Saturday 15 July 2017

Everything I own: a tribute to my father

This is the text of a tribute that I delivered on Saturday July 15th 2017 at a gathering of the Unitarian Christian Association, held at Luther King House in Manchester.

My father was a prime mover in the establishment of Luther King House as an inter-denominational federation for the training of clergy, and was Principal of Unitarian College Manchester between 1974 and 1989, during which time he oversaw its absorption into the federation at Luther King House. He was also a founder and prime mover in the establishment of the Unitarian Christian Association.

My brief was to speak of the private man, the father. Here is what I said, and being me it featured two song titles, one of which makes a perfect title to this post. As is my custom, click on those words in the text and you'll hear it.

My father, Arthur Long (1920-2006)

Arthur Long: Minister, Scholar, Raconteur, Father

We are here today to celebrate the life and work of my father, the Rev Dr Arthur Long, who died at the age of 86 on December 9th 2006. He was, of course, a much loved and respected elder statesman of the Unitarian movement, and a leading expert on the history of liberal Christian theology, but to me and my brother Chris, he was our dad. To my wife Sue and Chris’s wife Michelle, he was a caring father-in-law Arthur and to his four grandchildren, he was just Grandpa. I am here to give a bit of insight into the man, not the minister.

But what strikes me, having been given the opportunity eleven years on from his death to think about him, is that unlike many people with a public persona,  the public and the private man were no different.

Born in 1920, Arthur was one of four children of the Rev. Walter Long - my grandpa -  himself an eminent Unitarian Minister in London, who was President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in 1963.

Walter was a teetotal, firebrand socialist nonconformist of the old school, and having recently uncovered some hitherto forgotten documents and archives relating to his life and work, I am even more struck by his work and achievements. Walter was in effect a social worker in a dog collar, whose work for the people, especially the children, who attended Bell Street Mission in Marylebone, reflected his values and ideals. Chris and I knew him as a cheery, benign old man, like a cliché grandad from a Ladybird book - he looked about 90 when he was around 50 - but a glance at the press cuttings from his life reveal a man of deep commitment to improving the lot of the poor through putting Christian principles into action. Accounts of the holidays he and his wife Amy ran for deprived London children at Bruce Cottage in Bognor Regis are a joy to read.

Arthur added to these qualities and values which he inherited from his father the scholarly mind and conciliatory instincts which made him a lifelong ecumenist, who strove throughout his long and distinguished career to bridge the gap between Unitarianism’s more radical tendencies and the mainstream Christian churches. The UCA is very much part of his legacy.

Arthur was born in Loughborough, while his father was Minister to that congregation, but he grew up in Wembley, living much of his childhood in the shadow of the old Empire Stadium. I remember seeing those towering white walls over the railway line which ran past the end of their garden.

He was educated at Wembley County School and won a place at Exeter College, Oxford in the days when county grammar school boys were still a rarity at Oxford Colleges. Although he himself always admitted to having felt somewhat out of place at Oxford, he in fact blazed a trail at Exeter College which was followed by his younger brother, and then by his son (myself), granddaughter and two nephews. Few families can claim such broad and prolonged association with a single college.

He trained for the Ministry at Manchester (now Harris – Manchester) College, and took up a Hibbert Scholarship at New College, Edinburgh, then served long and effective ministries in London and Lancashire. His lengthy ministry at Unity Church, Bolton coincided with a period of great social and economic upheaval and hardship in the Lancashire cotton towns, 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. We lived our childhood in a real-life Lowry painting.

The locals just thought of him as “the Vicar”, and Chris and I were known as “the Vicar’s boys”, especially if we did anything naughty - heinous crimes like riding a go-kart down the street in a reckless manner.

He may not have been the Vicar as such, but our childhood was awash with vicars, priests and nuns. Always an enthusiast for ecumenism (an “ecumaniac”, to use a term coined at his funeral by Jeff Gould), Arthur 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. Our childhood memories are 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.

Whilst ministering among the people of a working class Lancashire community, presiding over a church which was very much a social centre as well as a place of worship, he was, like his father, a social worker in a very poor part of the town. He wrote and produced an annual pantomime, starring members of the congregation - very much a highlight of the social calendar, and loved organising social events. 

