A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
As you may already have read on our home page, Gloucestershire Humanists have a long history. In contrast, I am a relative newcomer.
Our group has been around in various forms since 1965 and we’ve had a number of name changes in that time. We changed from Cotswolds Humanists to Gloucestershire Humanists (GlosHums) in November 2014.
As a group we do not share the same opinions nor is our stance on any issue proscribed from ‘on high’ but we do share a common methodology as we seek to enhance the quality of our lives through human reason and through use of the scientific method. As humanists, we want to live life to the full now and we strive to do good to others without God.
When I joined Gloucestershire Humanists I found the group to be open, friendly and welcoming. Please think seriously about the strength and support that you may be able to find from our group should you decide to join us. We would be strengthened by your contribution too.
Humanists are people who get involved and make a difference but we also find strength in our solidarity with each other. Our members vary in age and they come from a wide range of backgrounds and professional experience. Together we are involved with all sorts of voluntary work and members quietly involve themselves with the county’s cultural scene. Personally, I have an interest in architectural conservation, local history, LGBT issues, and much more.
My path to humanism has not been straightforward and I have spent twenty years of my life as a Roman Catholic priest. Should you find it helpful to read more of my own story then do read the article I wrote for the New Humanist magazine.
My home is in Cheltenham, a town that I fell in love with when I was a teenager from Nailsworth, and today, I still have a huge appreciation for this county and its community which embraces the Cotswolds, the Forest and the Vale. My own family is rooted in this area and its landscapes have been an inspiration throughout my life. I hope that future generations will be able to enjoy it as much I have done and it is my dream that it may become even more beautiful and an even better place for us to live out happy lives.
Richard Barton, Chair of Gloucestershire Humanists. May 2017
For more information about Gloucestershire Humanists:
So, what moulds me, what forms me? My genes? My family? My environment? My physique? School? Friends? Living through war or peace?
Religion can play its part too and in pondering the question, ‘What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Believing in God’, Caroline Beaton has included these remarks from researchers in her article:
“Eventually, non-religious people, who once had religious epiphanies, get those same feelings from being in nature, or from seeing profound scientific ideas expressed. The context changes but the experience doesn’t.” Most non-religious people are “passionately committed to some ideology or other, these passions function neurologically as ‘faux religions’.”
So before we start, I am owning up to having had religious epiphanies but whether Humanism is now my ‘faux religion’, is for you to decide!
As many of you may know I am a local lad, brought up in Nailsworth and educated at Marling School, Stroud, at the feet of our recent Chair, John Ricketts. Marling was, and still is, a grammar school for boys with Victorian beginnings and a deep sense of tradition. The old school song sort of says it all:
‘The song that we sing is the song of our school
We will sing it with might and with main
For it tells of the School of whose name we are proud
We will sing it again and again.
There is no other school in the land of our birth
There is no other school on the face of the earth
That to us will be ever of quite the same worth
As the good old Marling School.’
My own Marling years began in 1969, and why I mention this period of my life is because many of the staff were people of faith. They were enthusiastic members of churches dotted around the Stroud Valleys – Methodists, Baptists, Catholics and Anglicans. An Anglican religious, sporting his grey habit, was Head of the Lower School on my arrival and he was Head of the Sixth Form on my departure. Strangely, Michael Ball and John Ricketts are the two teachers that I am still in contact with today and both taught me Biology. Besides Brother Michael we also had a school chaplain who taught us Divinity. Interestingly, the Headmaster, together with at least two other teachers, went on to become Anglican clergy.
Teachers are influential figures in our formative years, we often respect them, and, I am sure, because so many of these teachers were Christian it made an impact on my life. John, in many ways, represented the other. He didn’t sport any badges then but we all knew that he was a humanist and he somehow represented a different view.
At Marling my religious involvement was significant I set up the Lower School Christian Union, pressured a fourth year into chairing a new Middle School Christian Union with me, a third year, as Secretary. Many friends were Christian and whilst ‘loving Jesus’ wasn’t exactly cool at school, Church involvement through family was common.
The religious seed was sown before Marling and I arrived at the school gates wanting to be a Vicar. My parents were not religious but I had been drawn along to the Anglican Church in Nailsworth by friends at the age of eight and gradually became very involved – Sunday School, Choir, Confirmation, altar serving, the Young Communicants’ Youth Group, Prayer Group and more. My interests spread beyond St George’s to the other local churches and by twelve or thirteen I was taking tea with the nuns at Woodchester Convent. This drove my parents mad. Through Church, though, I met so many people, especially those who were influential in the town, the leaders of the community, the movers and shakers – those involved in local politics, our doctors, professional people tended to be involved with the local churches. When I had doubts about God then I would muse on the thoughts that surely these people are right, they must have considered these issues.
