Thursday, 21 June 2012

The inspiring Bruce Findlow

Blog by Graham Williams from an address by him at New Meeting House
 We in the British Unitarian movement have a rich heritage to call upon when we think of some of the notable people who have espoused our beliefs. We need only to think of some of the great scientists who rejected the accepted doctrine of the day and found their way to Unitarianism: Joseph Priestley, Isaac Newton, Alexander Bell, and others, as well as great literary figures like Coleridge, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and many others like Beatrix Potter, George Eliot who, if not full Unitarians, had Unitarian leanings. That's not to ignore figures like Josiah Wedgewood, Florence Nightingale and great thinkers like James Martineau- the list is endless.

 At the same time we should not disregard some of the more modern protagonists of Unitarianism. Look at the green hymn book (Hymns for Living) and study the words of such people as Frank Clabburn, Sydney Knight, John Andrew Storey, Cliff Reed, amongst others, and you begin to realise that not only do we have a rich heritage but this heritage is still alive and kicking.

 This morning, however, my thoughts turn towards someone who became a naturalized Englishman but who was born in Australia- Bruce Findlow. I have been very lucky to have made contact with someone who studied under Bruce Findlow at Manchester College, Oxford, some years ago and he has given me a very frank and honest appraisal of a man with whom he got on well and for whom he had the greatest respect. Bruce Findlow would appear to have been someone who didn't suffer fools gladly and could, it seems, be a bit of an autocrat, upsetting some people by the force of his convictions. He set very high standards for himself and expected others to do the same. Not a perfect man, then, but who is? As Thomas Mann, the great German writer of the twentieth century, once wrote: 'Beautiful and uplifting works do not have to have beautiful and uplifting origins'. This was, however, a man of great faith  (and here I quote directly from my contact) ' a faith that was underpinned by religious experience of an ineffable kind'.

 Bruce Findlow was born in Victoria, Australia in 1922. He was raised in strict Methodist fashion, his father being church organist and lay preacher. In 1939, at the onset of war, he volunteered for the Royal Australian Army. By chance, whilst on active service, he came across a newsletter of the Melbourne Unitarian Church,  which had been sent to a fellow Australian soldier. He read it diligently and knew then he had found his true spiritual home. He returned home for a while to follow an intensive course in Japanese before experiencing soldier life in Palestine, Syria, the Western Desert, ending up commanding a small district of occupied Japan until 1949 when he was demobbed.

 On returning to Australia Findlow became very active in the Melbourne Unitarian Church and eventually felt drawn to the Unitarian ministry. He was to start his studies at Oxford, England, in 1954, but before that Findlow spent a year with the legendary Unitarian minister and missionary, Margaret Barr in the Khasi Hills of India. Here he helped to establish good education and solid community work in the most difficult of circumstances. He felt, however, that if he continued to work in India it would be simply an escape from the stressful Western urban life where he really belonged. He had married in the meantime and left his wife, Mary, in India to  work there for another year, whilst he commenced his studies. Later she rejoined him in England, and when he qualified for the ministry in 1956 he was appointed to the pastorate of- wait for it!- Dudley Unitarian Church. Here he stayed for two years before he moved on to St Mark's, Edinburgh, where he remained until 1974 when he was appointed Principal of Manchester College, Oxford..

Here he devoted himself to the training of men and women for the ministry and this is where he made such a huge impression on my contact, as he must have done on many other students.. He retired from this post in 1985 and then devoted himself for a time supporting other ministers  and churches in the north of England. He died in 1994 and  his funeral took place on 12th April of that year. On that occasion  the address was given by  Gerald Munro, and it is from that address that I have taken much of this information on his life.

 So much for his life, but what about his attitudes and beliefs? Well, he was in many ways a typical Unitarian, believing in the oneness of God, the sanctity of all religions, the importance of faith in action. When he was in Edinburgh he became an early member of Amnesty International, helping to establish it in Scotland, and later on came to embrace  an ecological view of life. Universalist in outlook, Findlow rejected for himself the labels of Christian or Humanist. Though he maintained a strong belief in a divine reality, which he sometimes refused to name as God, he was quite content to describe himself as a theist. God to him was the embodiment of those three absolute values: Truth, Beauty and Goodness, and he constantly referred to these in his sermons from Edinburgh, many of which have been published.

 Let's see, then, what beliefs emerge from his hymns in our green book, Hymns for Living, a perfect title, I believe, for the message he brings.

 The first hymn we sang, one that is very well known, The Tides of the Spirit' sets the tone. We come before God with uncertainty: 'unsure of ourselves, unsure what to say'. All we can do is to be receptive to the tides of the spirit and go with the flow, as we say. To do the best we can in life and become, as he says 'clear channels of love'. This theme of making the most of life, being thankful for it and working for the common good is repeated in Hymn 15 'For All that is Our Life'. Life may change, says Findlow, but we must have confidence in that 'endless unseen power which makes unceasing changes sure and safe'. Once again in Hymn 31 'The Flow of Life',  he talks of the ebb and flow of life (a re-occurring image) to which we must adapt. It's always this life that concerns him, and the meaningful way we should try to live it. If the world gets hectic then it's up to us to find 'that inner peace and inward living', as he puts it (Hymn 51) This we may well find in helping others. As he says in Hymn 51;

'Care for weakness, ours and others'

May restore us to the way,

Teaching us to live as neighbours,

Using well each numbered day'.

