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A Heart in My Head: A Biography of Richard Harries – JOHN S. PEART-BINNS

September 21, 2016

ahimhRarely do I listen to thought for the Day but I make an exception when it’s Richard Harries.  His contributions on the media generally show understanding on a wide variety of issues and as generosity towards his opponents. So I don’t understand why the author suggests he is less gifted than many of his contemporaries. He’s certainly cautious, but that’s no bad thing.

After a rather bleak childhood, Harries was heading for a career in the army when he realised he had a vocation to the ordained ministry of the Church of England.  He emerged as a forthright liberal thinker whose heart beats firmly on the left. Yet he has conservative instincts and is theologically orthodox.

From his ‘golden years’ as a parish priest and ever expanding horizons as Dean of Kings College London and through his nineteen years as Bishop of Oxford, Harries developed a distinctive style of leadership.  ‘Being a bishop’ though was not a complete life, and he gave his energy to issues such as nuclear disarmament, peace, justice, art, business morality, stem cell research, and interfaith dialogue.  He wasn’t averse to controversy: he took the Church Commissioners to the High Court, and appointed an openly-gay priest to the bishopric of Reading.  Appointed a life peer on his retirement, Harries continues to pursue compelling contemporary issues on the cross-benches

Since his retirement, the bench of bishops has become bland and narrow.

He appointed people and then let them get on with the job without undue interference.

His contribution towards Jewish-Christian dialogues was invaluable. The chapter on church investments was as torturous as was the episode in real life.


Julian, Woman of our Day by Robert Llewelyn, he underlines her central theme: `First, everything that happens, even sin, is known and allowed by God; sin is of course not directly willed by God but nothing that happens, happens outside the knowledge and tolerance of God. Secondly, our sin does not prevent God’s good­ness from working and bringing from it some compensating good. Julian writes, “Were I to do nothing but sin my sin would still not prevent his goodness from working.”

`Dialogue with a Difference’ was a precise description of the Manor House devo­tees. We are not here concerned with details of the dialogue, but only with its effect. Harries spotted a fascinating difference between the Jewish and Christian approach to discussion. Christians listen politely, never interrupt each other and tear each other to shreds afterwards. Jews interrupt endlessly, and never get as far as tearing each other to shreds as the speaker never gets to the end anyway. Unlike Christians, Jews argue with God. Harries was seen by some Jewish members as pas­sionate about what moved him, not what should move them. That was characteris­tic, believing that the best dialogue comes from understanding what moves the other, not by trying to force it on the other. Harries has the ability of being both an observable and discreet presence, always alert, never imposing himself on a group of which he is an equal among equals. He knows how to listen without intent. In so many Church groups one realizes that everyone is talking for their own interest, not listening — or only with impatience — waiting for their turn to report to their own advantage the things that are of concern to them, or the things that have happened to them. It was an important constituent in his expanding chairmanships.

John Habgood, had a different and interesting perception in opposing the change: Should we never discriminate? Before the word was given a bad flavour, the ability to discriminate between things which are different was regarded as one of the marks of an educated mind. It is not hard to think of circumstances in which discrimination is essential.

In writing this chapter, words of Dorothy L. Sayers on Ira or Wrath hovered in the atmosphere:  The average English mind is a fertile field in which to sow the dragon’s teeth of moral indignation; and the fight that follows will be blind, brutal, and mer­ciless. That is not to say that scandals should not be exposed, or that no anger is justified. But you may know the mischief-maker by the warped malignancy of his language as by the warped malignancy of his face and voice. His fury is without restraint and without magnanimity — and is aimed, not at checking the offence, but at starting a pogrom against the offender. He would rather the evil were not cured at all than that it were cured quietly and without violence. His evil lust of wrath cannot be sated unless somebody is hounded down, beaten, and trampled on, and a savage war-dance executed upon the body. (The Other Six Deadly Sins, 1943)

After the 1917 Revolution in Russia, people used to consult Lenin about life in a socialist society. One peasant tramped hundreds of miles to ask: `Comrade Lenin, is it permissible in the new society for a man to keep a mistress?’ Comrade,’ replied Lenin, ‘it is not only permissible, it is obligatory, for then a man can tell his mistress that he has to be with his wife and can say to his wife that he is with his mistress. Meanwhile he can be getting down to some solid work in the library.’

Romantic love is wonderful but it can set up some dangerous illusions. Some­times people feel if only they can meet the right person and there is a mutual falling in love, all their previous frustrations and discontents will fall away. Everything is staked on this one relationship. But it is God alone who is meant to be the most important factor in our life, as the ground of our being and the goal of all our longing. Unless we have this as our first priority then everything else becomes out of balance. If we invest everything in one human relationship as the most important thing in our life, then we are asking of it more than it can bear. Then we have to face the fact that none of us is perfect. As the poet W. H. Auden put it: ‘We have to love our crooked neighbour with our crooked heart.’ This means we have to love our less than perfect hus­band/wife with our own less than perfect heart. Christians believe that God is love and that, in Christ, this love is available to help us grow in love. Most marriages have minor difficulties: some go through periods of crisis which have to be worked through by the couple themselves. But the grace of God is present and available to help us grow in love towards God, our spouse and other people.

On faithfulness, Harries reaches for an apposite quotation to express his feelings. In the highly popular novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Dr Iannis gives his daughter Pelagia this advice:

And another thing. Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make akei it  work out whether your roots are so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being ‘in love’, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in loved  burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, and grew towards each other underground,  and hen all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we  were one tree and not two.

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