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Lionel Blue

West London Synagogue Monday 8th May 2017

Lionel has made a lasting daily difference to my life in one very practical detail. When I retired as Bishop of Oxford in 2006 and returned to London my wife and I went to have supper with him and Jim in their North London house. On my mind was one of those major existential questions-no, it wasn’t what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It was whether or not I should continue to wear a clerical collar as I went about my business. Whether I should sink with relief into blessed anonymity or whether I should continue to face the slings and arrows of those outrageous projections which people foist upon the clergy. Lionel was quite clear and absolutely adamant. Continue to wear it. And so I have.

I first got to know Lionel in the early seventies when I was Vicar of All Saint’s, Fulham. One Advent, shortly before Christmas, I invited him to do a dialogue with me, which I was having instead of sermons for that period. As he entered the church he shared with me that every Christmas he so loved the season that he teetered on the edge of becoming a Christian. He did not of course but, as is well known, the Christian faith had a profound effect on him. He wrote two books Hitchhiking to Heaven and A Backdoor to Heaven each of which were subtitled “An Autobiography” and although Lionel is never less than revealing I was I think another book My affair with Christianity where he is at his most open and vulnerable. The affair began, he says, when he was in a very bad way in Oxford and just happened to stumble into a Quaker meeting house. In the middle of the silence which Quakers have at their gatherings he let out a great prayer for help. It turned his life upside down. He was never quite sure who he had met him there, Jesus, his own alter ego, or what. But he claimed to carry that inner friend with him ever after even into a sauna for middle aged gays in Amsterdam. Of course he eventually returned to the Judaism of his roots and became a rabbi but as he put it “My Judaism is not the same since that experience” and as he wrote at the end of the book:

“After all the tides of feeling I have described, this is what remains for me. I come back to it again. There is a power of redemption at work in me, in you, and in the world outside which makes the crooked straight. For many reasons I began to experience that power as personal, dwelling in me and others. It redeemed me from bitterness and anger.” [1]

In the 1970s “Prayer for the Day” was not a self-enclosed religious slot before the Today programme as it is has been in recent years but part of the Today programme itself at 6.40, the only difference to “Thought for the Day” being that it had to end with literally a one line prayer. It was a wonderful slot to have. You were allowed nearly five minutes, you could use a lot of literature and poetry and the audience at that time of the morning was very receptive. For years Lionel did Mondays and I did Fridays until first he and then I switched to the later “Thought”. Those of us who do these slots have had to get used to conversations that go something like his. “Nice to meet you, I hear you sometimes on Thought for the Day, Oh I do like Lionel Blue.” I don’t think any of us have ever felt the slightest bit resentful about this, for we too love Lionel, knowing he had something unique and very special to offer which we couldn’t possibly try to match.

There is only one small way in which he has spoilt my pitch. He had a unique way of saying “Good morning John, good morning Sarah, good morning everybody.” It is a wonderful way to start a broadcast, which I would love to use but I can’t possibly do so because if I did it would inevitably come across as a rather poor imitation of Lionel. So I have to content myself with a rather impersonal “Good morning.”

There are two aspects of Lionel for which in particular I want to give thanks and from which I know I need to learn. First, his constant striving to be honest, first with himself and then with others. That honesty allowed him to be open about his most intimate thoughts and experiences and therefore utterly vulnerable. But it was this of course which broke down barriers and enabled other frail, fallible and frightened human beings to face themselves in all our fragility and fallibility.

Lionel on holiday, on one of those charabanc tours he said he loved, must have had a penchant for buying goods for tourists, perhaps just to encourage the stallholders. Anyway twice when he came to our house he brought glitzy, gilt mirrors as a present. They are now in my study. What are they saying to me? Dear Richard, look more deeply and honestly at yourself?

The second gift of Lionel from which I feel I have so much to learn is his ability to enjoy the most apparently ordinary people in their ordinary lives. It is so easy to divide people; to think some people don’t really count, while others do; to think that one person matters and someone else doesn’t. Lionel had a special gift for respecting and cherishing the most unlikely people in the most unlikely situations. That is why he found it easier to pray in places like Euston Station. As he wrote, “there I am moved by the arrivals and departures, the businessmen, the beggars, ladies anxious about their luggage and students looking like Rumpelstiltskin under their backpacks. As seen through the eyes of God, they seem so holy.”[2]

I was amazed when he told me even then in his eighties, about his Sunday evenings. His agent would book  a large theatre in Bournemouth or Brighton or somewhere on a Sunday evening, fill it with those who wanted to hear him and talk, with one short interval for two hours distilling wisdom and humour in equal measure. Long retired from any synagogue duty he really did think of these people as his congregation, as he called them. So as the Reformed Prayer Book puts it:

Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the universe, You have given a share of Your wisdom to those in awe of You.

  • The Rt. Revd. Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth

[1] Lionel Blue, My Affair with Christianity, Hodder and Stoughton, 1998, pp152 and 154

[2] P.150