My dear friends,
Our society demands a peculiar degree of perfection from its figureheads. Hence the media’s slavering over the tasty question of what certain Conservative leadership candidates got up to during their student days. This demand is neither as healthy nor as wholly ‘moral’ as it would like to think. Many great historic figures of Christianity have had distinctly dodgy pasts, and more than a few seemed to retain aspects of their flawed characters whilst exercising the most dynamic of Christian ministries. St Paul, a prime example, was reassured ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in your weakness’.
The recent bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805, has brought the character of Admiral, Lord Nelson into the spotlight. I have never been a great admirer. For me, his flagrant affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, placed his naval achievements under something of a shadow. I now believe that view to be a distorted perspective.
Nelson demonstrated extraordinary courage in battle. Horribly wounded on a number of occasions he nevertheless pressed onward from victory to victory. He was blinded in the right eye in 1793, had his right arm amputated in 1797, and famously refused to retreat from the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. When choosing to ignore his commander’s signal to withdraw, he is reputed to have wryly said, ‘What is the use of having a blind eye if one cannot turn it to good use?’ He pressed onward and led his forces to triumph. He was a quite exceptional leader of men.
These qualities were demonstrated again at Trafalgar. Eschewing a traditional naval exchange of broadsides, Nelson sailed his smaller fleet en echelon into the flank of the greater combined French and Spanish force. It was an almost suicidal manoeuvre, and a severe test of nerve. During the approach the English vessels were completely defenceless. Sailing at the enemy head-on they were unable to bring their own guns to bear whilst salvo after salvo shredded their bows. On board Victory, fifty of her eight hundred crew were already dead before she crashed into the side of two enemy vessels and fired her first shots. But now amidst the enemy the English ships reeked havoc, and the rest as they say is history.
Nelson was mortally wounded by a French sniper in the action, but before death came he had the satisfaction of knowing that the battle was won, Britain was secure from invasion, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans to dominate Europe were frustrated.
Those who served with Nelson loved him. To the British public he was a national hero. But the view of polite society and parts of the national press was lukewarm, unable to forgive him for his offences against social convention. Nelson’s memory rapidly fell from favour, Emma and their illegitimate daughter Horatia slid into penury and were placed in a debtors’ gaol, and nearly forty years passed by before an appropriate sense of perspective was restored and a fitting memorial was raised by a grateful nation to this remarkable man.
But it is not Nelson’s martial qualities that impress me, and it is certainly not his distorted morality, rather it is his spirituality. Raised in a Norfolk Rectory, the private world of his diaries record many prayers, not least the one he wrote on the eve of Trafalgar; it reflects the inner world of a man painfully aware of his own weaknesses, with a profound sense of duty and vocation, and a deep trust in God.
All too often the Christian faith has been portrayed as the natural home for those predisposed to piety and a conventional morality, but I like to think Nelson’s prayers indicate that the kingdom of God is bigger and broader than that. The Christian life is not a refuge for the naturally timid and feeble-hearted, it is a furnace where impure lives are refined, forged and hammered by the master craftsman of human souls.
St Paul observed how strength and
weakness often coexist in complex patterns in human personalities. Do not be
too ready to disqualify yourself or others for their failings. The penalty
would be churches, political parties or governments with lifeless, passionless
leadership. That was not what the nation needed in 1805 and it is not what it
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