It was more by accident than design that we found ourselves live on BBC Radio 3 for evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral on Wednesday afternoon.
On our day out in London we got off the number 15 at St Paul’s at just the right moment to join a service we did not know was going to take place. Nor did we know that it was the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul or the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The size of the congregation – less than 100 people, meant we were able to sit immediately below the dome.
The scripture recounted the conversion of St Paul - the fanatical Pharisee Saul on his way to find more Christians to eliminate. It described the blinding light, the voice from heaven and a complete change in the way he perceived the world. The idea of ‘conversion’ has passed into our language to mean a sudden and complete reversal of someone’s thought patterns.
Our St Paul’s visit took place at a time when Helen has been exploring the story of her paternal grandfather, Thomas Herbert Cooper, who, about 1903 left his father’s 200 acres of land in deepest rural Cheshire – one of the largest farms in the area – for a holiday which was to change his life.
Prior to his departure, two particular events must have been influential in grandfather Cooper’s young life. On 28th October 1893, about two months before Thomas’ 13th birthday, his elder brother, Henry, died aged 22 in Nantwich a few miles away. Six years later, the Boer War broke out and the British Army were sent to assert control in southern Africa. When other men from the area went to war, Thomas, who had failed the army medical test, was left in the village, to continue with the agricultural life so crucial to survival for many in those times. After trying to cover what he told his children was the work of five men, he was suffering from complete exhaustion when the Boer War finished in 1902. His health condition led him to respond to an advertisement for a two-week holiday at a place called the Caterham Sanitarium over 200 miles away in Surrey. Nobody knows whether Thomas knew that the Seventh -day Adventist Church had founded the Sanitarium in 1903.
We can only surmise what it was that led this young man in his early 20s, christened in the Anglican church, within months of leaving home, to throw in his lot with this fledgling American church. In this ‘conversion’, there was no blinding light. But it was certainly a sudden and complete change of his thought patterns.
All we know is that the lifestyle practices at the Sanitarium improved his health. And the family story is that he and his Methodist mother, Kitty, were religiously observant enough to study the Bible in an attempt to prove the Adventists wrong in their teaching that the seventh-day Sabbath observed by Jesus kept should also be observed by his Christian followers. Thomas and Kitty failed to find a satisfactory text and became Sabbath keepers. He and his sister who also joined the church were subsequently thrown out of their home - disowned and disinherited by their outraged father. So sad!
Now two generations on, we have no real regrets about his decision. While we may have questions about some of the more obscure teachings of the Adventist church, we have both profited from Sabbath observance and from the Adventist emphasis on a healthy spirit in a healthy body.
But it is a matter of some regret to us that our Adventist heritage on both sides has sometimes made us outsiders - not just in society as a whole but also in building bonds with our Christian brothers and sisters wherever they may be. We definitely have more in common with them than not! In St Paul's the priest's prayer 'that we may witness to the visible unity of your Church' elicited a heartfelt Amen!
Thomas Herbert Cooper c.1920