He once organised a complete “mock wedding”, at which members of the congregation enacted all the parts of a traditional wedding, took vows in church, then enjoyed a reception and party in the Church Hall. He took the congregation away for a fun weekend at Hucklow, and in every way cared deeply about their welfare. More than once, he interrupted family holidays to return home to conduct a funeral of a loyal member of the congregation.

Yet he was also an awesomely erudite thinker and writer. Arthur developed a career in theological academia alongside his day job in Bolton, firstly as a tutor, then as Principal of Unitarian College, Manchester, a training college for the Unitarian Ministry. In this role, which he took up in 1975, his ecumenical instincts again came to the fore when he brought the College into the inter-denominational Northern Federation for Training in Ministry in 1984. Through his broad outlook, he brought a Unitarian perspective into the wider theological community, and was appointed as an Honorary Lecturer in the Department of Religions and Theology at Manchester University.

He enjoyed the academic phase of his career every bit as much as he has enjoyed ministering to working class folk in Bolton. He was honoured with the Presidency of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in 1983, twenty years after his father had held the same post, and in 1995, he was awarded a Doctor of Theology degree by the United Protestant Theological Institute at Kolozsvar (Cluj) in Romania. His freedom of the General Assembly Certificate and his doctorate certificate are among the items that I have brought along today.

His warm relations with the flourishing Unitarian communities of Eastern Europe predated the fall of Communism, and were another manifestation of his outward-looking and tolerant approach: he drove, would you believe, to Romania in his little Vauxhall Chevette in 1979 for a conference and preaching engagement. Lord knows what those surly border guards must have thought of the Englishman in a dog collar driving through the then very real Iron Curtain.

Arthur loved writing and public speaking. In this respect I have followed in his footsteps. He was a prolific writer of sermons and articles, whose style always mixed scholarly erudition with down-to-earth wit. He was founding Editor of the Unitarian Christian Herald and a regular contributor to The Inquirer and Faith and Freedom. He continued to preach well into his eighties, and conducted services until shortly before his death. As late as 2004, he appeared twice in ITV’s now sadly defunct “My Favourite Hymns”, and took great delight in the venue for filming being the magnificent St Walburga’s Roman Catholic Church in Preston.

But what was he like as a person? Well, as I said earlier, really no different! He was absolutely dedicated to his family, and doted on his wife, our mother Margaret, whom he met when she acted as temporary organist at Stamford Street Chapel, where he was Minister.

The story goes that she reluctantly agreed to stand in for her then boyfriend, who was organist there, when he went on holiday. The said boyfriend must have regretted that request!

Arthur was a real softie, a true romantic - a quality I have singularly failed to inherit! He would write acrostic love poems to his wife for every wedding anniversary and birthday. Margaret was rather more cynical and hard-headed, and I never saw any reciprocal poetry! He illustrated Christmas cakes with poetry and words from Scripture written in icing, and his tastes in music, theatre and literature were as catholic as his theology. Indeed, I always feel he was somewhat constrained by his wife’s refined and narrow tastes in the arts, especially music. She abhorred popular music in any form, which must have been difficult as that art form blossomed in the swinging sixties. He secretly rather liked it, and I remember her horror when he preached a sermon extolling the lyrics and music of Elvis Presley’s The Wonder of You when it topped the singles chart in 1970. I remember him furtively asking me and Chris to take a recording of it off the radio onto the reel-to-reel tape recorder that he had bought for use in church.

And when you smile the world is brighter
You touch my hand and I'm a king
Your kiss to me is worth a fortune
Your love for me is everything

I'll guess I'll never know the reason why
You love me as you do
That's the wonder
The wonder of you

Romantic or what?

So perhaps it is fitting that I conclude with some words not from the Scriptures, not from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but from David Gates, of the 70s soft-rock band Bread.

His song Everything I Own is a lament for his father, who died young, but it has always spoken to me about Arthur’s paternal love which was so closely aligned to his love and concern for those to whom he ministered:

You taught me how to love
What it's of, what it's of
You never said too much
But still you showed the way
And I knew from watching you.

God bless him.

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