Testimony to the grace of God in the lives of Leonard and Betty Gray

Leonard Gray: born 27 May 1920, died 3 February 2015
Betty Gray: born 23 November 1925, died 29 April 2015

Nobody who knew Leonard and Betty Gray was surprised by their deaths within weeks of each other. They were inseparable companions for over 70 years and their marriage in 1945 coincided with their decision to attend Quaker meeting. Deeply religious all their long lives, they found their way to Quakerism from different Christian backgrounds, having agreed that a shared religious life was an essential part of married life. Their membership of the Religious Society of Friends has since benefited Friends in many different meetings, in London, Essex and Sussex and latterly in Banbury and Northampton. Len and Betty have left us with indelible memories of two Quaker lives faithfully lived, in unity with each other and in harmony with those around them. Neither sought prominence in national service, though Len briefly served on Meeting for Sufferings and both regularly attended Yearly Meeting. Instead, they shared their gifts at local level, serving their religious community in the roles of elder, clerk and treasurer as well as playing an active role in wider community life. Their family life was central, and was equally a model of love in action.

Both Len and Betty came from poor working class families, making their way into professional occupations through educational opportunity and the hard graft of self-education alongside the responsibilities of work and family. Len’s childhood in Bethnal Green was a tough one, and by the age of fourteen he found himself taking on the responsibilities of an absent father. Betty’s family was better provided for, by a train-driver father and a mother who had worked as a domestic servant in a country house. Both Len and Betty soon proved their academic ability by winning coveted grammar school places, and Betty went on to achieve the distinction of the highest English matriculation marks in all England. Len was also highly intelligent, but poverty denied him a smooth progression into university. Instead he began work as a docklands clerk, and it was only years later that he was able to study in the evenings to become a Chartered Secretary: a job which drew on his personal qualities of integrity, thoroughness and attention to detail, and was to prove of great benefit to his voluntary work in the community. Betty became a highly competent secretary, trained as a teacher while her children were at school, and eventually taught commerce and office practice in schools and colleges: a job which gave her the satisfaction of nurturing and encouraging girls who had often started out with low ambitions and self-belief. Privately, she dreamed of becoming either a writer or a singer, and poured her talents into three unpublished novels and her local choir, as well as into the creative side of the domestic arts. She loved cooking, knitting, needlework and dress-making and was prodigious in her work-rate. ‘Must get on’ was one of Betty’s favourite sayings, and her loving care extended beyond her son Jerry and her adopted daughter Sue to include her garden and a wide array of household pets.

The Second World War was a key formative experience for both Len and Betty. Betty was evacuated as a teenager to a new home in a Gloucestershire village, where her domestic labour was exploited but she gained a deep love of the countryside. Returning to Ilford, she expanded her lively engagement with the social and religious life of her local Baptist church, and it was through a ‘blind date’ on a church outing that she soon met her future husband. Len’s wartime experience was more traumatic. His Anglo-Catholic religious life had always been important to him, and as the 1930s advanced his childhood service as an altar boy and choir member deepened into a religious concern about matters of war and peace. By 1938 he was finding it more and more difficult to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the concept of war. He read pacifist literature and attended Peace Pledge meetings, and conversations with two school friends who attended the local Friends Meeting eventually led him to the Bedford Institute. Here he found the support, fellowship and information which gave him the confidence to declare his conscientious objection. In January 1940 Len left his disapproving employer and family behind to join forestry work at Kershope, north Cumberland, under the pacifist auspices of Pierre Ceresole’s International Voluntary Service for Peace. For the first time in his life he found himself undertaking hard manual labour, in the company of university-educated men whose refusal to serve was rooted in both moral and political objections. The Carlisle tribunal granted him conditional exemption from military service, and later in the war he found himself back in London clearing bombsites, helping out at air-raid shelters, assisting displaced families and at the same time lodging alongside Quakers and serving at Friends House as a volunteer fire-watcher. His war work was eventually managed through the Friends War Victims Relief Service. As he later wrote, ‘I still felt myself to be an Anglo-Catholic and attended Mass whenever I could, but I began to find that Quakers somehow had a better grasp on the reality of religion.’ The seeds had been sown for Len and Betty’s joint entry into Quakerism at the end of the war.

Towards the end of his life Len realised that his personal testimony as a conscientious objector was of interest and importance to later generations. He overcame the inhibitions of deep personal modesty to write and record a reflective account of his experience, published in a local book of Quaker Peace Stories (2010). He also gradually came round to the idea of a national memorial to Quaker non-combatant service, and was present at the inauguration of the Quaker Service Memorial at the National Arboretum in April 2013. During the return journey from this event he reflected upon Sydney Bailey’s comment: ‘Peace begins within ourselves…Peace is a process to engage in, not a goal to be reached’(QF&P 24.58). Len’s thoughts on Quaker pacifism were the fruit of deep experience and wide reading. He found Remembrance Day difficult, respecting the sacrifice of others but complaining that ‘it’s sort of ambushed to become a militaristic operation’. His personal choice of life-long pacifism had not been an easy one, but came down to one simple truth: ‘if I were to say “Yes, this armed conflict is right”, then I’d have to be prepared to kill somebody. And I’m not.’

Len and Betty were never at the forefront of the organised peace movement, but they witnessed to its values from within their family life and their local Quaker meetings. They are remembered by their children as devoted parents, offering the emotional security of fairness and consistency as well as generous love. As her son put it, Betty ‘had a real and true belief and was at peace with herself’. This spiritual strength flowed into Meeting for Worship, and Betty’s often-poetic ministry was so much enjoyed that in 2007 Northampton Meeting published a small collection of her favourite poems, with her comments below. Len remained a seeker all his life, sometimes depressed by the world’s evils and unable to find solace in worship. Yet his religious insights were deeply valued by those who knew him well. He put his faith into practice through helping to set up an ecumenical rent guarantee scheme in Banbury, perhaps the only one in Britain funded entirely by voluntary donations. After his death Betty said that he ‘lived true to what he believed in’, and that is a fitting Quaker epitaph.

In small things as well as large, Len and Betty Gray will be remembered as kindly, considerate and deeply spiritual Friends. Betty loved the natural world and Len’s humane pacifism was bound up with his sense of awe before the grandeur of God’s universe. His favourite biblical quotation placed mankind in a position of due reverence before a God demanding ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ before reminding us of the moment of creation ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy’ (Job, 38.4-7).