by Fr. Geoff Harvey
Fr. Geoff’s story is a 7 part series which will be published daily, and shows a living history of the last 50 years while he traces the footsteps of his path to God’s Holy Church.
Ever since I can remember, I have had an awareness of God, even if He has not always been at the centre of my life. He was always in the air I breathed. But although I’ve always attended church services, it took me a while to discover God’s Church.
I was a post Second World War baby boomer, born into the waning days of the British Empire and, as with many military families, we moved frequently. Cities and streets changed, houses changed, schools changed, friends changed — the one constant in my life was the Church of England Liturgy. Every Sunday, no matter where we were in the world, I could count on the Church of England services being the same. The glue of the church was the Liturgy and, looking back, I realise that it gave me a stable focal point in my ever-changing life in different parts of the world.
By age eleven, my parents were travelling overseas constantly with my father’s British Army vocation so, like most military children, I and my two sisters were sent off to boarding school. It was a real shock to my system to suddenly be separated from parents and siblings. What helped me cope was attending the daily and weekly church services at the boarding school.
From age 13 it was possible to attend communion services early every Sunday morning, but I had to sneak out of the shared dormitory really early. Although the Matins service at eleven was compulsory for all boarders, I desperately wanted to get to church by eight o’clock so I could receive Holy Communion. I tried hard to creep quietly out of the dormitory without waking any of the other boys, but can still remember having slippers hurled in my direction by boys who didn’t appreciate being disturbed on their one and only lie-in each week.
I really don’t know where my motivation to attend church services came from. While my parents provided a disciplined example of weekly church attendance, my sisters didn’t pick up this desire. I can only conclude God implanted this desire within me.
I also wanted to help others find faith. I’ve always had this kind of desire to serve God and help others find Him even from that young age. One early ambition was to be a missionary! I have no idea where that came from other than God Himself.
Although I read my King James Bible daily, I also read a lot of Scripture Union notes because it made the Bible so much more enjoyable and understandable. Then I learned that a new translation, the New English Bible, was available. I found one in the local bookshop and really wanted a copy, so I saved up my pocket money for weeks and weeks. When I was finally able to afford it, I so loved reading it. It was in a language I could understand and the Bible started to open up for me.
In my late teens, I moved on from my boarding school and went to Welbeck College. Welbeck College was an Army college for the final two years of schooling, which were designed to recruit and prepare young men for the technical services in the British Army. I was quite successful there in many ways. A bit too successful, because I became rather full of myself. In the military, you must have self-confidence, and they do their best to build that into the young recruits. But it went to my head. As I approached my final exams I thought I was just cruising towards a glorious finish.
But then I failed one of my crucial exams, and my ego came crashing back to earth. That’s how God got my attention again.
Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst
Officer’s training at Sandhurst was tough. Really tough.
In those days, it was still expected for sons to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. I certainly picked that idea up from somewhere. So it was almost expected that I would attend Sandhurst and enter into my father’s Corp: The Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E.). But I arrived without the crucial qualifications that I needed to enter this Corps.
As we were being inducted into the Academy, I overheard another young cadet being asked,
“What religion are you.”
I was amazed when he responded,
“I haven’t got any religion.”
The sergeant major then said,
“What? You ain’t got no religion? You have to have religion in the British Army. You’re C of E.”
And so he was marked down as Church of England. That was my first exposure to someone without any faith. I realised that while God was an all-pervading presence in my life many others had no awareness Him.
It might seem a bit strange, when God was ‘always in the air I breathed’, to talk about a conversion. But during the early unbelievably hectic period at Sandhurst the memory of God became faint. In those days we still had compulsory church parades and so I never completely lost contact. But then something happened that was to change the way I viewed the world. One day, as I was looking at the notice board to see if there were any important orders to be obeyed, a nervous looking cadet hesitantly invited me to a meeting of the Officers Christian Union (OCU) in the Academy Chapel. I thought he might burst into tears if I said no, so quickly agreed to go.
Sitting there in that chapel at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, with a small group of cadets, I listened to one of the Army Padres talking. I can’t even remember what he was talking about now, but it somehow warmed my heart and drew me in. This particular padre was a most impressive man. He played rugby for England so couldn’t be written off as someone who needed a crutch to live. His message had a real impact on me, and so I kept going back to those meetings.
A while later our small group were all invited to attend a retreat at Amport House in Hampshire over a weekend. One of the speakers was General Sir Robert Ewbank, who was the engineer who built the first bridge across the Rhine when the British Army was advancing into Germany in the final days of the second World War. He was another extremely impressive person and I just wanted more. One of the activities over that weekend was watching a film about Martin Luther. Seeing Martin Luther’s story made me whisper into my pillow that night,
“God, if you’re there, show me.”
Monday morning saw us back at Sandhurst. On my way to lectures that morning, I distinctly remember thinking,
“Something is different.”
Somehow, the sounds seem more alive. I thought, “I didn’t know that the birds sang at Sandhurst! I thought to myself, “What a wonderful morning it is!” And then I realised that my whole appreciation for the world had changed. Suddenly I felt like I was a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The very next Sunday, on our compulsory church parade, I was following the 1662 Book of Common Prayer like I had every Sunday for my entire life when the words we were saying somehow seemed more alive than they ever had before. I turned to the cadet standing next to me and said,
“Goodness, this must have been written by a Christian.”
He looked at me very strangely! Somehow my spiritual eyes had been opened to the richness of the Church of England Liturgy. I had always just followed the service parrot-fashion, because that was what one did. Now, almost for the first time, the meaning started coming through. When I was converted, not only did my experience of the world change, but the Bible and the Church of England Prayer Book, which contains much scripture, came alive too.
In Sandhurst I’d picked up the terrible habit of swearing. That’s what Army men did. So, after this experience, the next time I reflexively uttered the Lord’s name in vain in front of another of the Christian cadets I was utterly shocked. I realised what I’d done. That was the last time I took the Lord’s name in vain.
The young army officer
I’d become very self-focused during the intense military training. Now I became much more aware of the others around me and my focus began to turn outward.
At a subsequent OCU retreat I came into contact with a para-church group called the Navigators, who had a big American military ministry, and who were trying to get a ministry going in the British Army. I was drawn to their level of commitment, their attention to studying the Bible and developing a devotional life. I was then discipled by a young Church of England curate who was working with the Navigators. He was an ex-paratrooper who had been dropped into Egypt during the Suez Canal crisis. Then he had studied theology at Cambridge University and gone on to be ordained. He took me under his wing and became my spiritual father for the rest of his life. I owe him an immense debt.
My conversion experience was so strong that all I wanted to do was give up my military career and serve God in full-time in ministry. It wasn’t possible because I had ‘signed on the dotted line,’ and Her Majesty required me to fulfil my obligation. But I never lost that sense of call while I serving out my time in the British military.
Eventually I passed the crucial exam that I had failed and was commissioned into the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers. During my time in the British Army I served in Malaysia, Germany and Northern Ireland.
lol “you’re C of E”