I set fire
to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school
one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was 15-years-old.
The book did not, as I had hoped, blaze fiercely and swiftly.
much blowing and encouragement did I manage to get it to ignite
at all, and I was left with a disagreeable, half-charred mess.
Most of my
small invited audience drifted away long before I had finished,
disappointed by the anticlimax and the pettiness of the thing. Thunder
did not mutter.
It would be
many years before I would feel a slight shiver of unease about my
act of desecration. Did I then have any idea of the forces I was
it was not much of a Bible. It was bound in shiny pale blue boards
with twiddly writing on the cover, a gift from my parents and until
that moment treated with proper reverence, and some tenderness.
But this was
my Year Zero. I was engaged in a full, perfect and complete rebellion
against everything I had been brought up to believe.
As I had been
raised to be an English gentleman, this was quite an involved process.
It included behaving like a juvenile delinquent, using as much foul
language as I could find excuse for, mocking the weak (there was
a wheelchair-bound boy in my year, who provided a specially shameful
target for this impulse), insulting my elders, and eventually breaking
The full details
would be tedious for most people, and unwelcome to my family. Let
us just say they include some political brawling with the police,
some unhinged dabbling with illegal drugs, an arrest – richly
merited by my past behaviour but actually wrongful – for having
an offensive weapon and nearly killing someone, and incidentally
myself, through criminal irresponsibility while riding a motorcycle.
also numberless acts of minor or major betrayal, ingratitude, disloyalty,
dishonour, failure to keep promises and meet obligations, oath-breaking,
cowardice, spite or pure selfishness. Nothing I could now do or
say could possibly atone for them.
I talk about
my own life at more length than I would normally think right because
I need to explain that I have passed through the same atheist revelation
that most self-confident British members of my generation –
I was born in 1951 – have experienced.
We were sure
that we, and our civilisation, had grown out of the nursery myths
of God, angels and Heaven. We had modern medicine, penicillin, jet
engines, the Welfare State, the United Nations and ‘science’, which
explained everything that needed to be explained.
that gave me this self-confidence was an extraordinarily safe place,
or at least so it felt to me as a child. Of our many homes, I was
fondest of a modest house in the village of Alverstoke, just across
the crowded water from Portsmouth.
It is almost
impossible now to express the ordered peace which lingered about
the quiet shaded gardens and the roads without traffic, where my
parents let me and my brother Christopher wander unsupervised.
buses with conductors wearing peaked caps would bear us past a favourite
toyshop to the Gosport ferry, from which we could view the still
substantial Navy in which my father had served.
Then we made
our way to the department store where my mother took me and Christopher,
neatly brushed and tamed, for tea, eclairs and cream horns served
by frilly waitresses.
nothing, however, peaceful about my relationship with Christopher.
Some brothers get on; some do not. We were the sort that just didn’t.
Who knows why?
At one stage
– I was about nine, he nearly 12 – my poor gentle father
actually persuaded us to sign a peace treaty in the hope of halting
our feud. I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame,
briefly hanging on the wall.
To my shame,
I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily
erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. In a way,
the treaty has remained broken ever since. Our rivalry was to last
50 years, and religion was one of its later causes.
My own, slow
return to faith began when I was 30, in 1981. By this time, I was
doing well in my chosen trade, journalism. I could afford pleasant
holidays with my girlfriend, whom I should nowadays call my ‘partner’
since we were not then married, on the European continent.
I no longer
avoided churches. I recognised in the great English cathedrals,
and in many small parish churches, the old unsettling messages.
One was the
inevitability of my own death, the other the undoubted fact that
my despised forebears were neither crude nor ignorant, but men and
women of great skill and engineering genius, a genius not contradicted
or blocked by faith, but enhanced by it.
No doubt I
should be ashamed to confess that fear played a part in my return
to religion, specifically a painting: Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th
Century Last Judgement, which I saw in Burgundy while on holiday.
I had scoffed
at its mention in the guidebook, but now I gaped, my mouth actually
hanging open, at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of Hell.
did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own
generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in
their own age by time-bound fashions.
On the contrary,
their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style
of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.
I had a sudden
strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned
under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed
themselves rapidly in my head.
I had absolutely
no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.
Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after
At around the
same time I rediscovered Christmas, which I had pretended to dislike
for many years. I slipped into a carol service on a winter evening,
diffident and anxious not to be seen.
I knew perfectly
well that I was enjoying it, although I was unwilling to admit it.
I also knew I was losing my faith in politics and my trust in ambition,
and was urgently in need of something else on which to build the
rest of my life.
I am not exactly
clear now how this led in a few months to my strong desire –
unexpected by me or by my friends, but encouraged by my then unbelieving
future wife – to be married in church.
But I can
certainly recall the way the words of the Church of England’s marriage
service, at St Bride’s in London, awakened thoughts in me that I
had long suppressed. I was entering into my inheritance, as a Christian
Englishman, as a man, and as a human being. It was the first properly
grown-up thing that I had ever done.
of great oaths concentrates the mind. So did the baptisms first
of my daughter and then of my wife who, raised as a Marxist atheist,
trod another rather different path to the same place.
around my trade that I was somehow mixed up in church matters. It
was embarrassing. I remember a distinguished foreign correspondent,
with a look of mingled pity and horror on his face, asking: ‘How
can you do that?’
I talked to
few people about it, and was diffident about mentioning it in anything
I wrote. I think it true to say that for many years I was more or
less ashamed of confessing to any religious faith at all, except
when I felt safe to do so.
It is a strange
and welcome side effect of the growing attack on Christianity in
British society that I have now overcome this.
is one thing. Fighting for a cause is another, and much easier to
acknowledge – for in recent times it has grown clear that the
Christian religion is threatened with a dangerous defeat by secular
forces which have never been so confident.