As I have gotten older, I have found myself, much to my consternation, acquiring a taste for a little nostalgia, returning to an interest in my old school which for me had many mixed blessings. It was a turbulent time, money was tight and one of my old Headmasters was, I thought, nothing more than a jumped up PR man, accountant and publicist. However, the skein of history is not so easily broken, tarnished as it becomes by sordid and slightly grubby commerce.
William Webb Ellis is known worldwide as the renegade day boy credited with having invented the glorious game. He not only played rebellious rugby football on the Close, the original school playing field, he also dutifully sang hymns and offered prayers in the School Chapel, soaked up the High Victorian atmosphere and heard the words which the touch of time would turn to truth.
For after completing his education, the inventor of rugby football began a life of service as a minister in the Church, becoming the vicar of St Clement Danes on the Strand in London.
100 years later, another young Rugbeian went dutifully to chapel and, like so many teenagers, wondered if there was a God. “If there was,” wrote John Stott, ” he has eluded me.” From sitting in the Rugby School Chapel, unsure of the whole point, he went on to serve for 30 years as a minister in All Souls Church in London. And not just on a parochial scale: he travelled the world teaching generations of Christians, wrote more than 50 books and has been a major influence on the lives of many in Britain and beyond. My father knew him well and he ate at our house.
To learn is not, however, to conform. I spoke once with a Scholar – selected out by extreme ability, who, when I asked him about Chapel, he replied with slight but characteristic disdain: “I just conform.” I can recall, even after fifty years, my sense of being quite appalled, for the conformist settles into the lees at the bottom of the wine bottle, contributing little original thought.
Last year, during the Rugby World Cup, the Rugby School community in Chapel one Sunday was reminded of Webb Ellis’s ‘fine disregard’ for the rules and in comparison that no one disregarded quite so many rules, nor with such shattering effect, as Yeshua of Nazareth. His was a life of joyful, painful, playful, disturbing rule-breaking from the moment of his conception to his ultimate disregard for the rules of life and death.
William Webb Ellis, John Stott and countless other Rugbeians walk a pathway of faith, upon which I have stumbled along beside them which had its beginning in my old School Chapel, ugly behemoth as it is. Today, I gather, the Chapel is still there to offer all the opportunity to listen for, hear and respond to the still small voice. One day, I may go back and sit in its choir stalls where I first heard of El Shaddai.