Interview with John Riley

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Interview with
John Riley


In 1989 Major John Riley was Seigneur of the Franc Fief, Trinity and lived at Trinity Manor. He was often called by the popular epithet "The Galloping Major" because of his role in the Jersey Drag Hunt. That year he gave an interview to Cliff and Pam Le Clercq for The Pilot magazine

"Major John Riley, Seigneur of Trinity, was born a little over six decades past into a family which may well be termed the privileged gentry of country landowners. Thoughtful and obviously methodical in his approach to life, Major Riley prepared a draft for our interview which we can do no better than to reproduce in full. It sets the scene on which we enlarged during our talk together."


In childhood I never questioned my grandfather's insistence that I serve at mass in the manor chapel, the significance of ritual or the necessity for confession to a priest. Religion was to me a discipline similar to that imposed at boarding school for 'character building' or at home, because it was 'the right way to behave’.

My realisation that a Christian belief could not solve all life's problems first came to me in the War when faced with the reality of violent and painful death and the inability of most men to face it with equanimity. In the post-war years of my army career came the realisation that violence in India, Palestine, Northern Ireland and elsewhere was either the cause or result of religious or denominational intolerance. I also discovered that the primitive Sakai in the Malayan jungle, with no sense of religion as we understand it, could live lives of morality and order comparable to ours.

"So the question arose: Did I really believe all that I professed in the Creed each Sunday and that there really was a life after death? Was it credible that Christians had the sole monopoly of the Deity of this planet, let alone the universe? If I couldn't find the answers. did it amount to apostasy? "

"And the answers: I think not, because of the very positive influence my 'practical' belief has had on my life which I could summarise as follows: "

  • A set of guidelines for behaviour which I can accept or reject, thus recognising my freedom of will
  • A belief that errors or omissions (sins) can be rectified (forgiven)
  • An understanding of human frailty and the comfort of mutual support in times of stress (sorrow. need, sickness and other adversity)
  • Recognition of the sanctity of human life despite the mystery at the beginning and end of each one
  • Acknowledgement of a Divine creation of our planet and universe of all things and all people and our transient responsibility therefore

Athelstan Riley

Major Riley's grandfather, Athelstan Riley, was to have a great influence on his young grandson's life. He was a fairly well-known lay theologian and he spent his whole life trying to bring the Greek, Russian and Armenian Orthodox churches together. He wrote quite a number of books and treatises on the subject and was continually writing to "The Times". He spent much of his life travelling around Turkey, Armenia and Russia. and was very `high church' Anglican.

Athelstan Riley brought his practising faith to Trinity when he moved to the Island in 1908. He built the manor chapel. Prayers were said every day, saints days were celebrated and there was even a resident chaplain for a time. A most accomplished man, he also wrote and composed hymns, these having been recorded for posterity in the manorial chapel hymnal.

As a boy, John was made to serve at mass in his little red cassock and surplice, swinging the censer. ("Smells and bells it was very high-strict orthodoxy.") and endured an imposed, strict discipline which the young boy did not really enjoy. John's mother was killed when her son was only three, from a horse while out on a drag hunt, and so he does not really remember her, but his father was almost as much a disciplinarian as Athelstan Riley and was also a firm believer with the same Anglo-Catholic views.

Colonel Riley stood in Jersey's first election for Senators and the reason he lost was almost certainly because he strongly disapproved of divorce. When asked at the hustings whether or not he would support a change of law to allow divorce in Jersey, he categorically stated 'No'.

Grandfather actually lost an election for Parliament. He stood as a university candidate and said the same thing in his manifesto in 1919, that divorce was the beginning of the destruction of civilisation.

John was to spend many years away from his Trinity home first attending boarding school and then by having a career in the Army. In those days he went to church on a Sunday because that was the thing to do.

“But my religion was always there, it was part of my life, I don't say I had to rely on it to any great extent. One had to admit that when one is frightened you are probably looking for some sort of help, but then we in the services were brought up to think that fear was something to he ashamed of. Therefore, one felt slightly ashamed of falling back on a religion when one was frightened; it's a perverse sort of feeling.

“But, I have been lucky and I have not been put in the sort of position when I have had to say 'God, help me'."


For many years John ably served the Island as a Senator, and he drew on his religious beliefs for the practical guidelines in defining where his responsibilities lay. "It's frightfully easy for politicians to say they must do good and help everybody, but you can't, so you have to be a judge sometimes. You can't be all things to all men. It can he difficult, and this is why I didn't really like politics very much, especially when I was making a decision which I knew would hurt somebody. In civilian and business life there are different sets of rules. The principle is much the same, but the application is necessarily slightly different."

As chairman of Channel Television, John views censorship regarding the portrayal of sex, violence, etc as a very tricky area, and he and his board of directors are ultimately responsible to the IBA for the content of the programmes they produce. It is difficult at times, and he believes too heavy a hand from the top in any media is virtual censorship, and can be very dangerous. The distinction between what is of interest to the public and what is in the public interest is a fine one. "By and large, I think television handles their religious broadcasting fairly well, as it is a difficult one to put across. It's not a popular theme which will ever get the peak time slot, but those programmes which are seen, such as ' Songs of Praise' and 'Highway' are well handled and about right."

In the Channel Islands there is a religious advisory body with representatives from the other Islands who meet with Channel Television frequently to discuss policy.

Now a member of Trinity Church, John accepts the use of the ASB and the introduction of modern hymns and choruses, which are used in rotation with the more traditional service.

"I wouldn't refuse to go to church because they use the modern form, but my personal preference is for the rituals that I was brought up with." It is interesting to note how the taxing disciplines from his childhood in the Manor Chapel are now accepted as a pleasing and comforting familiarity. "As one grows older, one appreciates one's religion far more. My relationship with my religion has changed. I now go to church because I desire to do so: it's my choice and I enjoy it when I do."

Wife's death

The Major's wife died in 1978 and he has adjusted to her loss, although at the time it was hard for him to be left with two still very young daughters. "I found comfort when my wife died, not only from one's inner faith but from the faith of people around me. And I sought the help of Tony Keogh (the Rector of Trinity Parish Church). Actual death is probably easier to adjust to than the months beforehand, which is the worst part. Death is final and one has to start again."

When away, John has been to churches where the services were entirely modern, but he is not frightfully keen on the shaking of hands during `The Peace'. He finds it a bit false. "If I did it, it would just seem wrong to me. If I was going to upset people by not doing it then I would extend my hand, of course, but I am not demonstrative by nature."

Today, Major John Riley is the proud grandfather of a grandson and granddaughter. His two daughters are both happily married, and the delightful little chapel was used to solemnise the marriage of one daughter and following the Parish Church wedding of the other, was used for the marriage blessing, at one time even being able to accommodate 100 people. He obviously enjoys to the full the beauty of his surroundings, but as to the future, he comments in brusque good humour: "I live in a nice house, have nothing in particular to worry about so 1 am prepared to go gently downhill with gratitude for my good run!"

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