Guide out of the waste land

Building Jerusalem
March 17, 2000

Frank Bullock, Alan Bullock's father, was manifestly a good man, if not some kind of saint; but Building Jerusalem is not hagiography. His goodness is not pressed upon us, nor is it illustrated by the events of his life.

Indeed, we are told little about his life, except the salient facts. He was born in Wiltshire in 1887, and, his mother having died soon after his birth, he was brought up in the village of Batheaston by his grandparents and his aunt. He left school at 13 and was trained as a gardener, a natural development, since both his uncles were market gardeners, as well as preachers in the Congregationalist Chapel in Batheaston.

Frank had a passion for reading and, above all, for thinking; and he gradually developed an ability to speak and preach in public. His independently thoughtful mind led him away from the strict orthodoxy of his evangelical family, towards Unitarianism, and, in politics, Liberalism. After increasingly successful work as a lay preacher, he became minister of the Unitarian church in Trowbridge and then, in 1915, he moved to a chapel in Lancashire.

While working as a highly successful gardener, he had fallen in love with one of the indoors servants at the same house. They were married in 1912, and Alan Bullock was born in Trowbridge, a surprising fact for one so plainly a Bradford man. His father moved to Chapel Lane Chapel, Bradford, in 1926, and that was the last move he made.

The centre of the story is Frank's Unitarian faith. Unitarianism, which held that there was one undivided God who had sent the historical Jesus as his mortal embodiment, was a powerful movement in the late 19th century, especially in the North, and was frequently associated both with Liberal politics and with the wealth of the great manufacturing families. To be a Unitarian might entail no more than a vague respect for the sacred, and an equally vague sense that there lurked some spirit behind the material world; but Frank Bullock's faith was far more specifically Christian than that.

Brought up as he had been on the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, his task was to teach through exegesis of the scriptures; and he left great piles of manuscripts, sermons and lectures, through which this task was fulfilled. For the most part, his son lets him speak through his own words.

When he strayed from the Christian religion, into philosophical or psychological speculation, or tentatively into the theosophical ramblings of Annie Besant, his own voice loses its authority, and his readers may lose interest. But there is plenty left that is arresting, where the voice of Frank Bullock is powerful, original and extraordinarily pertinent to the predicament of religion today.

The forces of scientific and historical research were, by his time, making it increasingly difficult for the Christian church to demand a literal belief in the Bible, and the clergy were beginning, as they disastrously do today, to pick and choose among biblical stories that are to be believed and that may be treated as legend. In his view, the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the nativity, the crucifixion and the resurrection was a living myth, embodying the ultimate triumph of the immaterial over the material. (If Jesus had not been a real man, capable of dying in agony, the story of the crucifixion would lose its power.) The fact that such myths have always been part of other religions than Christianity in no way diminishes its particular force, rather the contrary.

Those who live within the framework of this myth interpret the world as a whole as both immaterial and material; and that which makes such an interpretation possible is the human imagination. It is through imagination that people may see through the story of the New Testament to the truth that it embodies, and so they may also see the world of nature and of science as significant of something, a truth or reality, to which they may aspire.

Unsurprisingly, St John's gospel was Frank Bullock's chief inspiration, "the Word made Flesh" the beginning and end of his thought; and Wordsworth was his favourite poet. For he held that imagination could really change one's awareness of the world. He spoke of the need, in biblical studies, for "an escape from barren historicism and literalism" as a precursor of "a new spiritual consciousness". His sermons must have been a joy to hear. Here is a typical passage (his theme was the Waste Land, the Valley of Humiliation, which everyone has to cross): "Once you have broken out of your preoccupation with self, do not attempt to scale the mountain peaks represented by Buddha and Christ, but turn instead to the high hills of mental and emotional joy that rise above the waste land of common consciousness and lie within our compass. These are available to all of us, beginning with the possibility of a new consciousness of nature as has been revealed to us ... by Wordsworth. The beauty of nature and the mysterious process of the seasons are matched by the creations of the human genius in literature, art, music and thought."

At the beginning of the new century we are told with increasing plausibility that God is dead, and his funeral over. And yet we are also told that religious education must be a part of all education, that "spiritual values" must be handed on to children at school. How can such views be reconciled? To those who bewail the end of Christianity, Frank Bullock said this: "The fact we have to accept is that it is not we in our generation ... that have destroyed the old forms, but reality, in order that men and women should not be imprisoned in them but be delivered by a new birth. Then we can stand outside them and read them and their meaning in a deeper and more universal way. If we can rise to this vision we can walk without fear." Myths, while entirely necessary to our understanding, must be constantly reinterpreted.

Baroness Warnock is a life fellow of Girton College, University of Cambridge.

Building Jerusalem: A Portrait of My Father

Author - Alan Bullock
ISBN - 0 713 99362 6
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 303

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