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Nourishing Memories, Chapter 7: Cambridge and Yugoslavia

By Graham Kings

“How far is it from Cambridge to Oxford?”

“About 80 miles.”

“We could walk that in three days, couldn’t we?”

“That’s about 27 miles a day. Tough but doable.”

“Let’s do it, then.”

Steve Weston, Jeremy Pemberton, Ali, and I were drinking coffee in our Cambridge flat in early 1979. Steve’s father was vicar of St. Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, and Jeremy, Ali, and I had met at the university there. Steve, Jeremy, and I were now training for ordination at Ridley Hall theological college, Cambridge.

“Let’s get a map out, draw a straight line, and find the villages one-third and two-thirds along the route.”

“Great idea.”

“Then we can phone up the vicars, tell them we’re doing a charity walk from Cambridge to Oxford, and ask if we can we stay the night in their church halls.”

So we did. That evening. There and then. On the phone, the vicar at Shefford (first stop) was delighted and said we could stay in the vicarage. The wife of the vicar at Whitchurch (second stop) unsurprisingly needed a bit more convincing … but in the end, that June, we did stay at the vicarage.

We called it “Tearfund Tramp” and raised money for a Tearfund project in the Philippines. Steve and I walked three days, Jeremy two days, and Ali one day. Twenty years later, in June 1999, the four of us took part in a similar walk, in the opposite direction: “Oxford to Cambridge with a Camel.” That took twice as long, because of the camel. More of that in a later chapter.

Since I had studied theology before, I only had to complete two years’ training at Ridley. The first year I studied for my ordination exams, especially liturgy and pastoral care, and the second year I did a postgraduate course in New Testament studies in the Faculty of Divinity and was a student at Selwyn College.

Ridley Hall (1978-80)

Ridley Hall is named after , Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London and a Reformation martyr. I had been interviewed by Keith Sutton, who had been a CMS missionary at Bishop Tucker College, Mukono, Uganda, and was profoundly inspiring. He moved on to become Bishop of Kingston, in the Diocese of Southwark, in 1978 and the new Principal was Hugo de Waal, who had been chaplain at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and vicar of St John’s Church, Blackpool. Hugo later became Bishop of Thetford and a long-term friend. Michael Sansom was the tutor in doctrine and worship, who had spent a gap year as a missionary volunteer in northern Kenya, and John Root was Vice Principal and Director of Pastoral Studies.

John had a significant effect on my thinking. He introduced an urban mission course and I still recall my essay on Liberation Theology, supervised by him, which challenged a lot of my theology. He recommended what became a seminal book for me, Culture, Class, and Christian Beliefs by John Benington (Scripture Union, 1973). I am still in touch with John Root, and appreciate his radically eloquent blog, Out of Many, One People.

Ridley, an evangelical college, was part of the ecumenical Cambridge Theological Federation, together with Westcott House (liberal Anglo-Catholic), Wesley House (Methodist) and Westminster College (United Reformed). This sharing in various courses and conferences, in meals and worship in the evenings, helped to remove prejudices and to clarify real disagreements.

For the Ridley Newsletter last year, I reviewed the fine book The Cambridge Theological Federation: A Journey in Ecumenical Learning (Cambridge Theological Federation, 2022), edited by Ian Randall and Mary Tanner. This celebrated 50 years of the federation, the largest ecumenical theological consortium in Europe. It now has 12 institutions.

Amongst the students at Ridley, when I was there, were Canon Benaiah Poggo, from Sudan, whose son, Bishop Anthony Poggo, is the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion; Peter Townley, currently Archdeacon of Pontefract and a writer of obituaries, and Credo articles, for The Times; John Witheridge, who later served as Chaplain to Archbishop Robert Runcie before becoming senior chaplain at Eton and Headmaster of Charterhouse; and Andrew Briggs, who decided to pursue a vocation as a lay scientist, became Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford and, in retirement, directs the Anglican Communion Science and Religion Project.

At Westcott House were people who have since become well-known theologians. Rowan Williams was a young tutor whose lectures — so the rumour went — inspired students to immediately go to the chapel for contemplation. Amongst the students were John Polkinghorne, who had just given up his Cambridge Chair in Theoretical Physics; Alistair McGrath, who later was to describe this period as his “liberal phase”; and John Milbank, who decided to pursue a vocation as a lay theologian.

The flat where Ali and I lived was at Wesley House, on Jesus Lane. Ever since, I have chuckled at Charles Wesley’s line, “see all your sins on Jesus lain,” in his hymn, “O for a thousand tongues to sing.” However, on checking the reference this week I’ve found that it is “laid” rather than “lain,” which is somewhat annoying.

Ali worked first for the Regional Health Authority in Cambridge and then as a research assistant to Dr. Ramon Gardner, a consultant psychiatrist at Addenbrookes Hospital. Ali and I hosted an ecumenical Bible study group in our flat, which included students from all the four theological colleges, plus Charlie Moule. He had retired to Ridley and lived in the top flat in the Principal’s Lodge, having been Lady Margaret Professor of the New Testament in Cambridge from 1952 to 1976. His was an extraordinary humble presence in the college, and he was a keen supporter of the Church Missionary Society; his parents were CMS missionaries in China.

I attended the youth leaders’ course of the Cambridge Local Education Authority. This involved weekly placements in a club and several residential weekends. I borrowed some video equipment and the young people made a film of their club. I remember, in particular, their laughter in “beeping out” all the deliberate swear words in a deadpan interview.

