Monday, 27 July 2015

Thunderbolts from Titfield

  I recently stared working at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester as a Trainee Fireman. No, not the big hunky fellas in the yellow helmets… but rather, the filthy guy in blue overalls shovelling coal on a steam train.  A boyhood dream realised – to learn to drive a steam train. And you don’t just start with learning how to drive the thing, oh no: you start at the very bottom literally – underneath it with an oil can. Learning how it works by cleaning the thing. Crawling all over it, under it, under it in your overalls, oiling it, cleaning it, polishing the brass until you can use it as a mirror... and then learning how to fire the engine. It’s a ... Long process. Glamorous it is not. But it is so very, very fulfilling.

So as you might have gathered I’m a fan of steam trains, and it probably comes as no surprise then that one of my favourite films is the ‘Titfield Thunderbolt’ – an Ealing comedy released in 1953. I think that makes it older than all of us here. It is a gentle comedy which pokes fun at real life events – the closing-down of Britain’s railways and the attempt up in the top left hand corner of Wales of a chap called Tom Rolt who in 1951 kicked off the world-wide phenomenon of Railway Preservation by saving the Tal y Llyn railway. The undoubted ‘star’ of the ‘Titfield Thunderbolt’ is the ‘Thunderbolt’ herself, ‘played’ (if that’s the right word) by the engine ‘Lion’ – built in 1838 by a Unitarian: James Kitson, founder of Kitson & Co. the railway engine builders in Leeds and father of Lord Airedale. The West Window at Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds was installed in memory of Lord Airedale – you can see him top right in his ermine robes:

 But I’m not here to talk about windows or railway engines. I want to talk about faith; something the characters in the ‘Titfield Thunderbolt’ have by the bucket load. When they learn that their railway is to be closed down, and replaced by the dreaded ‘Rail Replacement Bus Service’ (and we all know what those are like) they rally round and save their railway. They don’t go roll over and give up without a fight. They love their railway and they believe in it. Led by the Squire and Parson the form their own railway company, run their own trains – despite attempts at sabotage by Pearce & Crump – the bus people – to stop them. Finally, in one last-ditch attempt to shut down the railway, on the evening before the Ministry of Transport inspection, they wreck the engine…. Only to find on the following morning, shining resplendent at Titfield station is the ‘Thunderbolt’ herself – stolen from the town museum, and driven by the Vicar, Rev. Sam Weech with the local Bishop as fireman – frock coat, purple shirt, gaiters and all! Despite further [mis]adventures and attempts to stop the train, the ‘Thunderbolt’ runs into Mallingford Station on time and the railway is saved; Pearce & Crump get their comeuppance by running into the back of a Black Moria, and have the indignity of being taken to gaol by train!

May favourite character is the Vicar, Rev Sam Weech. In one of the funniest scenes is when the Squire informs Sam that the railway is to be closed:

Squire - We're not interrupting the sermon are we?
Vicar - No, no matter.  Emily – bring the ginger wine -You'll find cigarettes in the pocket of my cassock.
Squire - Sam, we've come to talk about the railway.
V - The railway!
S - You haven't heard the news?
V - The news?
S - They're closing it down.
V - I cannot believe it. The oldest surviving branch line in the world.
It's unthinkable. They cannot possibly close it.
S - What about the Canterbury-Whitstable line? They closed that.
V - Perhaps there were not men of sufficient faith in Canterbury.
S - Sam, we've got to fight this. It'll be a virtual monopoly for
Pearce and Crump and their buses - The end of Titfield as we know it.
V - It must never happen - Our railway must be kept running.

‘Perhaps there were not men of sufficient faith.’

Rev James Martineau had this to say about faith

Faith is uppermost in consciousness…. Faith is inspiring. It sustains one in the work of life, when one would otherwise lose heart.’

The people of Titfield never lost their conviction to save their railway and to run it themselves. In fact, it allowed members of the community to use skills that many didn’t know they had; to put into practice childhood dreams. The Vicar wanted to be an engine driver; the Squire a train guard. Here they step up to the mark; their mettle is test. They see whether they can drive an engine or Guard a Train for real. They put their ideas, their faith into practice: the Squire learns that he can be the Guard; and the Vicar is a good engine driver. The wealthy Walter Valentine puts his money where his mouth is by financing the whole venture and it is a success.

The Vicar discovers he does have ‘sufficient faith’ and that faith is not just an intellectual activity: it is a commitment of the heart. It is a practical, doing thing. It’s no good unless it’s put into practice. Faith is best understood in terms of trust and so there will always be an element of risk rather than certainty. Faith is a creative energy or power. It creates relationship. First of all, it invites you into a relationship with yourself (or, perhaps, your better self). Faith will encourage you to believe in yourself and to trust yourself (just as it did the populace of Titfield); even to love yourself, because love is the highest form of this relationship. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that having faith in Jesus was, because he was a man, ultimately to have faith in humanity, faith in the self, faith in the ‘highest nature’ of mankind,

our intimate union with the Divine… the external shrinks away, and is not the lasting object of faith, but rather the point of departure.

Faith is not saying you believe in the existence of someone called God. Nor is it saying you believe in any ‘statements of faith’. Faith is not a statement, and should not be confused with belief. Faith is a commitment. Trust. Trusting that in spite of all, life has meaning and purpose. Faith means taking a risk – and I don’t mean crossing the road when the light is flashing – it means taking a meaningful risk, risking living, and living in the light of it. The Theologian Alan Watts puts it like this:

Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead  you relax and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might be.’

As people of faith, then, our task is clear: we, like the people of Titfield have to put our faith into practice. Like the Rev Sam Weech we can only get so far with all our books and essays, with the intellectual side of things. We have to take a risk, and put it into practice. Sam Weech thought he could drive an engine. He’d read the books. I’ve read the books and I know I can’t… yet. But he put faith in himself and the people of Titfield put their faith in him: and he did it. He prove everyone right and overcame all the obstacles that Pearce & Crump could throw at him. And somtimes it's hard work; it can be painful living a life of faith. We might not, like Sam Weech and Bishop Olly Matthews had to push our engine up the hill, and at times it might feel we are and that the engine will run away from us, but like Sam and Olly we will succeed.

 I’d like to leave you with this question, a challenge perhaps: what is it that you can do. Where it is that you put your faith? What can you do that you secretly wish you could? What can your faith help you overcome – help you do?  As a Community of Faith we need to put our faith (as diverse as it might be) into practice, live our lives in the light of that faith: Jesus said no one lights a lamp and then hides it – we need to let our light, our flame of faith, shine as a beacon to the world. Amen.

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