In this colourful memoir, from 1950’s childhood to the COVID crisis, Brian Mountford describes his life as a priest, which has spanned a period of immense social change and seen the secularisation of Britain to the point where 52% of the population say they have ‘no religion’.
Brian Mountford Discusses the themes and experiences behind the highly anticipated new book, Church Going Gone.
CHURCH GOING GONE is the work of a man of great goodness, considerable stubbornness, and and not a little cunning. How can a person of liberal, humane, and imaginative instincts survive in the modern Church of England? Brian Mountford has not only survived, but for thirty years had the living of St Mary’s, the University Church in Oxford, the site of events of enormous consequence such as the trial of the Oxford Martyrs in 1555, and the centre of a busy and intellectually challenging modern parish. In the course of his life as a priest Mountford aroused enormous admiration not only for his liberal stance but also for his personal qualities of kindness and open-mindedness, and for the imaginative (and occasionally provocative) way in which he welcomed speakers from many different traditions to his church. All his qualities are vividly present in this book, as well as a lively gift for scene-setting and character-drawing. I enjoyed it enormously - Philip Pullman
Why did you write Church Going Gone?
My life has spanned a period of immense social change. I became a priest in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when the Church was enjoying the back-end of a post-war revival in religion; now, fifty years later, 52% of people in secular Britain say they have ‘no religion’. I wanted to describe how this fascinating story evolved.
Also, in trying to strike a blow against mortality, I wanted to get my life down on paper. My life was in my head, known only to me, and I felt that by writing about it creatively it might become more meaningful and permanent. When I die, I want my ashes scattered to the elements. The mind – the essential me – is a miracle of imagination and emotion made up of the hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen of my body. Maybe now some of the elusive spirit is contained in the pages of this book. Virginia Wolff said that in biographical writing ‘odd details and vivid scenes’ are ‘moments when the wax figures begin to move’. I hope I have achieved that.
For a long time, I have thought theology, or thinking about God and the implications of faith, is best done through narrative. Stories rather than abstract ideas. That, besides, is what the Christian gospels in the New Testament do.
Some would say ‘Church Going Gone’ is a provocative and negative title. Why did you choose it, given that it might offend the very people you want to read it?
I really struggled to find a title. I could have called it ‘The Life of Brian’, I suppose, but it is so much more than my life. Initially I called it simply ‘Churchgoing’, after Philip Larkin’s 1954 poem of that name, with the intended play on the ideas of church attendance versus the demise of organised religion in Britain.
But those who read my first draft said no one’s going to want to read a book about going to church, so I tried to spice it up with the addition of ‘Gone?’ You notice I added a question mark. I was accused of timidity and cluttering the page, so I removed it. And there we are.
Provocation is a good thing, and, in the book, it is something I argue the Church should go in for more enthusiastically.
Who's Church Going Gone for?
For those who like a good story laced with a bit of humour.
Although it’s about a Church of England priest and his doubts and faith, it isn’t specifically a religious book. I try to show how religion affects us all whether we believe in it or not. It is for anyone interested in what it has meant to live in the second half of the 20th century and the first fifth of the 21st.
It will be of particular interest to those wrestling with faith, whether from a positive or negative point of view. That is to say, it should be of interest both to the person who wants to take a fairly conventional religious position, but finds themselves constantly tripping over archaic dogmatic views, and also the sceptic raking over the ashes of the idea that God is dead.
Both the story and the essays at the end will fascinate many more people than actually go to church.
What is Church Going Gone about?
London’s Bayswater in the Sixties, outer London childhood in the Fifties, Cambridge in the Seventies, suburbia in the Eighties, and Oxford after that.
It evokes the culture of the Church of England from a Barbara Pymish portrayal of curates, to the Church’s ambivalent role in multifaith society. It discusses vocation, sex and relationships, morals and politics, God, the meaning of life, and the relationship between doubt and faith. A central idea is that the abandonment of organised religion has not eradicated spiritual interest or questioning.
I could say it’s about me; but it’s also about you.
Who is Brian Mountford?
