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30 November 2012


I WAS awakened by an anxious voice: "Are you all right, mate?" I was, in fact, perfectly all right, but he was not to know that.

It was Saturday afternoon, and, though late autumn, the sun still shone warmly. I was fast asleep, flat out on a bench outside the Portslade Emmaus Centre. Jim, who woke me up, probably assumed I was homeless. Certainly I looked the part, dressed as I was for the allotment where we had spent the morning.

I explained to Jim that, after our labours on the allotment, we often ended up at the centre. They serve a superb all-day breakfast, and they are not censorious about your footwear. But, for Jim, as for all the 40 "companions" of the Portslade community, Emmaus provides far more than fry-ups. Emmaus enables them to move on - many from the streets, some from the gutter.

Although the movement was begun by a priest, the great Abbé Pierre, and although it retains the resonances of its name, Emmaus insists that it not a religious organisation. And yet. . . The Portslade centre occupies buildings that were once a convent. For the best part of a century, this was the home of a community of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. Today, furniture - second-hand, but first-class - is sold in what was the convent chapel.

I think of the prayers said in this place, their echoes surely lingering, and I am not sure that the Emmaus movement, at least here in Portslade, is altogether the secular set-up that it claims to be. After all, there is precedent for Jim's concern for someone clearly down and possibly out.

"GANZ unmöglich," thunders the celebrated German theologian Werner Kümmel. "Ganz ausgeschlossen!" (Do please take down your own copy of his Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament and check that I have quoted him correctly.)

I happen to think that what this mighty mind finds "completely impossible" and "completely inadmissible" is the simple truth, and, unless you cross the road quickly, I shall stop you on the pavement and tell you so.

The claim that so outrages the learned Herr Professor is that St Paul could have been referring to his childhood when, in his letter to the Romans, he says: "I was once alive apart from the law" (Romans 7.9). The plain sense of these few words has always seemed to me obvious. Paul is talking about himself, not about, say, Adam in the Garden of Eden. And, pace the Professor, he is looking back to the time when, as a child, he was not expected to keep the Mosaic law.

Moreover, "being alive" means here what "being alive" means everywhere else in Paul. It means being "alive to God". In other words, Paul - as he does from time to time - is agreeing with Jesus. Children don't have to be "won for the Lord". They are his already.

I made these points in a lecture that I gave at a recent symposium of the Victoria Institute. The Victoria Institute was founded in 1865 with the objective of defending "the great truths revealed in Holy Scripture against the opposition of Science falsely so called".

The Institute cannot be as theologically conservative as once it was, or it would hardly have invited someone on to its platform who thinks, as I do, that Holy Scripture contains, alongside many "great truths", several great nonsenses.

THE Age of Aquarius has yielded to the Age of the Acronym. Tens of thousands of them poison the language soup in which we slowly drown. The Army abounds in acronyms. Even in my time, there were dozens of them that I was expected to recognise. I had to be sure I was never AWOL (Absent Without Leave). I had to get over failing my WOSBY (War Office Selection Board). Postings to EMBLUs (Mobile Bath and Laundry Units) were much sought after.

The Church, ever keen to keep up, has spawned numerous acronyms over the years. I was recommended for ordination training by CACTM, which then became ACCM, and transmogrified into ABM. PTO is not to be confused with POT. I was quite proud of my satirical invention CACCLE (Central Advisory Council for Liaison and Ecumenism) until it was overtaken by the reality of MODEM ("A Hub for Leadership, Management, and Ministry").

In fact, there is nothing new about ecclesiastical acronyms. SMECTYMNUUS was the name of a group of 17th-century Puritans. The acronym, which runs so trippingly off the tongue, was derived from the initials of the five leaders of the group, Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen, and William Spurstow. The last-named was one of my predecessors as Rector of Hackney. He was ejected from the living for Nonconformity in 1662. (I managed to hang on until my retirement.)

Dr Spurstow's lasting legacy to Hackney was the provision of almshouses for "six ancient widows". These almshouses have survived the centuries, and, now accommodating six times the number of the original residents, have recently been magnificently rebuilt.

I was back in Hackney recently for the opening of them by the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman. Mild merriment was occasioned by the reminder that Dr Spurstow regarded bishops with a great loathing. The Bishop got his own back by sprinkling all of us with rather more holy water than is necessitated by the rubric.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.


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