Temple Gairdner of Cairo (1873-1928)

Owning up to my heroes is maybe a task more suited to the confessional than to the parish magazine: for a while back there, Starsky and Hutch were a pretty important part of my life, and even now it’s Tina Turner who’s really at the top my heroic league table – guts, talent, staying power (and as for dress sense . . . say no more!). And while I could offer a dozen reasons why she’s my hero of the spirit, that might strain your credibility. But then so, too, might some of the descriptions of my real spiritual hero. As a student at Oxford his evangelical narrowness was considered a ‘byword’, and what he said of his own ambitions rests somewhat uneasily with modern scruples about our colonial past –"I should like to serve my Queen. Can I do better than by taking Christ to her Empire? She would like that, I think." (as a student at the Diamond Jubilee Procession of Queen Victoria). But for all that, when (as a student myself) I first read a biography of Temple Gairdner of Cairo, I knew that there was a great deal in this man to aspire to. It was probably the first time I had read a book and thought. ‘This is right and true; this is how I want to be’.

William Temple Gairdner was one of the early CMS missionaries to Egypt. As a boy his great hero was General Gordon. When he was at school the news reports of the siege of Khartoum were read out once a week, and he remembered picturing his hero like a character in a fairy tale "standing on the roof of the palace at Khartoum and straining his vision northwards" for the relief party, which was to come too late. His passion for Gordon was at the heart of his life’s work – and of his faith. As a student facing his future he read ‘The Life of Gordon’, and recorded his prayer:

If he was like this, what wast Thou, Jesus? Come in Jesus, his Jesus and mine, and make me brave, retiring, humble, hardy, large–hearted, strenuous, pure, loving. And I praise Thee for him – what he was and is to me.

So when CMS sent him to Cairo still in his early twenties, he was not only fulfilling his faith’s vocation, but magnificently enjoying a dream–come–true to follow in the footsteps of his great hero.

The whole of his adult life was spent in Egypt; initially he taught in schools, and then worked with adult Moslems – both those with a western education and those educated under the Quranic system. For the last four years of his life he was pastor of the Arab Mission Church in Cairo, working in partnership with the Catholic Church to establish a united Christian community of converts from Islam, free from fear of reprisals from the Moslem community and fully indigenous in liturgy, music and ministers: a truly local Anglican Church in Egypt. Throughout his working life he struggled to provide literature (including Bibles and evangelistic materials) in Arabic, and to develop a hymnody for the Egyptian church base on the local Eastern musical forms. For although his passionate concern was to win converts to Christ from the Islamic population, he was clearly able to distinguish the heart of the Christian faith from its Western trappings – and to regard dialogue with Islam as a fundamental challenge to the church to get its own theology in order!

What has really drawn me to Temple Gairdner is not his work – remarkable though that was – but his exceptional qualities of joy and dedication, and the degree to which he integrated his faith with other delights of his life. He wrote in his journal, "I believe that the alliance of the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty is – well in short, a holy alliance" and prayed for "a heart that enjoys". That his prayer was answered is amply shown in the pleasure he took in his friends and family, and in those he worked with (a Moslem student remembered "I felt he loved me for myself, not because I might become a Christian only – and in this I found he was like Christ") and in his love for music and art. In all this he was profoundly respectful and attentive.

In case this sounds good but dull, I’ll finish with an episode he recalls when on furlough in his native Scotland, which hints at the out–of–doors robustness and glee which certainly characterizes him best:

I went out alone on the sea wall and I shouted against the wind, yes shouted in prayer to the God of that wind to blow with the rushing west wind of His Spirit into mine and make it as healthful and free and blowy as that gale from the sea. No one was there to hear and I shouted praise in a sort of madness. It was splendid! And then, I prayed to be calm, pure, fresh, fragrant, open, spacious, natural as that beautiful sea.

In many ways I’m surprised at myself for having an evangelical Victorian missionary for my ‘Hero of the Spirit’ – but I find something irresistibly Christlike in his graciousness and passion and self–abandonment: "if he was like this, what was Thou, Jesus?"

George Morley, December 1994


http://www.stpetersnottingham.org/heroes/gairdner.htm
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997