Way back in 1968 he started out as a curate in Bayswater, central London, in the days when the Church of England was less divided, religion didn't feel so much under fire from secularism, and he could walk comfortably down Queensway in a cassock. Then he spent six years as Fellow and Chaplain of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, newly married, and at the time when women were first admitted to the college. After that he was appointed Vicar of Southgate in North London. This was classic suburbia and the church flourished. In 1986 he became Vicar of the University Church, Oxford and stayed there for thirty years amongst the Dreaming Spires. He was Founding Chair of the Gatehouse Drop in Centre for homeless people. Now he lives in Islip, a village just outside Oxford and continues to give seminars on leadership and ethics for the Dutch Avicenna Academy for Leadership and to facilitate conferences run by the Oxford Symposium on Religion. In 2017 he was appointed MBE. He is Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Brian Mountford is a free-lance writer and speaker and Publisher-at-Large for John Hunt Publishing's 'Christian Alternative' imprint.
His latest book, 'CHURCH GOING GONE - a biography of religion, doubt and faith' is a substantial autobiography full of narrative, anecdotes, liberal theological insight, and humour. It will be published by JHP in October 2021.
He has just finished editing 'Religion and Generation Z - why 18-24-year-olds say they have no religion'. This is a book of essays by Oxford students with opening and closing essays by Brian.
His best-selling book is ‘Christian Atheist: belonging without believing’, about those who struggle to accept Christianity’s metaphysical claims, yet are drawn to its aesthetic heritage, moral compass, and community outreach.
'Friday's Child', is an anthology of poetry on suffering and redemption. Each poem is accompanied by a snappy commentary that teases out the meanings of the text and relates it to everyday life. The book is ideal as a discussion group resource for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.
Serious and humorous biography of an English priest that will fascinate many, many more people than actually go to church.
In this colourful memoir, from 1950’s childhood to the COVID crisis, Brian Mountford describes his life as a priest, which has spanned a period of immense social change and seen the secularisation of Britain to the point where 52% of the population say they have ‘no religion’. Opening with a vibrant account of London in the Sixties, he moves to Cambridge college life in the Seventies, Suburbia in the Eighties, and thirty years as Vicar of the ‘most visited parish church in England’, the University Church, Oxford. Rich in humour and anecdote, he unpacks his liberal theological ideas on the way, addressing questions such as God, the meaning of life, sexual ethics, and the relationship between doubt and faith. A central idea is that the abandonment of organised religion has not eradicated spiritual questioning and, following Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going, from which the book takes its title, people of all ages are forever ‘surprising/A hunger in (themselves) to be more serious.’
Both the story and the essay content will fascinate many, many more people than actually go to church.
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Christian Atheists don't believe in God but miss him: especially the transcendent beauty of his music, language, ethics, and community.
"In this fascinating and thoughtful book, Brian Mountford explores the borderland where Christians and atheists gaze at each other with expressions ranging from the hostile and scornful to the friendly and sympathetic" PHILIP PULLMAN
Christian Atheist examines the growing religious phenomenon of those who are drawn to Christianity without accepting its metaphysical claims or dogma. Throughout the history of the Church there have been many people like this who have sat differently to the central creedal claims, but in the contemporary God Delusion culture, more are coming out to claim acceptance for their views.
The key to the book is a set of interviews with people who fall broadly into the Christian Atheist category; some are more agnostic and less sceptical than others, but what they have in common is the rejection of traditional belief in God, counterbalanced by an admiration for the aesthetic genius of Christianity (leading to a sense of deeper value), the Christian moral compass, and in some cases the community aspect of Christian life.
As one of his interviewees points out, you can’t have Christian atheism without mainstream, traditional Christianity, so Brian Mountford sets their comments within a broader discussion of the issues: God, aesthetics, orthodoxy, doubt and belief, ethics and communal values.
His purpose is threefold:
to validate and affirm the Christian atheist position within the broad spectrum of Christianity
to say to the Church, you ignore this phenomenon at your peril
to show that the distinction between atheist and religious adherent is rarely black and white, and that the ground between the two is a fertile source of meaning and value.
What’s different? Christian Alternative is looking for a genuinely liberal and provocative approach to faith, ethics and institutional religion. We want to understand why, despite the Enlightenment and secularization, Christian writers and preachers often cling to pre-modern theological ideas. Why is talk of radical orthodoxy usually more orthodox than radical?
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