notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Tough Minds in a Time of Violence
Thanksgiving Service for Christopher Gray, murdered priest
Liverpool Cathedral, 30th September 1996
My friend Martin, who covers church affairs for a national newspaper, said that he'd never seen so many vicars together in one place before. The procession of clergy from the Nave Bridge of Liverpool Cathedral to seats before the altar, took a full five minutes to complete. And that at brisk walking pace.
They were all there too: every shape and shade of cleric imaginable: high and hooded, low and ill-at-ease in robes; the great and good and the not so good; bumbling old deans and fresh-faced ordinands. All here - like the rest of the shuffling congregation, because touched in some way by the life and untimely death of a man who seemed to combine the best of all these in his nature: great and good, young and zealous.
Who was Chris Gray, really? To me he was a name in the news: a tragic figure whose story had not yet been told in full: what really happened to him the night he died, and why, still puzzled me. But I hadn't really been touched by the man's loss until a second procession walked through the cathedral, no less motley than the first, but profounder by far: a collection of Chris's ex-parishioners, schoolchildren, members of L'Arche, each carrying artefacts of the man, memorial items, to place at the altar for all to see and reflect on. Here were lives, real lives, who had been blessed by a priest who'd offered himself to them - here, offering little token remembrances in return.
I thought that I'd made my offering by simply being there. It seemed important to show some solidarity with the people who'd be most affected by Chris's death locally: his parishioners and colleagues, the other priests of his deanery. In the previous weeks they had had to suffer both the horror of his loss, and the dullard reporting of the media, which once again portrayed the inner city as a place of constant danger, sweepingly demonising all those who live there. They know, Chris knew, I know now, that the inner city is an extreme place, a place where the violence of those who plan it badly and fail to maintain it, the violence of those who lack the political will to bring employment to its people, helps to create a culture of violence which takes over the lives of some of the strugglers here. But they know, Chris knew, I know too, that the inner city is also a place of vitality, of strong love and deep hope, a place of neighbourliness and cooperation. Which was maybe one reason why I couldn't accept the 'modern day martyr' stories about Chris Gray. He was just a man like me, doing a job he loved among a people who loved and admired him.
And maybe, I thought, as I heard testimonies from Chris's friends, colleagues and academic masters, his character had contributed to his downfall in a way that mine wouldn't. All spoke of his searching nature, his restless inquiring mind. Chris Gray was a man who thrived on argument: did it to hone his own mind and to move those he argued with onto deeper, sharper levels of understanding too. He argued by instinct from the best possible motives; but it seems that the row he had on the vicarage steps that night was one argument too far. You do have to be careful in the city: not in a lock-yourself-behind-a-welter-of-security- systems sort of way, but by being aware of situations as they arise, the moods of people, and when necessary, by using methods of self-defence which may involve backing down, conceding points, compromising, or simply running like hell. I got the impression from the cathedral testimonies that Chris may not have been capable of this. As I sat in the cathedral in front of a L'Arche member rocking, whistling and barking his way through the service, I wished to God that he had been.
But I learned, via these testimonies, from Chris Gray too. A man I'd never known, he left me with a challenge to consider. In our culture of violence I'm increasingly convinced that the only worthwhile way to effect change is through radical nonviolence: because of this recently I've been reflecting on how to teach peace to children, learning conflict resolution skills and exploring the practice of mediation in disputes. Christ both modelled the nonviolent life, and taught it. Chrs Gray's favourite bible passage, we were told, was the beatitudes: "Blessed be the peacemakers..." That's a prime motivation for me today too. What I've begun to learn from experienced peacemakers like the Mennonites and Quakers is that radical nonviolence requires great strength: particularly mental strength. Clarity of thought and perseverence are key characteristics of a successful campaigner or mediator.
Martin Luther King, one of this century's greatest Christan nonviolent champions, wrote of the need for peacemakers to be both tough minded and tender hearted. In his sacrificial choice of vocation Chris Gray demonstrated his tenderheartedness transparently - this formed the basis of most of the media biographies which made him a latter day hero.
But it was the former aspect of King's formula - Chris's academic rigour in all aspects and areas of life - which most spoke to me through his friends' testimonies at his thanksgiving service. As I listened To these, I was struck by the commitment he displayed to tough mindedness - Chris Gray was above all an incisive thinker, a relentless pursuer of the truth. A deep academic, master of languages, a music lover, poetry reader, theologian. A loving reader of people themselves. Any committed peacemaker must be these things too: using them as Chris did to sharpen his mind and deepen his resolve to serve a Christ who was the first to demonstrate these values.
Chris, Christ: they achieved their toughmindedness through discipline - a deep and regular practice. This was the ultimate impression I took with me down those red stone steps and back into the city after this strange and wonderful hour: to line up with the great and good, to be radically nonviolent in a culture of violence, I need this discipline too.
Revd Christopher Gray was murdered on his vicarage doorstep in 1996. Obituary from The Independent here