THE ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEW
It was late February but, judging by the wind, it was honorary March. It was one of those days when the weather girl, Sian Lloyd, crushes the isobars in her long sensuous fingers and spurs flotillas of tightly packed arrows of howling wind across the western marches to enrage the shoreline and loosen the tiles. Even on London's embankment anyone under twelve stone was struggling to retain the virtues of gravity and make intentional progress.
With some relief I made the last few yards past the Houses of Parliament and into the safe harbour of No. 1 Millbank, the home of the Church Commissioners.
The pillars, the woodwork and the staircase gave the initial ambience of a slightly cramped gentleman's club. the atmosphere however was one of cheerfulness and purposeful activity. A trolley of highly desirable sandwiches trundles by, all marked with the customers initials, as the elderly lift descended with suitable gravitas. At every stage - from receptionist to security from secretary to press officer I was greeted with a courtesy and helpfulness that can now seldom be found outside the better traditions of the civil service, a traditional convent or a branch John Lewis. it is, in London, like water in the desert.
On the first floor is the office of the Third Estates Commissioner.
Margaret Laird is a frill figured and attractive woman with a warm smile and sparkly eyes. Her office is simply and basically equipped with pride of place given to a portrait of Bishop Benson, first bishop of Truro - of which more anon.
But there, on the table, was a tray of the very sandwiches I had latterly been coveting and it was around this gastronomic altar that we began our conversation. I asked Margaret.
Where did you begin?
"I was born in Truro and I'm very proud of my Cornish background. My school days were spent at the High School - founded by Bishop Benson."
What did your mum and dad do?
"My father was a cabinet maker who managed the works of a large furniture firm. This meant most of his craft was done in his spare time. Mother had trained as a dressmaker but made the family her full time occupation after marrying."
Were they believers?
"Yes. My father's family' went to St. Paul's, Truro the Anglo- Catholic parish church. It's still a lovely thriving church today. We went there in the morning then, in the evening, went to mother's country' Methodist Chapel. After I was confirmed, my mother got confirmed and joined us at St. Paul's." It is difficult to understand, unless you grew up there, the powerful traditions of church and chapel. The evangelical zeal of the Methodist revivalists `vying with the ancient mysticism of Celtic Christianity which found its expression in populist Anglo- Catholicism. Both now gravely weakened by the homogenising influence of their respective institutions."
Who influenced you?
"The Vicar, Canon Kellard Peeke, was a remarkable priest. He ran an exciting parish which not only produced many' ordinands but also considerable lay vocations." Margaret runs through an impressive list, modestly omitting her own.
Was your faith a gradual process?
"Yes. No great moments of "conversion" or revelation. I took Confirmation very seriously and the school was a church school with the Bishop as Chairman of Governors and regular Holy' Communion.
Another great influence was the Headmistress, Miss Gladys Engledow, who taught most of the Divinity herself She is still an active lay reader in Chichester diocese at the age of 93!"
What were your favourite subjects?
"History and Latin with English as my third choice. I worn on to read Mediaeval History at Westfield College - one of the three women's colleges at London University - with a wonderful tutor, Rosalind Hill, who died very recently. So sad because she would have loved the Augustine anniversary this year. I remember her and Dom Edmund Tones, one day, discussing whether Anselm had visited St. Neot's Abbey - as if it were yesterday. She was another great influence and a doughty supporter of the Prayer Book too."
Rumour has it you were head girl?
"True. But not because I was jolly' hockey sticks. I hated games. Debating was my great interest."
It is hard to escape the conclusion that this sense of history, love of ideas and facility and care with words drew Margaret to the attention of those in authority years later when she was elected to General Synod.
Did you specialise
"Yes. Bede. And then monastic institutions."
Do you foresee a revival in the religious life?
n a very' different way. The Old Testament balanced the prophet and the cultic priest. The Middle Ages had the monastery and the secular. It will be interesting to see what emerges to counter balance the managerial church."
"Well, I'd always wanted to do theology and got a bursary from Kings, London and a scholarship from school to do a post grad. year." It turned out to be a crucial year in Margaret's life. She met and was greatly influenced by Eric Abbott who was to become her spiritual director for thirty years. Even more significantly oil the first day, iii the registration queue, she met a young classics graduate preparing to train to teach. His name was John Laird and, iii the event, he went on to Oxford to read theology and be ordained and Margaret answered the call to be a teacher."
You had to wait to get married then?
"Oh yes. I taught for four years at Greycoat Hospital and lived at the University Chaplaincy with the women assistants, Judith McDonald and Irena Hope-Jones. Meanwhile John taught for a year then went to Ripon Hall to train and get his theology degree Then my father was ill and I went home to help and taught in Newquay for eighteen month Finally, in 1961, after John had done 2 years curacy at Cheshunt, he was allowed to marry. The wedding was at St Paul's, Truro, Eric Abbott officiating" After two years of Margaret teaching RE. at St Albans High, John became chaplain of Bishops College, Cheshunt, later Vice Principal and then acting Principal During this time their sons were born. Andrew lectures in Classics at Warwick and Stephen is a curate in Ilfracombe This happy period of their lives with John's teaching gifts in full flower, came to an abrupt end in 1969 when the college was closed."
Why was it closed?
