Rousing and soothing the savage breast — two further Unitarian related (re)discoveries made during my COVID-19 tidy-out . . .

Chaos in the Common Room
Rousing and soothing the savage breast — two further Unitarian related (re)discoveries made during my COVID-19 tidy-out

As a couple of my recent “Greetings from Emmanuel Road” will have revealed I had to abandon my study in December 2019 because of some serious water ingress. As you can imagine, this left me with various, somewhat depressing and chaotic, piles of books and papers that needed seriously to be sorted out and reorganised. Although the lockdown has hardly been a positive experience for any of us, at the very least, it has given me the space in the Common Room and Hall to start, and almost finish, this major sort-out and, for that, I'm grateful. Depressing and dispiriting through the task has sometimes been, one of the genuine upsides of it has been the uncovering of a couple of stashes of national and local Unitarian church related documents/pamphlets that were either already squirrelled away in the study I took it over in 2000 or which I have collected over the past twenty years and squirrelled away in there myself. Perhaps the most important fruit of this unexpected “archeological” endeavour has been the exciting (re)discovery of our long-forgotten, English Presbyterian, Green Street roots which I’ve been exploring with you over the last couple of weeks.

But I have made two other (re)discoveries in recent weeks that may be of interest to at least one or two of you. However, pleased be warned, although the second might bring a few of you some (relatively speaking) unalloyed, soothing pleasure, the first brings with it a significant theological, philosophical, ethical challenge that isn’t pleasant to consider rousing ourselves to meet . . .

Kenneth Mellanby 
So, the first discovery is connected to an important figure involved in the congregation a few years before my own ministry, Kenneth Mellanby (1908-1993). He joined the church in May 1929 whilst a student at King’s College and, most famously, went on to become the Director of the Monks Wood Experimental Station, Huntingdon, between 1961–74.

From the very start of my ministry here I was dimly aware of Mellanby’s work because, in the church, there is a memorial kneeler bearing his name (see photos below) and this had excited my curiosity just enough to ask one of the older members of the congregation who he was. However, I confess not to have thought about him again until the middle of June this year.

As some of you may recall, in one of my earlier “Greetings from Emmanuel Road”, I told you about the unexpected visit to the church site by a botanist, Chris Preston, who, during lockdown, was conducting a new survey of the flora of Cambridge walls, something last done in 1948 by John Rishbeth (‘The Flora of Cambridge Walls’ by J. Rishbeth, Journal of Ecology, Vol. 36, No. 1, Jul., 1948, pp. 136-148). Given the Cambridge botany connection it turned out, perhaps not surprisingly, that Chris been taught by Mellanby and, in a later email exchange, he told me that, amongst his colleagues, Mellanby had been widely admired and was “regarded as almost saintly.” This latter feeling was, it seems, born out of his refusal to patent, and thus financialise, his successful work show how to protect forest trees from their “most troublesome fungal pathogen.” In consequence, the fruits of his work were made freely available to all and, even though he could have become personally very wealthy through the patent process, he had chosen not to do this. As Chris said to me, surely correctly, “These days I suspect that he might have been in trouble from the University for not taking this opportunity!”

This interesting conversation and later exchange with Chris naturally served to put Mellanby back into my thoughts and the first thing I did was to seek out, online, a copy of his 1994 obituary in the Independent

It presented me with a picture of a very interesting and engaging man and I was particularly delighted to find that it contained the following passage which reveals the splendidly intra-active and conversational way he seems to have run Monks Wood. Whilst I was reading it I found myself hoping that Mellanby would have approved of our own move eleven years ago towards a more conversation-led style of meeting together

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[Mellanby] gave his team the freedom to explore areas beyond their immediate brief, he kept formal meetings to a minimum, an approach summarised by a notice in his room which read: ‘It would be better if all the time passed on committees were spent fishing.’ In contrast, informal meetings were de rigueur. Everyone was expected to take tea-breaks together, morning and afternoon, and fill up long tables as they arrived. In this way ‘communication’ between staff at all levels was ensured and ideas ‘buzzed’. Evening events were equally important and guests were often surprised that the salmon had been cooked and the wines chosen by the Director.

Delighted by this vignette, a day later, during my tidying out, I was excited to discover a copy of his 1971, Essex Hall Lecture (an annual, key note lecture given at the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches) called ‘The Threat of World Pollution’. I immediately made a mug of tea and sat down to read my new found treasure . . .

On the straightforwardly positive side of things, Mellanby presciently alerts his listeners and readers to many of the dangers of pollution that, in forty years since he wrote his paper, have proven to be the major contributors to the climate emergency our world is facing today. In doing this he tells us one task of his lecture was 

. . . to try to give an objective view of this problem. Should we be optimists or pessimists? Is the world becoming a better place for the majority of its inhabitants, or are we likely to destroy ourselves in the near, or distant, future? 

He goes on to add that:  

We have many “doomsday men” who are no doubt well-meaning, and worried about the future of the world and of mankind, but they often do more harm than good. By preaching about our doom with all the sadistic pleasure of the nineteenth century revivalist preaching hell fire, and by devoting so much attention to spectacular and yet unlikely causes of disaster, they may divert attention from the real dangers which could damage our environment permanently. They may, by calling wolf where there is no wolf, actually prevent action against preventable forms of environmental damage.

