Skip to content

Stepney Calling – Jim Thompson

November 1, 2015

SC‘Big Jim’ Thompson was a popular bishop and did very good Radio 4 Thought for the Day slots and this book is a collection of some of them. He always thought that his vocation was more to do with non-church people than the religious which is why, maybe, his radio offerings were so effective. He read theology during those heady days of books like John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’. He was always able to change his polished scripts at the last minute, in response to some breaking news. Conservatives loathed him because his support for issues like inter faith dialogue and gay rights. It is rumoured that Thatcher turned him down for Bishop of Birmingham because he was too left-wing. (So she appointed Mark Santer instead – who just so happened to be a member of CND!)

His aim was – perhaps idealistically – to apply the values of the Kingdom of God to everyday life and issues. That caused him to stray into the political arena, whether he intended to or not; something for which he never apologized. His clergy – whether or not they agreed with him on particular issues – tended to regard him as a good man, a warm-hearted pastor and an engaging personality.

He died really young, in 2003, at age 67. Obituaries praised his deep humanity and lively sense of humour. One obituary referred to his gift of “conveying the warmth of his physical presence in his voice and in his words”, adding that “his reflection on the events of 11 September 2001 was nominated for a Sony Broadcast Award, uniquely for religious broadcasting.” He used his seat in the House of Lords to express his concerns for equality and education. The Telegraph described him as “the Church of England’s best known commentator on social and political matters as well as a prominent advocate of religious and racial tolerance.” Thompson wrote that “a bishop who doesn’t give offence to anyone is probably not a good bishop.”


There’s a clever advert on the television which shows three different pictures of the same event. The first shows a tough skinhead charging up a street, the second shows him apparently attacking an old man to steal his briefcase, the third shows the whole picture—the skinhead is trying to save the man from falling masonry.

Some lay people say they want to look up to their clergy as being purer and better than they are. This can be like delegating responsibility for our own goodness, but often it is a yearning for holy leaders. The Bible, however, shows that God does not always call those with a perfect record to lead his people. Abraham lied, Moses killed a man, and the apostles were not ideal candidates for ordination—Simon the Zealot was perhaps a terrorist, James and John were greedy with ambition, and Peter, the rock on which the indestructible church was to be built, betrayed the Lord himself. St Paul was stopped in his tracks as he persecuted the Christians and stood by approving when Stephen was stoned to death.

Some of the cruellest words in our language are built on these external judgements—’queer’, ‘screw’, ‘Paki’, ‘yobbo’, ‘the filth’, ‘do-gooder’. Sometimes the stereotypes have been con­firmed by sad experience, by a mugging, a wrongful arrest or hurt caused by well-meaning people. But if we hide behind the stereotypes, we evade treating the person as he or she is. Indeed, crimes can be committed against a ‘type’: Asian people assaulted, innocent people stopped and searched, homosexuals made to resign, good policemen treated as enemies, soldiers become explodable, political opponents become monsters, right-wingers ‘fascists’, left-wingers ‘commies’.

Jesus seemed to have a special genius for getting behind the stereotype to the person—the hated tax-collector, the thief on the cross next to him, a despised Samaritan, a centurion soldier of the occupying forces, the prostitute, a screaming maniac—they all became individuals to Jesus.

how strange religion is. It has the power to lead people to great holiness of life. It can bring irreconcilable people together. It can give a sense of brotherhood which crosses all national and racial boundaries. It can unveil the deepest truths—yet, with a twist, an added ingredient of human wickedness, its virtues can become vices. The search for truth can become bigotry; the pursuit of goodness becomes self-righteousness.

This twisted religion can rapidly become a most fertile ground for evil movements. We have to remember that the words ‘persecution’, ‘inquisition’, ‘witch-hunts’, ‘sectarian war’, all have the flavour of religion. Yet the love of God is one of the most transforming energies we can experience and the fact that perverted religion exists doesn’t mean that we should give religion up altogether—that would be like saying that we mustn’t enjoy films because pornography exists. Rather we should be duly warned about the dangers. These are lessons to be learned by Jew and Christian, by Muslim and Hindu—fanaticism has not been the prerogative of any one religion.

Anger—a technique for self-preservation
Anger as a technique of self-preservation is learnt in childhood—by the screaming infant who wants more milk, or the small child’s bawling battle for survival against brothers and sisters. Then there’s our adolescent anger to establish identity over against parents and defend loyalties to friends. By the time we are adults, our anger is ready to erupt whenever we are seriously threatened as an individual or as a family. Anyone who attacks them, attacks me.

For some people, this anger is learnt far too well—children who have never known the security of home, have had their trust betrayed over and over again or have been damaged by the education system and their environment, often develop anger, almost as a way of life, as a desperate attempt to hold on to their identity.

It’s also true that in our big cities the hectic aggression of the life around us produces stress, and it can make life feel like a fight for survival. There seems to be much less anger in rural communities. Forty-eight homes in a solid block will nearly always produce more anger than homes spread through a country village with space to unwind and somewhere nearby where we can escape from the pressure and from people. It’s one of the human miracles that there’s still so much fun and good humour in our cities.
So what do we do with this self-righteous anger? In part, it’s a necessity. It may be the only way to defend ourselves. And if we try to suppress it, it often squeezes out as sly nastiness or explodes with even greater force. We don’t find it easy to cope with, yet at the same time, when we, or those whom we love, are threatened or hurt we need to express it. The child or adult who gets totally beaten down by other people may end up as a doormat or disturbed. Or when someone we love dies in a cruel way, it’s important that any anger against God or life has to be released before healing can begin.

But how much of our anger is about essential self-preservation? Often it’s just self-indulgence—because someone has criticized us, or because a remark hits the target of our guilt. On reflection, much that seems to threaten us is not very significant, and we feel better in the morning. So how far should our self-preservation anger be allowed to go?

The picture we have of Jesus is significant. When his life was threatened he did not retaliate—quietly taking the injustice— but then he didn’t have a wife and children to defend and, perhaps more important, his own identity and security in God were so great that, as he said, even the people putting him to death could not threaten him.

It’s only when our identity is secure and our faith in God is strong that the commandment to love our enemies and to pray for those who spitefully use us seems even remotely possible, because our self becomes more secure and less in need of anger to defend it. We can begin to practise it in small ways and perhaps, bit by bit, begin to quieten the city’s volcano.

return to the home page


From → Preaching

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: