In 1987 as he was completing his B.A. work at Oxford, author William Taylor went to see the bishop of Oxford to tell him he was thinking of becoming a vicar. Although Taylor’s father had been a layman, his maternal grandfather was an Anglican priest, his paternal grandfather a Presbyterian minister, three of his great-grandfathers were ordained, and he was aware of clerical forebears running back generation by generation at least into the eighteenth century and one Matthew Young, a Church of Ireland bishop of Clonfert. “I had inherited the notion that parsoning was the family business,” he writes wryly.
The bishop of Oxford, however, did not welcome Taylor with open arms. After listening to Taylor’s offer of himself, he suggested politely that perhaps the prospective candidate would benefit from some additional “exploring.” When the young man pressed for amplification, the bishop abandoned tact. “I think you need to learn a little humility,” he said firmly.
Taylor was not pleased by the advice. (One possible sign of his irritation is that while the bishop is repeatedly mentioned in This Bright Field, his name—Richard Harries—goes unrevealed until Taylor lists his acknowledgments at the end of the book.) Nonetheless, Taylor acted on the advice to “explore” and moved to Spitalfields, a neighborhood in the gritty East End of London. At the time Spitalfields had been the site of London’s wholesale grocery market for 400 years, and one of the wholesalers gave Taylor his first job, as a delivery driver. The neighborhood was also home to the of the largest concentration of Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom, many of whom Taylor came to know and learn from. Indeed, Spitalfields had been host to one wave of immigrants after another since the arrival of Huguenot weavers in 1685, when France revoked the Edict of Nantes and banished Protestants from the realm. The endless evolving of Spitalfields is symbolized for Taylor by the Neuve Eglise (“new church”) built on Fournier Street by Huguenots in 1743. Since the days of the French-speaking worshipers who erected it, the structure has served successively as a Methodist church, as a synagogue, and currently as a mosque.
Life in Spitalfields during the author’s days there was further complicated and enriched by the immigration of gentrifiers, many of them gay men, buying and restoring early-seventeenth-century houses of which there was a large supply; by the continuing campaign of developers to shut down and move elsewhere the wholesale grocery market; and by repeated forays into the area by businesses eager to recreate it as an extension of the neighboring financial district, the City of London. Taylor subtitles his work “A Travel Book in One Place” and its form is that of a sophisticated and deeply observant travel account. But the author makes This Bright Field far more than an unusual Fodor’s Guide by his use of Augustine’s The City of God, especially Book 19, Chapter 17, and Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which is set partly in Spitalfields, to illuminate what he experienced.
What emerges in the end is a perceptive account of the way economics, politics, ambition, and persistence shape city life and a profoundly theological examination of human community and the nature of faith and calling. Writes Taylor of himself as he draws his book to a close:
My conception of being called to the priesthood had also changed and evolved over the previous six years, since first going to see the bishop of Oxford. Whereas, in the beginning, I had seen it as essentially a private and inward matter—even a career decision I had taken with a nodding reference to God—I now saw it in a much more lateral way, as a way of participating with the church in solidarity with the broken-hearted and vulnerable.... Through my time in Spitalfields, sorting through my particular inheritance of faith, especially in relation to my grandfather, and more recently in conversation with Ken Leech [a well-known East End priest, spiritual director and social radical], I had found within the church a tradition of radical political Christian protest and proclamation which felt authentic to the gospel charge. How could a movement founded around the life and startling teaching of Jesus not be subversive and defiantly eccentric?
So, in the end, approved by the bishop, unmistakably wiser and less callow, William Taylor came to ordination, to his present assignment as Sir John Cass’s Foundation chaplain to London Guildhall University, and to the writing of this extraordinary book.
“I’m not sure I’ve actually learnt the prescribed humility,” he observes dryly, after offering his thanks to Bishop Harries for ultimately permitting him to proceed to theological school, “but maybe that’s no bad thing.” And he proceeds to quote Harries’s words from one of the bishop’s books: “Humility can cloak some hideous forms of arrogance. So the first and continuing task is to try to be as aware of our motivation as possible. . . Clergy are not always as aware as they might be of their own hidden springs of action.”
In 1990 I went to Westcott House, a training college in Cambridge for Anglican clergy, and spent several years—longer, in fact, than I had originally anticipated—preparing for holy orders or, as the college put it, in “formation.”. . .
It was a time of radical reorientation. Vocation, it seemed to me when I first arrived, was something terribly austere and absolute, either you had it or you hadn’t, like good eyesight or a hairy chest. I came to see it as something more elusive, much stranger, much more rooted in the evolving relationships within a community than a single me-and-my-God thunderbolt from the heavens. I came to see that a calling is not a possession, it is a gift—a grace—and it comes through other people, sometimes surprising people, often painfully. There was an icon in the chapel, in fact the single piece of decoration in an otherwise wonderfully spare space. It presented an image of Christ with a quotation from St. John’s gospel. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” Over the years I was at Westcott House I lighted countless candles in front of it.
—This Bright Field