my mother at a local dance:
To this day I can remember Kathy usually wore a tight-fitting red blouse, with a shiny black velvet waistcoat and matching skirt. Spectacularly attractive, with dark long hair and a fetching smile.
My father had the chance of studying at the University of Cambridge, as part of a post-war RAF scholarship scheme. He turned it down, on the advice of his father:
My life was suddenly at a crossroads. The war was over, my brother soon to be demobbed, and my work had good prospects. I was about to propose to Kathleen and settle down to married life. Whereas the opposing choice was three years reading at University, followed by a professional career in the RAF for three to seven years.
I only discovered that possibility on reading my father’s memoir, and we discussed together the meaning of key turning points in life. I then realized for the first time the background to his urging me to study for ordination in Cambridge, rather than in Nottingham.
I was baptized on February 21, 1954 at Holy Trinity Church, Barkingside, by the vicar, J. S. Newman. My godparents were my mother’s younger brother, Ron, and youngest sister, Brenda. They both were very loving in their support for me throughout my life, were present at my consecration in 2009, and I preached at both their funerals.
So, how do I look on my baptism now? Well, I believe I was baptized into Christ, into his death and resurrection, embodied into him and into the family of God, the Church. I received the Holy Spirit, on the faith of my parents, who, at the time, were not regular churchgoers, but who had given me everything else in life. For them, this was all part of giving birth and bringing up a baby. For me, looking back, it was a primeval, foundational gift of identity.
I believe in the validity of infant baptism, but only really thought through the theological reasons for it while writing an essay during ordination training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge in 1978.
The case from the Scriptures is cumulative. I preached on it at the baptism of Rosalind, our eldest daughter, on January 24, 1982 at St Mark’s Harlesden, where I was a curate. It is based on: the Jewish rite of circumcision (Col. 2); the solidarity of the family, as shown in the household baptisms of Cornelius (Acts 10), of Lydia and of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16) and of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1); and the fact that Paul addresses children in his letters (Col. 3:20) as being part of the baptized people of God (Col. 2:12). It also, now, seems significant to me that, although not in the context of baptism, the friends of the paralytic who broke through the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching to let him down to be healed were also part of his “household.” Faith is indeed personal but more than individualistic:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2)
In 1985, at Isiolo in the semi-desert north east of Mount Kenya, I witnessed an extraordinary baptism and confirmation service, led by Bishop David Gitari, which struck me as adding to the case for infant baptism. Samburu people had trekked for about 20 miles to come to the service, including babes in arms. The adults and the babies were baptized together. I could not imagine someone trying to persuade the mothers, “Yes, you can be baptized, but your babies cannot.”
When I was six months old, we moved from Barkingside to 23 Braemar Crescent, Leigh-on-Sea, on the coast of Essex, near my father’s parents in Westcliff, and on a fast rail track into London. It was my parents’ first house and had three bedrooms and a garden. My first memories are from about the age of four and a half: cycling around the hall on a tricycle; listening attentively to “Listen with Mother” on the radio; the smell of a Ford Popular car in our neighbor’s garage; causing a fuss on the top floor of a bus and being smacked for it at home; and being worried that a broken step in the garden might prevent the sale of the house, just as we were trying to move back to Chigwell, near my mother’s parents, in 1958.
Early childhood involves being breastfed, crawling, toddling, walking, and talking: monosyllables, words, then sentences. Although I cannot consciously remember my own infancy, I can imagine it. I have found wisdom in the words of Rowan Williams on latency, language and play in his “Childhood and Choice” chapter of Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement:
[Latency] also has to do with the fact (connected with, but not simply reducible to, biology) that humans perceive themselves, form their attitudes to their bodies and to other bodies, as users of language. The acquiring and refining of language is a long and complex process, never moving at precisely the same rate in different subjects. (p. 12)
He seems here to be drawing on his experience of watching his own infants grow, as well as on his reading of Wittgenstein, which he develops later in his, The Edge of Words: God and Habits of Language. He continues in “Childhood and Choice”:
And part of that process, as every parent and teacher is (at some level) aware, is play; because to learn language is to discover, by trial and error, what I can seriously be committed to when I open my mouth, what I’m ready to answer for. This is something I cannot begin to do with intelligence or confidence unless I am allowed to make utterances that I don’t have to answer for. (p. 12)
For infants, and for those who observe them joyfully, everything is wonderfully new. Seeing our three daughters explore with play and language as they grew up, and now our three grandsons, is astounding and awe-inspiring.
My mother taught my sister and me this prayer, as we went to bed each night. Our daughters now teach this intergenerational prayer to their sons.
Grant thy peace, Lord, bless my sleeping,
Have me in thy care and keeping.
Rest and comfort may I find,
For the body and the mind.
With the sinking of the sun,
Pardon every wrong I’ve done.
Grant thy peace, Lord, bless my waking,
So that when the light is breaking,
I may be aware of thee,
And in thy dear presence see
The path that thou wouldst have me tread,
Through the day that lies ahead. Amen.
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.