"A commission, I can't remember its name now Ely, Lichfield, Cheshunt, Brasted they all were. We weren't sufficiently near a university and Birmingham was being established as an ecumenical college. It was the most traumatic period of our lives" Margaret recalls this without a trace of bitterness. Those who have witnessed the results of the short sighted managerialism that has governed theological education will now how many able people were cast aside never to be used again in any proper way by diocesan authorities.
"We went to Keysoe in North Bedfordshire where we have been eve since I concentrated on motherhood and, when the boy's went to school, taught at Dame Alice for 20 years Head of R.E John got stuck in to parish life doing a bit of teaching at a Staff College of Education and chaplaining Bedford School"
How did you get here?
"I expected to see out my days as a teacher. I enjoyed it, Made R.E. a rigorous academic subject getting 8 - 12 A level candidates a year and sent some 50 girls to university to read theology. Then in 1980 Patricia Bell, the County Archivist, arrived on my doorstep to tell me I must stand for her seat on General Synod My Head agreed to the necessary time off if ejected, and I stood
I was also, at the time, doing regular contributions to Bible Reading Fellowship and examining G.C.E.s This latter paid for our first car!"
Did you enjoy synod?
"Yes. It kept me up with current church affairs. It seemed then a hopeful thing in Anglicanism My' first speeches were on redundant churches - used by other religions (against) and the permanent diaconate (for)."
And the women priest issue?
"I always had a clear view on that. I believed from creational and incarnational biblical arguments that it was not right But, above all, from church history it is clear that the Anglican church has no authority to make such a decision alone"
How did you become third estates commissioner?
"I don't know, A letter arrived out of the blue in September 1988 from the Archbishop and I went to see him at Lambeth, I didn't know him well at all and he, I thought, simply knew me as a clergy wife. I was very reluctant to take it on - it was such an alien world from teaching and I had to start the following January while still trying to teach my A level girls so as not to let them down John was a great help but it's not a year I would want to repeat"
And now the 64,000 dollar question?
"I know: What does this Commissioner do? I work with Sir Michael Colman (First Estates) who looks after Finance and Michael Alison MP (Second Estates) who is our link with Parliament and it's a very happy team. My task is the chairmanship off; committees, Pastoral, Redundant Churches and Bishoprics In addition to this is the Synodical work, Standing Committee, answering questions on my areas of responsibility, introducing the Fees Order debate and the financing of the Conservation Trust - I am a member of various working parties and groups including Clergy Conditions of Service, Clergy Discipline, the Pensions Board and the Board of Ministry"
So what do the 3 committees do
"The "Pastoral" is quasi-judicial. All objections to schemes for pastoral reorganisation come here and we decide. This is taken very seriously and often involves visiting the parishes and hearing evidence locally" It is this "court of appeal" role that many are anxious to preserve as independent of the proposed Turnbull reforms If this power goes to the Archbishops Council this will make them judge and jury, it is argued, and undermine the established church's duty to consider the rights of all He Majesty's subjects."
Can the committee initiate a scheme? "no." can it discipline a bishop who is abusing the pastoral measure by suspending a benefice with no serious proposals for reorganisation - just a way of keeping power of appointment?
"No. That would be a legal matter for a patron We can only judge proposals and representations We also update the green guide on parsonages, standards, conditions, requirements etc."
What about the redundant churches work? 0
"In the last 30 years of the 1450 redundancies, 20% have been preserved by the Conservation Trust, just over 20% have been demolished and about 60% have found alternative use - 100 of them by other Christians"
And the bishoprics committee?
"The commissioners own all the Diocesan Bishops houses and they are responsible for their upkeep We review the houses and their use."
What about the palaces?
"Well most bishops occupy a fiat within the palace and the rest is used for offices and so on. If you don't use them you'd only have to buy a large expensive executive house somewhere and no sense of history" Margaret herself rents a small flat in Lambeth Palace during the week to save commuting but she is a6'always iii the parish for weekends, holy days and special events keeping her roots iii the rural ministry and supporting John. Talking of which
How do you manage - saying Mattins with archbishop George on weekdays and married to on of these "renegade&4de" forward in faith area deans?
"We get on very well at Lambeth and accept our disagreements." (This is not just flannel. Independent observers will tell you that she and the Archbishop and Mrs Carey have a warm personal and working relationship). As for John, very much a country parish priest yet now very busy outside the parish as well and not just in the diocese. (His work covers Peterborough and Ely), He knows now that he is not isolated and unsupported - at he is one of many and is very positive about it. There's a real collegial feet to the Forward in Faith priests and bishops." What Margaret does not and, perhaps, cannot say is that for every priest declared and signed up and every parish that has taken the vote there are many times that number quietly, discreetly, seeking pastoral support and encouragement from these elected representatives of the original integrity and their orthodox chapters.
What do you do in your spare time? (just joking)
"I'm the first woman Governor of Pusey House, Vice President of the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith and a Trustee of Lambeth Palace Library." She chuckles. That'll teach me to ask daft questions. On the way out we meet her press officer who is very friendly and encouragingly anxious about what New Directions" may write. I tell him I'm going to blow the lid off the private life of the first lady (after the Queen) of the C of E and publicly expose the workings6. of her department.
Much laughter - only a little of it nervous . Press Officers are a very protective species and Margaret is in good hands.
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