Book Review: Portholes to the Past, by Lloyd Geering

cv_portholes_to_the_pastWell know theologian, Lloyd Geering, takes the reader on a journey into the twentieth century, as he shares a wide range of experiences in his memoir, Portholes to the Past.

At nearly 99 years old Lloyd Geering is well qualified to look back over the last century, discussing the massive social changes he has lived through and evaluating the progress the human race is making.

Born into a world at war on 16 February 1918, he was the youngest in his family, and his three brothers all left home while he was in primary school. The family moved a number of times to enable his father to gain employment. Despite this, and the struggles of the Great Depression, Geering had a good education and went on to University, ultimately training as a Presbyterian minister.

He remembers “men tramping the highways with swags on their backs” during the 1930s, looking for any odd job in return for a meal and a bed in the hay barn, which all changed with the passing of the Social Security Act in 1938 creating the New Zealand welfare state. Geering stated, “the welfare state was founded on two basic principles: that every citizen has a right to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and that the community is responsible through its elected representatives to ensure that this is achieved.”

Of course one of the greatest changes which occurred during Geering’s life time has been in communications, and young people today would struggle to comprehend how the family was told of the death of his brother. A messenger was sent from Dunedin to the farm at Allanton to inform the family of the passing of Ira due to TB, as they had no telephone. Lloyd then had to travel to Dunedin to let another brother Fred, know of their brother’s passing.

I enjoyed reading this book; it brought back lots of memories of my parents, who talked about many of the same issues, as they were born in the same era. They also had a Presbyterian background and followed Geering’s Christian journey.

In his concluding porthole he is optimistic about the future: “It may not be too much to hope that from the fragments of dismantled Christendom we may rediscover and reinvigorate the moral values of justice, truth and environmental guardianship. Together with the spiritual forces of faith, hope and love, these qualities may yet enable us to create a viable human future.”

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Portholes to the Past
by Lloyd Geering
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493332

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“The person without story is insane” – Diarmaid MacCulloch

Silence: A Christian History, with Diarmaid MacCulloch, chaired by Peter Lineham
1.45pm, Tuesday 11 March

I am a Catholic. Yet I believe that gay people should be allowed to have relationships, get married, and have children if they want to by whatever means available. The church disagrees. This is where MacCulloch comes in, to tell his faith ‘home truths’.

MacCulloch is an unusual character – anpp_diarmaid_macculloch Oxford professor holding the chair of Church History, he is openly gay and Christian. He sees himself as a ‘candid friend of Christianity’, since declining ordination as a member of the clergy due to their position on his homosexuality. He said that it was only his friendship with a later archbishop, Robert Runcie (who was embattled by the Thatcherite Conservative party), that kept him within the faith. He wondered that Runcie could forgive the church for all it had done, and decided to remain a Deacon, and remain close enough with the church to tell it when it was being ridiculous.

MacCulloch acknowledged his agent in directing him to areas of history in which she believed he could write. He has written around the Reformation period, including biographies of Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer, but more recently moved into broader Christian history, namely A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years and Silence: A Christian History. The former has been made into a television series with BBC, and he is currently working on another TV series about ‘Sex and the West’ – which focuses strongly on Christianity.

Dr Lineham asked him about his description of certain of his publications as ‘popularising works’ and MacCulloch gracefully regretted using that term, as it seems to demean what these works do. He believes that historians should all have this facet of what they do – giving something back, as ‘history is everyone’s property’ and people should be apprised of the truest story possible. If these thoughtful historical facts are not known, it is too easy for people to learn “bad stories” – leading to us repeating our mistakes.

MacCulloch spoke about the position of the church on homosexuality, he believes that the thought is evolving on this matter – particularly with the current Archbishop speaking on the matter, stating recently that many people under 30 seem to believe that the church is evil for not allowing homosexuals to marry. The way he sees history is long – we have been here 80,000 years, yet Christian for only around 2000. I particularly enjoyed his story about the Anglicatholicism movement, who had a merry old time being gay and celibate from the 1840s until the Gay Lib movement came along in the 1960s and ruined all their fun.

He became fascinated by silence when he realised that the silence is often where the most important things lie – be they positive or negative. He recognises the power of that which is not said. This was influenced, as Elizabeth Heritage pointed out to me, by his own years of living in the closet. He spoke about the need of church to be the noisiest thing around, while silence can be by far more powerful – using Quaker resistance as an example of power in silence.

The message that MacCulloch came back to time and again is that Christianity is a source of story, and it is an important story to know. “The person without story is insane.”

All in all, a very enlightening session, by somebody I would be unlikely to discover left to my own devices. As I left the auditorium I spoke to several other audience members, who all agreed it had been an extraordinary session.

by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