Book Review: The Pure in Heart

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The Pure in Heart

An Epistle from the Romanies

Martin Burrell (2009), Milton Keynes: Author House Books

“He will cover you with His feathers

And under His wings you will find refuge…

…For He will command His angels concerning you

To guard you in all your ways;

They will lift you up in their hands…”

The story of how Martin Burrell became a priest and partner to the Romany [sic] communities in his pastoral care, is a truly heart-warming one. Burrell’s own journey, from professional musician to priest, from ill-health to wellness, and from a gorgio who knew almost nothing about Romani people and Travellers, aside from what his childhood had taught him, to an ardent advocate and champion of Romani rights and the Romany people, is told in his own words and captures the immediacy of his experiences (as well as the ‘steep learning curve’ about Romani people) in a book that is open and accepting. The author’s own prejudices are laid bare, in a way that allows the reader to see them without any attempts at justification or liberal platitudes; more importantly, when he experiences these, he reaches for his faith and seeks understanding, compassion and humility in order to challenge himself (and others), to change and adapt. Burrell’s journey is also one from the unwitting prejudices of the majority, to the (sometimes painful) acceptance of the wrongness of those stereotypes and negative attitudes.

Early on, he describes the process by which most non-Romani people are taught to distrust and dismiss ‘Gypsies’:

 “…I knew very little about gypsies [sic] …these were strange people who were to be feared… An irrational fear and prejudice had been successfully instilled in me.” (Burrell, 2009:7) 

As Martin recounts his encounters with the Romanies in his parish, through their reaching out to him (initially asking for holly from his garden at the rectory, around Christmas-tide) and their increasing participation in the ‘church’, he also reveals his spiritual journey that is inspired and challenged as a result of these encounters, his ordered, somewhat bureaucratic existence as a minister, changing to become a true believer in a rejuvenated, more apostolic and inspirational church, through the various small revelations and miracles, the trials and tribulations, and the awakening of faith amongst the Romanies in his parish and beyond. The establishment of what the author calls, “the Romany Cluster”, a regular spiritual gathering to celebrate the eucharist, developed to the point when, in 2009, the ‘church’ had become Romani-led and organised, as Martin moved from his original parish in Cranbrook to one in Luton. In the narrative the author is quite clear in his hesitation about the hand-over, his concern that the time-keeping and regularity of the services would fall away without his organisation, grounded in the common misconception that Romani people are unable to meet the demands of what Martin calls “Chronos time”, living in a way that marks the passage of hours and minutes. The author describes the Romanies living in what he conceives of as “Kairos moments”, living in the expectation or acceptance of remarkable and unexpected events, in what is a positive and genuine attempt to understand a very different approach to life, however it may seem to echo a gorgio stereotype (as it so often is, when rendered as part of a litany of ‘failings’ about ‘Gypsies’).

There are many episodes in the book that stay with the reader afterwards: the moment, at the beginning of the book when one of the Romany people, Moses, experiences a vision of the Nativity star, shining directly from the tower of the local church, St Dunstan’s into his house. The holding of a series of Romany baptisms in the sea, off of the coast of Folkstone, close to where St Augustine first brought Roman Catholicism to early mediaeval Britain, is another. Martin is not unaware that the hierarchy and more ‘orthodox’ members of the Church of England may well view that particular episode (and many of the others), with “raised eyebrows” at the diocese, but this is another of the journeys that he undertakes; the move from seeing the church as, in the words of the old adage, ‘the Tory party at prayer’ to a record of a church, as Dr Rowan Williams (then) Archbishop of Canterbury describes, that 

“…happens even when the institution … [the Church of England] … isn’t looking – how people are gathered together around Jesus Christ by the sheer force of the Spirit’s leading. God constantly goes ahead of us in mission – not least in communities many Christians don’t know about, or even don’t much want to know about!”

The book is also filled with examples of prayers and songs, some in English Romany, such as the Lord’s Prayer that begins:

Our Da up a koi, Cushti yer nav, Yer Folky will kur…

The Romanies’ version of the Creed, itself a beautiful example of formal British English that goes back to the Tyndale translation of the sixteenth-century, is profoundly moving to read, with phrases such as:

We believe Jesus’ love is like a running stream, Flowing to all corners of the world… It flows everywhere, Even to the desert…

In all, the book captures the particular experiences of a group of Romanies and a village priest, that became a congregation and empowered both in a way that truly reflects the workings of the Spirit. The story is so well-written and so immediate in its descriptions of joy and tragedy (including a death in one of the Romani families), that one cannot help but be moved. There are also moments of humour, especially as this is a story, as the Bishop of Lichfield writes in his review, “…when a group of travellers [sic] who believe in the miraculous” are invited, by the local vicar (Martin Burrell) into “…an ancient village church where the parishioners believe in the pews.” In this story, as Chapter Ten tells us, one where “Jesus was a Romany”, the journey is the point…

By Dr Adrian R Marsh, PhD