That Arduous Love Affair: Sir John Betjeman and the Gift of Faith

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     It was Christmas when my uncle introduced me to him. His poetry has echoed off the walls of my room since then, and his words have rushed in my defence when I have been in search for them myself. How, for instance, does one explain the phenomenon of faith? That some believe, and some do not? One of the best reflections on the topic that I know runs as follows:

 

Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,


Some start upon that arduous love affair


In clouds of doubt and argument;

and some seem not to want his love-


And why this is I wish to God I knew.

 

     It captures the different stances we may take in regards to faith. Some know Christ since they were born, other have to go through the, at times, very difficult internal struggle of pondering the big questions of life. Others refuse to accept belief in Our Redeemer, and we feel the only response we are left with is trust in that same God, and wonder at human stubbornness. In the collected ‘Church Poems,’ by the English poet Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), we meet a man deeply in love with Church architecture and, ultimately, with God. 

     Betjeman was born in London, educated at the Dragon School preparatory school, Marlborough College (a private school in Wiltshire), and finally at Magdalen College in Oxford, where he failed the compulsory exam in Divinity, resulting in him leaving without a degree. After his education he focused on his poetry, and eventually became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. As a child, he had always thought that he would end up a poet. He was a Victorian architecture aficionado, appeared on television several times with programmes on various topics, and married twice, one of his wives – Penelope – converted to Catholicism. The famous English writer Evelyn Waugh tried to convert him to Rome without success. 

     In an interview on the BBC programme Desert Island Discs, asked if religion led Betjeman to Churches, or if Churches led him to religion, he answered unflinchingly the latter, adding ‘always moved by eye and ear.’ This makes itself known in his collected Church poems, which guide us through the English Churches, accompanied by lovely illustrations by John Piper. In the preface Betjeman writes; ‘Without a Church I think a place lacks its heart and identity,’ a sentiment that can equally be applied to the individual, since without God one is lost as to who one truly is.   

     One poem I missed in this collection, although perhaps not mainly focused on Churches, is ‘In Westminster Abbey,’ written as a prayer by an English lady during the Second World War. It is rather more telling about human vanity, but nonetheless fits into the theme of Churches, as prayer – however short and whatever the content – is at the very least an acknowledgement of God. Prayer is a vital element in a persons life, for, says St Philip Neri, ‘A man without prayer is an animal without the use of reason.’ The lady who has come to pray in the Abbey, prays for others and that God may guide and protect them during these times of hardship, but seems more interested in her own matters, for example when she asks of God to:

 

     Put beneath Thy special care, One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square, which, one assumes, is where she lives.

 

     She ends the prayer feeling relieved after speaking to God, but cuts the conversation short:

 

And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait,

Because I have a luncheon date.

 

     The reader is struck by Betjeman’s love for the Church of England, the national Church, his Church, a love that seems to be shared by many of the High Church members of the ‘C of E’. The Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, thereby causing a wound not only in the national soul – the nation that once was ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’ – but also in Christendom. This wound has not yet been healed, and many long and pray for the day when the Churches are reconciled, and England once again joins the flock led by St Peter’s successor. In aesthetics, liturgy and to a certain extent theology, High Church Anglicans and Roman Catholics stand reasonably close to each other, leading one to believe that a continued membership in the national Church is based on putting country over dogma.

     In his personal history of the Church of England, Our Church, Professor Roger Scruton explains this sentiment with the following words: ‘…the English country church of my youth was a home – God’s house, the private space that is both here and elsewhere, a part of England, and an immortal projection of England in a realm beyond space and time.’ A contrasting view was offered by a Catholic seminarian, once addressing a group of avid listeners in London who claimed; ‘I am first a Roman, then I am an Englishman.’ 

In Septuagesima Betjeman writes:

 

Lines on the Church in which I live,

The Church of England of my birth,

The kindest Church to me on earth.

 

    In those lines the affection for the Church he associates with his soil shine through. Betjeman also offers us a few other lines on the theme of a national Church:

 

A Church of England sound, it tells

Of “moderate” worship, God and State,

Where matins congregations go

Conservative and good and slow

To elevations of the plate.

 

    The name of the poem in which these lines appear is ‘Church of England thoughts occasioned by hearing the bells of Magdalen Tower from the Botanic Garden, Oxford on St. Mary Magdalen’s Day.’ Bells played a significant role in Betjeman’s life, his autobiography being named ‘Summoned by Bells,’ and we are reminded of him being moved to faith through his eyes and his ears. He presents us with an account of his journey:

 

The steps to truth were made by sculptured stone,


Stained glass and vestments, holy water stoups,

Incense and crossings of myself-the things

That hearty middle stumpers most despise


As, all the inessentials of the Faith.

 

     The outer manifestations of faith might be called ‘inessentials’ by some, and one must never confuse outer signs and symbols for the personal relationship with Our Lord and Sovereign King, Jesus Christ, but they have a few clear advantages; they help us along our struggle this side of Heaven, and render the glory to God which is due to him alone. And when it comes to God, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, nothing we can offer is too beautiful or too majestic. They also remind us of who we are as Christians: For if the Christian’s Faith’s untrue / What is the point of me and you?

 

    If I had to choose one poem to emphasize from this collection of poems, it would be the ‘Diary of a Church Mouse.’ In the poem, Sir John writes:

 

But how annoying when one finds


That other mice with pagan minds


Come into church my food to share


Who have no proper business there.


Two field mice who have no desire


To be baptized, invade the choir.


A large and most unfriendly rat


Comes in to see what we are at.


He says he thinks there is no God


And yet he comes…it’s rather odd.


This year he stole a sheaf of wheat


(It screened our special preacher’s seat),


And prosperous mice from fields away


Come in to hear the organ play,


And under cover of its notes


Ate through the altar’s sheaf of oats.


A Low Church mouse, who thinks that I


Am too papistical, and High,


Yet somehow doesn’t think it wrong


To munch through Harvest Evensong,


While I, who starve the whole year through,


Must share my food with rodents who


Except at this time of the year


Not once inside the church appear.

 

     It is, like so much of Betjeman’s work, a satirical observation of the world we find ourselves in, and thus contains the humour with which we associate the English. It describes different approaches to Church life, with those who only show up once in a while, those who come for the music, and those who perhaps have other interests all together than God. But as we noted earlier, we trust that God will bring his children to Himself, and maybe the first few steps into an old country Church, are the first steps toward something much greater, namely a friendship with Christ Jesus.

     Even though he failed at Divinity, his legacy has left us with undeniably rich insights into the gift of faith, and his lack of focus at school has been redeemed by what he penned down for posterity. Anyone who suffers from a case of Betjemania will attest to this.

Karl Gustel Warnberg 

 

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