Tales from End to End
The Baroness’ Tale
by Professor the Baroness Afshar of Heslington
When I met John and Nancy when they first arrived in the village a decade ago, I was not a Baroness but was a third generation feminist and one of the old inhabitants in the village! I was absolutely over the moon to meet and welcome Heslington’s first woman vicar.
I first came to Heslington when the university started, long before the breeze blocks and the colleges. We were a handful of students, 200 of us, generally getting together in Heslington Hall. It was very much a time of atheism; the church and the local aristocracy were seen by the University as anachronisms from the past and the handful of students who were there were far too busy being eccentric and had no time for God and all that! As a cradle Muslim educated by French nuns and then a boarder in a Protestant English school, I was and remain very relaxed about faiths and considered and still consider all of them to be a personal matter between individuals and God; less about performance and more about thoughts, ideas and a sense of self. In my view, people find their own pathways towards faith or no faith and they live by them and their choices must be valued and respected. They may find small statues in the kitchens at home a source of strength and comfort, or a weekly visit to the church or the mosque or a visit to Lourdes or a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca or just an occasional quiet moment of reflection; or they may just be aware of the presence of God as a source of strength at all time or at some points in their lives and not feel the need to have it punctuated by rituals. I was interested in churches and mosques as beautiful buildings and in many cases extraordinary architectural and artistic achievements and treasures. My husband, Maurice, and I have spent many happy holidays visiting Buddhist temples, churches and mosques and admiring them, commenting on the structures, on the objects on display, on the mosaics, the paintings, the statues, the joy and celebrations and exuberance and the sufferings. Maurice’s long years at a Protestant school had made an indelible impact on his memory about the meanings of various stages of the life of Jesus Christ as depicted in murals, windows and paintings and I loved listening to the stories. So you could say that I was an interested observer of Christianity and other faiths.
When the Eckersleys arrived in Heslington, what I found absolutely amazing was that our new Vicar, the lovely Nancy, did not think me necessarily heretical for having such unconventional views. She had the wonderful idea of setting up a small discussion group to discuss the different pathways that many of us took towards God. I remember spending many evenings meeting locals I had never met before, drinking tea in their homes and talking about God and spirituality; I cherish these memories as moments of deep cross-cultural reflections on faiths and our very different understandings of God, faith and religions. These meetings were an oasis of peace; an invaluable time for quiet reflection in our hectic lives; something that I had not had before or since. What we found was that we could reach out across the divides and celebrate both the communality of our faith in God and the differing paths we took; none of course as long or as physically demanding as the 1,280 miles that Nancy and John are planning to walk! As always I am amazed by their courage and energy; they remain as ever an exceptional couple. What I know is that the bonds between them and their faith ARE such that even without these Tales they would not tire of each other’s company and would find the world they see every day amazing enough to feed their mind and imagination! They both have the extraordinary capacity of seeing beyond the material to the spiritual, but also recognising the value of mundane encounters and activities and enjoying them to the full.
It was this special touch about Nancy as our local Vicar that led me to encourage my daughter Molly to have her wedding in the local church with Nancy as the celebrant. Molly, like me, had a sense of God, but unlike me she did not feel that she belonged to any religion. Though I had been moved to tears when I heard Molly sing solo in the Minster as part of her school Christmas celebrations, I did not share her enthusiasm for going to the Minster for the New Year celebration. My one and only experience of the event was exactly as I had expected, desperately cold! So cold that my brain and my emotions were focused on not freezing; not something I’ll ever want to do again!
But when it came to Molly’s wedding I did want a spiritual dimension to the ceremony, as did Molly, and wanted the union to be blessed by God. I think that God has many mansions on earth and of course, I am sure, has no need for buildings, great or small, to be present; as Nancy and John will and perhaps already have experienced in moments outside as well as inside the church. I am convinced that this is something that will be even more present during their long walk for charity and justice. In the case of Molly we had the problem that she was not baptised; but luckily her husband-to-be Phil was and we managed to get the necessary papers from Selby Cathedral. What has been very special for me is that the experience of the ceremony, the warmth and the love emanating from everyone and voiced by Nancy, was so powerful and encompassing that we all felt blessed; we were granted a moment of true happiness that will remain with us through thick and thin and be a source of strength.
In the case of Molly it was her first step towards Christianity so that when Kate was born it was natural that she would be baptised. Once more Nancy presided and helped to create a deep sense of peace and happiness. I am eternally grateful to her for giving us what is more precious than any worldly good: moments of serenity and contentment that will echo through a life time.
As our Vicar, Nancy had the wonderful gift of opening doors, the church was not seen as the exclusive domain of one category of Christians. All faiths were made to feel welcome and it has been wonderful to hear carols sung in different languages in the Church and see a multi-lingual multinational throng of people of all age groups at Nancy’s retirement service, as testimony of her ability to open the House of God to all.
For me it has been a great privilege knowing John and Nancy; there are people who leave a difference and they certainly have had a life changing impact on me and my family. I know that with their long walk this will be echoed through their experiences and that of a much wider community well beyond ours in Heslington and will at the same time help the poorest and neediest in the world. I also know that they will enjoy meeting people of all creeds, colours and backgrounds and stay under roofs of all descriptions over the five months walk. What I know for sure is that they will have a positive impact on all. As always I am lost in admiration and with all my love wish them God speed on their pilgrimage to retirement.
Professor the Baroness Afshar of Heslington OBE AcSS