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Bishop Martin Seeley describes how his interest in geography and geology shaped his life in the church



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I grew up on the slopes of Portsdown Hill, a westward extension of the South Downs, and spent many an afternoon playing on the chalky slopes, scrabbling through the pits and rubble looking for fools gold – iron pyrites.

That experience played a part in geography becoming my favourite subject at school, and I spent the first years at university studying it.

And I enjoyed physical geography the most – how our landscapes are shaped, and that led me into a fascination with geology. But I appreciated the human side of geography too, particularly the nature and patterns of human settlements.

The Right Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Picture by Mecha Morton
The Right Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Picture by Mecha Morton

I discovered many years later that I liked the subject because it was about making connections, seeing how things related to each other.

Geography is about what determines the location of villages in relation to each other, and villages in relation to towns. It’s not just random, nor simply determined by features like river crossings, high defensive points, fertile valleys, and so forth. And there is a relationship between the number of villages to towns, and the number of towns to cities, and their sizes. Those same relationship questions applied to the formation and location of rivers, of hills and valleys, of cliffs and plains – asking how does one relate to and effect another.

Geographers are, by and large, synthetic thinkers – looking for connections – more than analytic thinkers – how does this thing work – though of course they need both.

So after living in Suffolk for nearly seven years you would have thought that I had been long thinking about the landscape and settlement patterns and been asking all those joining up questions.

And that I would know that Suffolk is underlain by chalk. But I hadn’t – either thought much about the terrain, or asked much about the geology! Until I was visiting a farm in the north west of the county and was shown a spectacular lime pit – with sheer chalk cliffs rising out of the grass and brambles below.

Which brought back for me all the geographer’s questions. This all started just a few weeks ago, so I’m really just getting going, but the chalk sighting sent me off to the Geological Survey map shop to purchase (online, of course) geological maps of East Anglia, and of Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich.

And, of course, they showed the chalk – up to 200 or even 300 or more metres thick – much closer to the surface in the west of the county than in the east, although there are some striking exposures from old chalk workings in the east, in places such as Claydon and Great Blakenham, near Ipswich.

That realisation, that Suffolk is underlain by chalk, also helped me realise why I feel so at home here, with resonances of my childhood chalk landscapes. The Suffolk terrain as we all know is much less hilly than what I had been used to as a child, but the smooth slopes, the gentle inclines and great expanses of lightly curving land are all typical of the landscape based on underlying chalk.

The chalk would have formed from a vast sea, 80 to 100 million years ago. The deposits on top, evident across the county but deeper in the east than the west, are glacial or from rivers. And however thickly covered the chalk may be, it is the chalk that really determines the overall form of the landscape.

And that impact is not just the landscape – it determines the hardness of our water, chalk is the source of the flints we see in many of our churches and other older buildings, and it effects, with the later deposits, the nature and quality of the soil.

My youthful geography and geology fascinations I realised just a little while ago were all part of my exploration, my curiosity about God. I could even say, geography was my theology – which of course was what I spent the other two thirds of my time at university studying.

And geography and geology was not just about exploring what it meant that God is creator, but it was also about immensity – the extraordinary immensity of geological and geomorphological time – incomprehensible for us, touching on the incomprehensibility of God. I learned early on that God is not immediately evident all the time, in obvious ways. That is the experience of most of us, I imagine.

But then, God shapes, underlies, effects, everything, even if God is not strikingly clearly obvious.

Like the chalk. We can’t see it most of the time, but it is making all the difference, all the time.

And then there are outcrops, moments when it is strikingly obvious, right in front of us – a white cliff rising up surprisingly. And God is the same – sudden moments of clarity are given to us, out of the blue.

And those moments help us realise and remember that, like the chalk, God is there all the time, making all the difference.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich