Monday 1 August 2016

Son of a Preacher Man

What do the following people have in common? Jane Austen, Theresa May, Danny Willett, the Wright Brothers, the Bronte Sisters, David Tennant, Alice Cooper, Gordon Brown, Virginia Wade, Hugh Dennis... and me?

Well, the clue is in the title of this post. They - we - are all children of clergy.

Yes indeed, I am the "Son of a Preacher Man". My late father was the Reverend Dr Arthur Long, a Unitarian church minister who was an expert in liberal Christian theology. I lived my childhood and teen years in a manse (call it a vicarage if you're not fussy about distinctions between what different churches call the place where clergy live) and so I grew up in the strange fringe-of-society place that clergy families know only too well.

Much has been said about the fact that our new Prime Minister is a vicar's daughter. It's one of very few parental occupations that would even warrant a mention when a new PM takes office, and it proves what I've always thought, that being a clergy child is a significant and noteworthy influence in a way that a large number of other parental jobs are not. In fact, it's one of three really big things I have in common with our new PM, the others being  adult-onset Type One Diabetes and an Oxford degree. All three are conversation stoppers, facts about me that always produce a reaction, and all of which, I have to say, are significant elements of the person that is me.

There is much to be said about being a Type One Diabetic and indeed about having been a student at Oxford, but that is not what I am writing about here. Moreover, both those things are not things I was born with. Being a clergy son was there from birth, and is, I think, a subtle but very real influence. And it's got very little to do with religion - it's much more complicated than that.

Now it's far too early for anyone to be judging what sort of a job Theresa May is doing as PM, not least given the extraordinary circumstances and timing of her accession to power. Whatever our own political allegiances, we at least owe it to her to delay passing judgement until after the summer recess. However, I cannot help but feel just a little more sympathy for her and identification with her on the basis of what we have in common, and I have to say that I think that being a child of the clergy carries some advantages in preparing one for a life in the public eye. In the past couple of weeks, I have read two articles which make reference to her background. Firstly, this from Matthew d'Ancona*, writing in the Observer. He noted that Mrs May had already shown that she was not going to be like her predecessors Tony Blair and David Cameron, both of whom had appeared over-keen to portray themselves as "regular guys":

"Long before she became Prime Minister, May had decided that being a party moderniser – consistently and often bravely – did not mean surrendering the authority of high office or assuming a bogus familiarity. She preferred to keep a friendly distance...Is it a coincidence that (Gordon) Brown and May are the children of clergymen, less inclined to ditch ceremony and to treat everyone, instantly, as a best friend and confidant?

Here, d'Ancona rightly identifies the way in which being clergy family puts you in that position of being everybody's friend, yet nobody's friend - being, as it were, public property, and as such forced to keep a bit of distance from everyone.

Giles Fraser*, himself a Priest with children, took up the same theme in his Loose Canon column for the Guardian:

I know a thing or two about vicars’ daughters. I have a couple of them myself. And while there is no standard model, there is nonetheless something about growing up in a vicarage that is bound to shape the way you see the world – not least a peculiar feeling of resentment........Vicarage life is conducted in a goldfish bowl.........father is always at the beck and call of others, being called away for another evening meeting, always available at the door or on the phone. “Come on in,” I would say, as a parishioner unexpectedly called round at nine at night. “Turn the telly off, kids, it’s Mrs X.” Poor girls. I once heard a vicar’s child complain that their father had sacrificed their childhood on the altar of his principles. That stung. On Desert Island Discs, Theresa May spoke of “early memories of a father who couldn’t always be there when you wanted him to be … I have one memory, for example, of being in the kitchen and looking up the path to the back door, where a whole group, a family, had come to complain about an issue in the church and that’s it, just knock on the door and expect to see the Vicar.” This was the formative world of the new prime minister – unflashy service, community, warts and all, and personal sacrifice.

I certainly recognise that description of my family life as a child. Evening meals were invariably hurried because  my father had an evening event or meeting. I remember not really understanding what it meant when we were told that "Daddy's going visiting": in those days, clergy spent a lot of their time visiting their flock in their homes (the origin, I guess, of the "more tea, Vicar?" cliché) and before I fully understood this I just thought that my father was a friendly chap who went to see people in the evenings. I also remember the intrusions on family life: the meals interrupted by rings at the doorbell or the telephone, the dashes to hospital to see a dying parishioner, and even several times my father returning home for a day from our annual holiday in North Wales to take a funeral. With my mother out at work by the time I was two, I used to trail round with my father while he went about his business as a minister, including quite often sitting outside the Crematorium Chapel while he took a funeral.

Look at this picture of six year old me on my grandmother's knee at a church event  with my father, mother, brother and grandfather (also a minister - he was at the time President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches). It kind of sums up my childhood. We have the look of well-scrubbed boys on public display - the locals called us "The vicar's boys"...

I didn't mind this at all. With my mother a teacher, I was brought up in a household where service to others was what mattered above all else, and I can well see that this value system has remained with me: I have never been bothered by what the reward is, just is the task worthwhile and helpful.

For my father, his sense of service went well beyond just his work for his own church. He was in effect a social worker. His lengthy ministry at Unity Church, Bolton (1952 - 1975) coincided with a period of great social and economic upheaval and hardship in the Lancashire cotton town, but he kept the church there in its traditional place at the heart of the community. In those days in industrial Lancashire, the local church of whatever denomination was in effect the parish church to those who lived in its shadow and that of the Lowryesque cotton mills, and his flock looked just like those proverbial matchstick figures. In a way, I lived my childhood in a Lowry painting.

Always an enthusiast for ecumenism (an “ecumaniac”, to use a term coined at his funeral by a fellow Unitarian Minister), my father was for thirteen years Secretary of the Bolton Council of Churches, in which role he enjoyed warm and active relationships with all shades of the Christian community in Bolton. My childhood memories are therefore of incessantly answering the door or the telephone to clergy of all shades of Christianity, and it was only in later life that I came to realise how unusual and precious such inter-denominational cooperation was. I was quite used to answering the door or the phone to vicars, priests and even nuns, and to exchanging small talk with them.

Of course it's embarrassing at times when, as a teenager, your friends find out what your dad does for a living. And yes, we did at times feel inhibited and perhaps a little defined by our family's position in the community. But I don't think it did me or my brother any harm, and I'm pretty sure that in some small way it will help Mrs May to deal with the pressures of her unenviable job.

*Matthew d'Ancona, The Observer 24-07-2016 
Theresa May is her own woman. Remind you of anyone?

*Giles Fraser, The Guardian 14-07-2016: 
The agony and ecstasy of Saint Theresa, the vicar’s daughter

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