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  • Mike and Helen

Chaste Idealists

Idealism has to operate in lives which are far from straightforward. Lives which do not follow the script. This week we have had contact with three different idealists whose lives have taken different forms – some predictable, some less so.

For fifteen years, (1982-1997) Owen, as everyone called him, was the Rector in the village of Binfield where we lived for a few years and worked for many more. We have also worshipped in that village throughout our lives but only very rarely in what was Owen’s church. That did not stop him taking a personal interest in us and our teenage children - and everyone else he met. Full of ecumenical faith, one time he invited Helen to lead a meditation service in his church – people from both congregations attended. Owen was there to circulate and greet us all, his conversations spiced with a wry and sometimes naughty sense of humour!  He was not one to labour theological questions but he didn't avoid them either.

Owen left the village to retire in Cornwall in the late 1990s and died just before Christmas 2023. Last Saturday afternoon we went to one of ‘his’ parish churches for a service of memorial, and expected a small and elderly turn out. We could not have been more mistaken! There must have been over two hundred people there.

The five speakers remembering him talked about his always amusing and down to earth ministry to children(now grown with children of their own!) in the local Anglican school, his generosity with his time and his availability to his parishioners in a crisis – he once interrupted an Evensong he was conducting to minister to a parishioner whose father had died suddenly. People came in their numbers to remember him quite simply because his attention and his laughter, some said, had kept them ‘in the faith’.  He would talk with conviction about faith but gently and always with laughter.

Yesterday we had a visit from another old friend who has lived a life of service and is just coming to the end of a long career at high levels in development work. His most recent assignment was in Jordan where he has been involved in aid issues arising from the current conflict in Gaza. He has travelled extensively, often working in many of the hell-holes in the world and living in cramped quarters sometimes on limited or repetitive diets. He has been up close to man’s inhumanity to man in its many forms. He often knows what is going on behind the western media headlines.  His conversation is peppered with stories and full of fascinating insights. Yesterday he told us how dispirited so many of the workers in Gaza are at the apparently hopeless nature of the conflict there.

We asked him about the state of the ideals with which he began his career. ‘Do you ever ask yourself what on earth you are doing in these situations?’ He told us that he and his colleagues often discuss exactly that. ‘The answer we usually come up with,’ he said, ‘is that we are just hopeless idealists!’

A third encounter this week put us in touch with someone we’d never met before. It was a conversation about faith and what he calls, ‘the hard questions’: God and human freedom, the twists and turns of religious faith. Asking hard questions is an activity often discouraged by those religious people for whom faith is an expression of ideas which protect rather than challenge. Our new friend is not one of them! He quoted the Spanish-American thinker George Santayana: “Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer:” Questioning the idealism of your community can bring a certain purity.

We’re thankful for these variously idealistic companions on our journey whose words and lives both exemplify and question the demands of faith.

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