I enjoyed a short, pre-term course on radio work, which included writing and presenting a script for Thought for the Day. A key learning point for me was the importance of buying a work contact book and keeping it up to date.

My month-long summer placement in 1979 was at St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, in the east end of London, where the vicar was the hymnwriter Christopher Idle. All these factors influenced the choice of where to serve my curacy.

I remember a poignant weekend at Hengrave Hall, a Roman Catholic Tudor manor house near Bury St. Edmund’s, Suffolk. It was noteworthy for discovering ignorance. Roman Catholic and evangelical Anglican ordinands were gathered together, led by John Coventry, SJ, and Roger Beckwith, warden of Latimer House. Jeremy Pemberton and I both noted how little we really knew about Roman Catholicism and vowed to remedy that.

In June 1980 I wrote an article, “Training Ground,” for the first edition of a magazine published by Church Society. It has been interesting to reread it 43 years later. In its conclusion, after an appreciative survey of my learning, I mentioned:

The two weakest areas of teaching, it seems to me, have been apologetics (the justification of Christian belief) and mission. The ideological warfare being waged in the world is something which we shall find reflected, perhaps subtly, in our parishes and I feel that better equipping is needed. There have been courses on local church evangelism and most of us go on at least one mission but there is a lack of theological teaching on mission, profound reflection on strategy and culture, and a challenging review of the world-wide task.

This turned out to be a prophecy, which was later fulfilled in the founding of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.

Selwyn College (1979-80)

Selwyn College was named after the first Anglican bishop of New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn, who later became Bishop of Lichfield in England. I studied for what was then called the Diploma in Theology, the equivalent of what is now an M.Phil. My Director of Studies was the beloved New Testament scholar and long-serving Dean of Chapel at Selwyn, John Sweet. I gained much from his scholarship and character, and from the graduate seminar of Morna Hooker, Charlie Moule’s successor as professor of New Testament. At this fortnightly seminar I met Christopher Rowland, dean of Jesus College, who later became professor of New Testament at Oxford. I focused especially on the Gospel of Matthew, 2 Corinthians, and the textual history of the New Testament, consulting the fifth-century Codex Bezae at the University Library.

It is a joy, in retirement, to attend Choral Evensong at Selwyn College Chapel on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings during term time. Arabella Milbank Robinson is John Sweet’s current successor as dean of Chapel and she asked me to preach during the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship service from there on January 22 this year.

The master of Selwyn, for 27 years from 1956, was the Rev. Professor Owen Chadwick, a Church historian, friend of scholars, mentor to many, pithy and witty writer, faithful priest, brilliant preacher, diligent professor, supervisor and administrator, with a vast hinterland of history and culture. I was very moved when he died in 2015, and I wrote an article, “Owing a Debt to Owen Chadwick” on the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion site. He kindly gave me a college grant of £100 to study the churches of Yugoslavia for two and a half weeks in the summer of 1980.

Yugoslavia (June 23–July 11, 1980)

It all started when Ali and I were considering where to go on holiday in the summer of 1980. We remembered Hugo de Waal’s great friend, Endre Langh, who was a Reformed pastor in Vinkovci, Yugoslavia. So, we hitched and camped around Yugoslavia, including staying with Endre and his wife, Olga.

It turned into a “working holiday.” Before we left, I read Stella Alexander’s book, Church and State in Yugoslavia Since 1945 (CUP, 1979), and we met her in Ali’s parents’ house in London. I remember her habit of only drinking herbal tea, which seemed unusual at the time — she always carried sachets in her handbag. She was a Quaker had become persona non grata in Yugoslavia. I agreed to write a report for her and for Keston College, where she was a researcher, and which focused on “Religion in Communist Lands.”

Rereading my report now, which includes a chronicle of the visit, detailed notes of interviews, and a topical analysis, I realize how this trip laid the foundation for my future studies in world Christianity. The names which Stella had given us opened doors and led to meetings with leaders of various churches. I wrote up notes of interviews, after they happened, with the following people.

In Zagreb: Dr. Branko Lovrec, a Baptist medical doctor and lay theologian, who was also a publisher, editor, and bookshop owner; Zivko Kustic, the editor of Glas Koncila, and Eastern Catholic priest; Dr. Turcinovic, administrative head and theologian in the Catholic Theological Faculty, Zagreb.

In Vinkovci: Endre Langh, (Hungarian) Reformed pastor and teacher of English; Mirko, a former police chief.

In Belgrade: Radomir Rakic, editor of the Serbian Orthodox newspaper Pravoslavlje; Bishop Daniel, one of the two vicar bishops in the Serbian Patriarchate.

It was the first time for me to experience in depth the significance of “crossing cultures,” of life under a communist regime (even if relatively open), of issues of church and state, of how recent historical events and massacres influenced contemporary ecumenical relationships. It was a significant moment because the founding president of the country, Josip Broz Tito, died on May 4, 1980, a month before our visit.

Back in Cambridge, and before moving to be a curate at St. Mark’s Church, Harlesden, London, I bought an electric typewriter to write the report. I have vivid memories of typing it at the dining room table of our flat. My final words were, “Yugoslavia may be the despair of tidy minds but we delighted in its variety and the hospitality of its people.”

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