Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Reverence for Engines: The Thomas the Tank Engine Man

I did not request Brian Sibley's reissue of his 1994 biography The Thomas The Tank Engine Man because of nostalgia. Our son was too old to be a fan of  The Thomas the Tank Engine cartoon series and we read the books. I requested it because the description said Rev. Awdry was a pacifist pastor who during WWII was removed from his curacy because of his stance. I wanted to know more about this man.

Rev. Wilbert Awdry's deep love affair with steam engines began in childhood because of his father's deep interest. Awdry passed this love on to his son Christopher-- a three generation obsession.

Awry made up the stories about train engines who acted like little children to entertain Christopher when he was ill. Awdry then made model trains based on the characters. He was encouraged by his wife to publish the stories. They were beloved by children. When he gave up writing--after over 100 stories--his son later took up pen and wrote more Engine books.

Sibley has a deep knowledge and love of his subject. We learn how each story was conceived and developed, the artists who illustrated the book, Awdry's insistence on accuracy, and reader's reactions to the story. The stories were based on real incidents and verisimilitude was foremost, both in story and in illustration.

The book starts with a detailed genealogy. Awry is given no psychological treatment, his spiritual concerns are not explored in depth. But if one reads between the lines one can imagine another layer.

Awdry was uncertain of a career until his time at Oxford when he decided to follow in his father's footsteps. After earning his theology degree he spent three years teaching in Jerusalem where he met his future wife. After his return to England he was as assistant pastor. Awdry's older brother had been killed in the Great War and Awry was a pacifist. When WWII came to Britain and Awdry maintained his pacifist stance he was asked to leave his position.

The Church of England does not have a call system (where a church seeks and employs a pastor as they desire) but an appointment system (pastoral assignments made at discretion of the Bishop). Awdry had a wife and child to support and no job. The Birmingham Bishop was also a pacifist and offered Awdry a parish. It became the birthplace of Thomas the Tank Engine.

In 1946 the Awdrys moved to Elsworth and Knapwell. The vicarage was sadly neglected. The family split up for months while the house was made fit for their habitation. They were not pleasant years in Awdry's ministry and writing the Engine series was a saving grace. Seven years later he moved to Emneth.

Sometimes Awdry had to do everything himself, from lighting the stoves to heat the church to clearing the chimney of a parishioner. His wife Margaret taught in the Sunday school. Wilbert loved children and started a Junior Church. He rounded up children in his 12-seater van and brought them to the Vicarage for instruction. The morality of the Engine books was based in his theology. He gave responsibilities to the children, explained faith and church with stories--imagined and true-- that were accessible to the children. He always demonstrated that faith was part of every day life.

After twenty years in the parish ministry Awdry retired in 1965. The income from his 26 books was finally enough to live on, about 1000 pounds a year.

Having lived in a parsonage for well over 30 years I am quite intimate with the trials and challenges of pastoral ministry. Pastors are under constant scrutiny and criticized for things done and things undone. Expectations are unrealistic. There are no office hours. It is a round the clock job. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and finding my husband gone, the car gone. He had gotten an emergency call to the hospital and bedside of a dying parishioner. I am amazed that Awdry wrote 25 books while working in the parish and raising his family.

When Sibley asked Awdry about his personal philosophy he replied that this is God's world and disobeying His rules brings trouble on ourselves and others. His characters willfully erred and had to accept the punishment, but where never "scrapped." Forgiveness and redemption and another opportunity to become a "really useful engine" is always available.

Awdry said he wanted  his epitaph to say, "He helped people to see God in the ordinary things of life, and he made children laugh."

This was the man I was hoping to discover.

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