Now, I’m sure we will all respond positively to Mellanby’s recognition that certain kinds of negativity bring with them a very unwelcome and dangerous demotivational spirit. To put it in the colloquial speech of my own day, nobody likes being around “a neghead”. 

In his lecture Mellenby clearly did not want to be a neghead and throughout his lecture he continually, if quietly, reveals to us — in classic, gentle, liberal, Christian humanist fashion — his feeling that, although the dangers of pollution were very real and potentially doom-bringing, humanity, now seeing the dangers towards which he was pointing, would heed his and others’ warnings and actually change its destructive patterns of behaviour for the better. Here are a couple of examples of how he gently expresses this optimism:

I hope that we will carefully monitor all changes in global temperatures and air composition, so that if doom is indeed at hand we can take immediate and drastic international action.


I believe that we in Britain at least need not, and will not, suffer from increased levels of pollution. 

I imagine that many of you, having read his obituary and these words from his lecture (and I hope the whole lecture itself) will, like me, be powerfully struck by how false his general, background optimism/hope has proven to be. Every pollution-led catastrophe he thought might possibly occur but which (thanks to the concerted national and international activities of highly educated and reasonable men and women like him) he thought was actually highly unlikely to occur, has now occurred, and occurred in spades.

This (re)discovery of an important local Unitarian’s work in such an important and relevant field has served only to add weight to my deepening realisation that, although I continue emotionally to respond incredibly positively to earlier generations of optimistic/hope/reason/science-led characters like Mellanby (I can’t but help like the man), I find myself simultaneously utterly repulsed by the same liberal optimism/hope they (by which I also mean “we”) all too easily express again and again. I find myself wishing Mellanby had been a bit more of a “doomsday man” prepared to preach-up some environmental “hell fire” to frighten his liberal audience into recognising the need for immediate action (much as Greta Thunberg has tried to do for us during the last couple of years. See my address: This house is on fire). Reading Mellanby’s lecture in this, our own, critical moment of time, has only served to reinforce my general feeling that, as a matter of urgency, we liberals actively need to abandon our default optimistic/hopeful stances because they are clearly continuing to blind us to the need to act decisively and very radically NOW!, not just in terms of the environment but in connection with the wholesale destruction being caused by, amongst others, systemic racism, continuing attacks on democracy and, the pernicious (I would say evil) neoliberal project as a whole. I have absolutely no desire to be for you that doomsday man preaching hell-fire (who the hell would want to be that?) but I regret to tell you that I am ever more seeing the value of learning some practical lessons from those tricky, challenging and problematic ancient figures like Jonah and Amos . . . 

So, for those of you brave enough actively to seek out with me a practical, (human, Jesús centred) hope beyond hope by embracing the hopelessness of our current situation, I strongly recommend watching Miguel A. De La Torre’s recent keynote speech to some American Presbyterians that I have embedded below. Personally, I think he’s the most important theologian around and one to whom we should be listening very, very carefully indeed. For another Unitarian perspective on the basic insight outlined above about the significant problem with liberal hope/optimism — and one which has also listened closely to De La Torre — see ‘After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism’ by Nancy McDonald Ladd (Skinner House Books, 2019, pp. 131-132).

Another (re)discovery made during this grand clear out — though one which was clearly very different and less distressing and challenging from that above — was a Unitarian pamphlet from 1966 called “They Became Unitarians”. This tells the story of four people who had come to hold a Unitarian position after coming from either other Christian churches or from a secular position. Now I have hundreds and hundreds of Unitarian pamphlets and, on this occasion, I was planning simply to rebox them rather than to read or re-read any of them. But, for some reason, I was minded to open this, heretofore unread one, and on its opening page, I came across the following paragraph:

The Music of Richard Hall 
The Rev. Richard Hall of Newton Abbot entered the Unitarian ministry last year after a distinguished career (which he continues) in music — as a teacher, performer and composer. He was up in London only recently to supervise a B.B.C. recording of his Third Symphony. A highly sensitive man in religion as well as art — indeed for him religion and art are coupled inseparably like Juno’s swans.

As a musician and minister of religion myself these words proved an irresistible draw and so, as with the Mellanby lecture earlier in the month, I immediately made myself a mug of tea and sat down to read my new, new found treasure. I’ll leave you to do that should you wish by clicking on THIS LINK. I quickly followed this up by checking for a biography on line and found this brief article by David Wright.

Naturally, all these things led me to do a search for some of his music. Alas, not a great deal is available (and certainly not his Third Symphony) but, thankfully, his Fourth Symphony is currently available on YouTube. It’s a recording of a live performance made in 1984 by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes. If you are attracted by twentieth-century British music influenced by Hindemith (and I assuredly am) then this will prove to be splendid, uplifting little gem. 

There’s also available a very good collection of piano and chamber music/songs AT THIS LINK which I would also recommend giving a listen.


As always, I'd value your thoughts about any of the above or, of course, any of the other subjects explored on this blog.