It is difficult to describe the powerful draw of religion. Surprisingly, it was not for me so much about God or the Scriptures or Prayer, or a desperate search for an after-life or because I felt sinful. I have never bought in to creationism or seen Jesus or some Guardian Angel as my little friend. Similarly, morality has not been about quoting from the scriptures but it has been more about an attitude to life, trying to mould a fundamental option and that has not really changed with becoming a humanist. True I didn’t like sport, I did get bullied a bit and so church became my world of escape and, along with researching local history, it grew to be all absorbing.
What I found so alluring was the architecture, the history, the stories, the drama of the liturgy, the music, its cultural sophistication. As I have tried to demonstrate already, it was here that I made friends, even adult friends, and I became part of a warm community. I loved church, not God particularly, but the whole structure of it and, as I grew older, that churchy world grew to embrace the Cathedral in Gloucester and much more. I had good role models, like many of the teachers that I spoke of earlier, warm charitable people who seemed to be wise and rounded and I wanted to be like them.
Back in the 1970’s every village seemed to have an intelligent, professional parson, often Oxbridge trained, and they were men largely respected in their communities. A world unfolded of book lined studies, Victorian vicarages, ice cream jackets, fetes and croquet on the lawn. My own father was not like that, it was not his world, but, like a moth, I was drawn to this light.
I am not going to take this part of my story much further. Suffice to say my brief flirtation with Humanism in the Lower Sixth was a bid to escape the world that I had created for myself and the person that I had become but my attraction to religion was too strong. I yearned to be back and back I went and for the next forty years I was caught in its warm embrace.
Certainly, I was moulded by this Church involvement. My personal morality was formed by the Church of England and I think I saw the best of it at a good time. But things were so different back in the 1970’s. In my teenage years I yearned for a new and gentler world, after the horrors of my parents’ Second World War and with the spectre of the Nuclear threat ever present, the churches seemed willing to embrace the modern age and to stand alongside all men and women of good will. After all I was brought up at a time before Thatcher when we thought things would get better and better.
The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, called when the Roman Catholic Church was at the peak of its power, seemed determined to find areas in common with everyone of good will, to be progressive, to lead change.
So, why have I mentioned all this? I suppose because I would like us to better understand how people become involved with religion. Personally, I think it is less about doctrine and belief and more about wanting to be part of a community and, through that community, trying to live a better life. Having become involved the symbolism, the rituals, the stories, the artistic expression, shared silence, all enrich mundane lives and offer a sense of fulfilment. Of course, it can go horribly wrong and people can be abused in so many ways. But that is not the normal experience within England’s mainstream churches today. People choose to be there and, like us, they just want to be happy and, like us they want to make others happy.
If my childhood was today I am sure I would not have been so attracted to church. So much has now gone and what is left is but a pale shadow of the Anglican and traditional Non-conformist churches which drew me then. The marginalization from society through rapid decline, the desperate need to attract through the likes of ‘Messy Church’, the spoiling of our ancient parish churches by turning them into community spaces, the trend away from ordered worship, the loss of real conviction, the importance of tradition and of the numinous – all this would have turned me off at a very early age. Emerging ‘Jesus Loves You’ house churches and branded, US style, evangelical churches, those claustrophobic communities with anti-intellectual beliefs, tongues, testimonies and bible teaching, have never appealed to me.
Turning to the Roman Catholic Church, which I joined at university, it has gradually become entrenched in its own tradition and has retreated from change – first over contraception and then on so many other moral issues. The progressive social teaching, which emerged in the twentieth century, has become its best kept secret. Today the optimism of Vatican II has given way to an aging organization, inward-looking and obsessed with self-protection. Pervading its strategy for mission is the need for managed decline and the realisation of its virtual irrelevance in Western Europe.
But back to those days at Marling School. Strangely, the other day, I came across an essay that I wrote in the Lower Sixth entitled, ‘A Criticism of the Statement – Morality is a Religious Concept’. I see that many of my arguments were sourced from B.H.A. literature and my conclusion, which I will share with you now, were hardly an indication of my later ecclesiastical career – here goes –
‘Therefore, in my opinion, Morality is a social concept which admittedly has been influenced by religion for those who adhere to such beliefs, but the general moral standards of the people should come from the social sciences and not from a group of arrogant clerics who, because they find certain behaviour offensive, decide that it is the Word of God – which is unchangeable and unchallengeable.’
I think that we can all agree that I was tad ‘off church’ that day!
(Part of a talk given to Gloucestershire Humanists on 13th April 2017 by Richard Barton)