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Faith answers ‘who am I?’ question

Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001

What have the Queen’s 90th birthday, the Archbishop of Canterbury learning the identity of his father, and my father got in common?

I’ve given you a couple of clues already – and I think they all point us to the question, who do we think we are?

Let me start with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As we learned through extensive media coverage, until just weeks ago he believed his father was Gavin Welby, who divorced Justin’s mother when he was three and died when he was 21.

Somehow the Daily Telegraph had picked up an idea that this may not be true and asked Justin to take a DNA test, to which he agreed.

The test proved that Justin’s father was in fact Sir Anthony Montague Browne, who died in 2013 and was Sir Winston Churchill’s last private secretary.

You can imagine the impact of such news and the revelations it contained, on Justin and of course on his mother.

He has been praised for his openness and candour, and for the dignified and humble manner in which he has responded to this discovery.

I find myself wondering what it must feel like finding this out, and after Anthony Browne’s death so that no acknowledgement and conversation between them can take place.

Discoveries about parentage and finding out we are not who we thought we were maybe unusual, but not rare.

I remember as a teenager my grandmother revealing a ‘family secret’ to my father when my grandfather died.

My great grandmother had become pregnant with my grandfather by one man and then married another, who happened to be called Seeley.

So I bear this apt name for Suffolk (it is a form of the word “selig”) by accident. Compared with the Archbishop’s experience, this was one step removed for my father, but I remember how taken aback he was by the news, and not least that he only found it out at the point of his father’s death.

So who do we think we are? What revelation, or event or change of circumstances would shake our sense of ourselves?

As you would expect, Justin Welby answers this in terms of his faith. He has been very clear about what does not change: “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.” Faith gives an identity that cannot change, that is secure no matter what. I know that is true too for my father.

On April 26 he is 90. Five days previously we will have marked the Queen’s 90th birthday. Not only is she our longest serving monarch, she has for some years been oldest too – Victoria and George III both died aged 81. For those of us younger than mid-60s Elizabeth is the only monarch we have known.

This raises another aspect of the “who do we think we are” question. The great majority of us believe the monarchy is one of the most essential elements of what makes us British.

For more than sixty-four years our sense of Britishness has been affected by Queen Elizabeth’s example of service, duty, calm, and fortitude.

She has exhibited and reinforced what we would recognise as some defining virtues of being British. They represent something of who we think we are, exemplified by the Queen.

Significantly, she also looks beyond the immediate, beyond her own experience for the source of these virtues.

Like all of us, her sense of who she is will be bound up in circumstance and history. But she is quite clear that the source for her lies elsewhere.

She has expressed this on many occasions – while we do not know her thoughts on most issues of the day, but we do know about her faith, articulated particularly in her Christmas broadcasts. In 2012 she said, “God sent his only Son to ‘serve and not to be served’. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ.”

And back in 2002 she explained, “I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad.”

So who do we think we are? In whatever form it takes, most of us look for an answer that is secure, that is not vulnerable to changes or revelations, to good times or bad.

The TV programme, “Who do you think you are?” and the interest in family histories and genealogical searches reflect that search, which can be interesting and fun.

But we know too that it can reveal more than we expected, and come unstuck. It does not give an unshakeable answer.

We have to look elsewhere for that.

For me, faith has provided that answer to “who do I think I am” unshakeably and profoundly, through good times and bad.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich


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