Despite having been born in the north west of England, respected BBC presenter and journalist Clive Myrie places his roots very firmly in the West Indies, he told an audience gathered at Chester Cathedral this week for the launch of his autobiography, Everything is Everything.
Clive Augustus Myrie was born on 25th August 1964 in Farnworth, near Bolton, Lancashire, to Jamaican immigrant parents, who came to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. His mother was a seamstress who worked for Mary Quant, and his father was a factory worker who made car batteries and carpets. Both had left a difficult outlook in Jamaica to come to Britain and, as part of the Windrush generation, went on to make a good life here for themselves and their children.
But whilst Clive knew a great deal about his family and his antecedents, it wasn’t until the age of 34 that he found out that he was a baptised Catholic – and the revelation revealed a poignant episode in his mother’s life that has affected him ever since.
He had been brought up in the Church of England and met his Irish wife-to-be Catherine at a 1992 book launch. Six years later, as the couple were planning their wedding at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Covent Garden, Myrie assumed he would have to be baptised into Catherine’s Catholic faith. However, he was shocked to discover this wouldn’t be necessary, as he was already a baptised Catholic, thanks to his mother Lynne who was a Catholic and taught in the local Catholic school in Westmorland, Jamaica. Lynne had ensured that her young son was baptised in the faith that was so fundamental to her.
When the couple decided to come to Britain in search of a better life for the family, Clive says that his mother’s Catholic faith “would be more important to her than ever in the new land”.
“It would be something solid and stable that she understood, while all around was alien,” says Myrie.
“She figured that the Church would be a rock to cling on to, as her world was transformed, far away from everything she knew. Her God would at least be by her side.”
Myrie recounts that his mother asked her local Catholic priest in Westmorland, Father Pashby, for a letter of introduction to the priest at the church closest to her new home in Bolton.
“Fr Pasby was more than happy to oblige,” says Myrie.
“He wrote out a little note, folded it up and popped it in an envelope for my mum, which she placed in her handbag. She never peeked at the note, and the envelope lay undisturbed during the packing of her belongings and during the flight from Jamaica to Britain, until she handed it to the priest in Bolton”.
His mother put on her best floral dress, and waited patiently after Mass to give the note to her new parish priest. What happened next conditioned both the rest of her life, and much of that of her famous son. The priest opened the letter, read it, and then asked Mrs Myrie where she was living. Just a few streets away she replied, to which the priest expressed his regret that the address fell outside his diocese, and she would therefore have to attend a Catholic church several miles – and several bus rides – away.
Decades later that incident still haunts Myrie.
“Why? Was it truly the suggestion that her home was on the wrong side of the road to his church by a few yards? Or was there something more sinister, something un-Godly, cruel and nasty, wicked and wrong?
“To this day my mum will not have it that this was anything, and that a Catholic priest could behave in any other way, but I was horrified to learn that the priest in Bolton had turned my mum away,” says Myrie.
“I thought of the irony of what had happened. The early part of the 19th Century saw a programme of Catholic church building in England, catering to the needs of the newly arrived Irish immigrants after Catholic emancipatiuon. They were places of worship and solace for Irish Catholics in a potentially hostile new world, and my Jamaican Catholic mother hoped to find solace there too.
“The church [St Patrick’s] that had rejected my mum would have been built around this time. St Patrick with his foot on the snake was supposed to be crushing evil, not fellow Catholics,” notes Myrie.
Despite her experience with the English priest, Myrie’s mother remained determined to have him baptised Catholic, which happened at St Gregory’s Church in Farnworth in Bolton.
“I was the first baby baptised there under new rules designed to modernise the Church,” says Myrie.
“The service was directed in English, not Latin, which was a monumental step, given the primacy and power of Rome, and the role Latin had played in unifying a disparate global communion … the Church understood it had to adapt to survive, and that is the lesson it must take away, Catholic or Anglican, from the accusations of racism.”
And how far does Clive Myrie think the Church has progressed since those troubled days of the Windrush migration and reluctance to welcome the stranger on our doorstep?
“Most people attending worship on a Sunday morning are white and elderly,” says Myrie.
“Quite frankly, they will not be around in a decade or two. But it does have these large numbers of black and brown people who are eager to participate in the life of the Church, to contribute to its ministry.
“Appointing black bishops would go some way to engaging people and telling them that they matter,” he says.
“But there are 42 senior bishops in the Church of England, with only one from an ethnic minority background. Out of the 22 Catholic bishops in England and Wales, there are none!”
The need for change within the Christian churches was also brought home to Myrie in 2013, when he was sent to South Africa to cover Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
“I felt a profound sadness that a good man was no more, but hoped his story of Courage and sacrifice would somehow live on in this new South Africa, along with his insistence on forgiveness, born out of his faith,” said Myrie.
“His willingness not to seek reprisals on whites, but to have them talk about the sins of apartheid, underpins his creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Desmond Tutu in 1996. It allowed victims of gross human rights violations to give statements about their experiences … and the perpetrators of violence to give their testimony and request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution. It was an attempt at restorative justice.
“I thought it was a brave, inspired thing to do, genuinely to try applying the teachings of the Church in such a context to bring communities together, to prevent them being driven apart.
“Mandela’s God is the one my mum would recognise.”
Everything is Everything, a Memoir of Love, hate and Hope, by Clive Myrie is published by Hodder and Stoughton, priced £22.
UPDATE: We have been contacted by several subscribers who have challenged the accuracy of Clive Myrie’s account of events at Farnworth. We are very happy to explore this, and to convey comments and information directly to Mr Myrie. If you wish to comment please do so on our discussion forum, where there is a thread for this topic.