Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review: Gordon Hannon: Some Parson! Some Man

Biographies can be a useful way of getting to know another person, particularly someone from another era. Christian biography can be especially helpful when it shows that saints in previous generations have been through the same struggles, giving encouragement for the road that lies ahead.

Almost ten years ago, a biography was published on the father of a former bishop of Clogher, Brian Hannon, and grandfather of the Divine Comedy and The Duckworth Lewis Method frontman, Neil Hannon. I'd picked it up in a charity shop and had left it on my to-read pile for a while, so finally dived in to see what it would tell me about Gordon Hannon. In some ways, it almost tells the reader more about the author than about the subject - written by Gordon's son David, it is David's opinions and preferences that are brought to the fore.

The introduction highlights the meteoric rise of Gordon Hannon, a canon at 32, rector of Shankill Parish, Lurgan and Archdeacon of Dromore by the age of 41, he suddenly and unexpectedly stepped off 'the career ladder'. This career ladder and the desire to rise is seen in the son's glowing terms of his promotions, and also in this comment on Gordon's short stay in Ballymoney of just three years: 'The fact that he only stayed in the Parish for three years, while learning and practising the exercise of the duties of a Rector, suggests that he learnt quickly and soon mastered the practicalities of what was involved.' The move to Lurgan was then 'an extraordinary leap forward in his career.'

Another sign of the author's opinions crops up in describing how two of Gordon's brothers had been killed in the First World War, and how a friend and advisor of Gordon's had written to him: 'I hope you don't hesitate to pray for the brothers who have been taken from you. Death has not put them beyond the reach of our prayers.' The author then comments: 'A remarkable comment, in direct contradiction of Church of Ireland teaching at the time.' As if, in his mind, the teaching of the Church has changed! We do not and should not pray for the dead - our prayers cannot help them, if believers, they are in Christ and in no need of anything; if unbelievers, they await the last judgement.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, although also the most confusing, was the reason Gordon had given up his 'career ladder' and resigned the parish and Archdeaconry. It all came about through attending a School of Life for Clergy run by the Oxford Group, led by Frank Buchman. There, he realised that his wife 'had no real or meaningful faith' - which made me wonder why he had married her in the first place... The Oxford Group came to be central in his life, later renamed Moral Re-Armament (MRA), which was some sort of philosophical Christianity. The standards of the group centred on the need for change and being totally committed to God, tested in four areas: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, absolute love. These were explained and expanded in Gordon's book 'Any Parson'.

Yet this 'special' kind of commitment and organisation seeking to bring change seems to me to be seeking what should be found in the normal Christian life. It leads me to wonder why it took a special organisation to need it? What was lacking in the churches in this period of the interwar years and postwar years? There does seem to have been some sort of change evident in his life - but was this actually a first conversion, rather than some second turning and re-dedication?

The book then traces Gordon's life in serving with MRA, working with Frank Buchman and travelling around the world, before finally coming home and becoming the Vicar of Kilbroney in Rostrevor.

All in all, it was an interesting read, but not one I'd recommend. There were parts where I didn't like the writing style, with bits in present tense, rather than past tense, and it was often bitty in content. It's also hard to know who the book is produced for, unless those in the older generations who would have known or heard tell of Gordon. The book is available secondhand on Amazon for £0.01.

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