In the final hymn of Findlow's in the green book, Hymn 213,he tells us to care for our cities, to be concerned for the environment , to choose leaders who embrace honesty in their dealings with their fellow men, to claim a world where ' all can live in love'. This strong message resonates in that hymn we shall sing finally: Hymn 185, perhaps the hymn with the most powerful message. He talks here of the threat of world pollution, of world poverty, of the homeless and outcasts of society, just as Jesus did, and,  of the evil influence of wealth and riches. These, he believes, can be countered by this wonderful power of love if only we will give ourselves over to it. What a marvellous Unitarian message, and that's only from a few hymns!

 Bruce Findlow was clearly a man of great wisdom, and wisdom was something he valued very greatly. Wisdom is quite different from knowledge; it is knowing how to use that knowledge, and it is based on experience and understanding and implies fine judgement. Findlow talks in  'Learning from Living' about the difficulty in acquiring wisdom. He says one impediment 'may be the emphasis laid in our western society on the accumulation of knowledge'. He says: 'We seem to rate the possession of knowledge higher than the understanding of it....... we admire a well-stocked mind more than the acute thinker.' This is brought home to me every time I see a quiz programme on TV. I wonder at the knowledge of some of the contestants (perhaps I am a little jealous!), but at the same time I recognise that their brand of intelligence is far inferior to wisdom, that operates at a much deeper level.

 If I think back to my own time as a teacher, I reckon I did a fair job at the time, but I also know that, if I had the energy to be teaching these days, I would make a far better job of it, because over the years I have gained a greater understanding of children, became more tolerant, less demanding, more encouraging- in essence have become a little wiser. If we think back to Khalil Gibran's reading from 'The Prophet' about teaching,  he says that the teacher does not 'take you into the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the door of your own mind'. As Findlow says: 'The knowledge most worth having is that which is our own, or which we can make our own; and, clearly, it is not just the activity of a reasoning mind, but rather an enterprise for the whole person, involving attitudes, patterns of behaviour as well as qualities of mind and heart, thoughts and feelings.'

 Obviously in the early stages of learning children have to be directed, given information which they can process, then, with encouragement, led along the right paths , but as they get older room must be made for them to make their own judgements, based, of course, on reasoned argument. I hope you will forgive me if, at this stage, I recount a personal teaching experience, which illustrates what I am trying to say: 

 I always remember probably the most able lad I taught in the sixth form. You might know his name as he has written several successful English novels, though he was first and foremost a German scholar. Well, fond of him though I was, he used to drive me to distraction: he was often late for lessons because he had been involved in some political argument with another student, frequently brought the wrong books to lessons because he was unaware of our time-table and what we would be doing in class that day, never took down the vocabulary I urged him too, but insisted on doing his own thing. I thought, as clever as he was, he could possibly make a mess of his A-Levels because he didn't follow my advice. Far from it! He got the top grade in his German A-Level and won an exhibition to Oxford. I know now that, if I were teaching him today, I would treat him quite differently- I have, in fact, become just a little wiser.

 I wouldn't pretend for one moment I have attained perfection (some chance of that!), but I certainly recognise wisdom in others whenever I meet it these days One such person, who radiates wisdom, and goodness, is a retired priest from our local Anglican church who now lives in Oxfordshire. Bill Pryce is his name, and what a man! I have corresponded with Bill these last few years and have found our correspondence a source of enlightenment and stimulation. Bill, of course, is a Trinitarian, coming from the Anglican Church, but it bothers him not one iota that I don't subscribe to his own views. He regularly talks of us  being on a spiritual journey together, both of us striving for the same goal. He never preaches at me, but is full of humility (the real hallmark of the man!) and rarely mentions his great achievement in life, which was setting up an orphanage in Nepal and, more recently, establishing a small clinic to go with it. He does not think of himself as an educated man, coming to the priesthood in later life, yet he writes the most amazing prose which contains the most wonderful messages. His letters usually end with a reading from some book or other, a quotation or a muted statement of his beliefs. In one letter he wrote:

'My faith struggles continue, and yet, by the grace of God I press on. The mysteries of birth, life and death, of the universe, and of all things become deeper as life continues.'

He then followed this with a passage from a book by Thomas Merton, a Roman Catholic mystic, who died in 1968. It goes like this:

'My Lord God I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not actually mean I am doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope I will not do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore, I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my peril alone.'

 Words of wisdom from both Thomas Merton and the Reverend Bill Pryce. Such a man too was Bruce Findlow. We should treasure his memory, honour his name and follow his teachings. If we do, I don't think we shall go far wrong in this world which he so clearly loved and respected. 


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