Theologian at the feast
IN MY last Diary (10
January), I said that I no longer do anything. That is not
strictly true. Recently, I found myself at the British Library,
participating in a scarily high-powered international seminar on
the hazards of alcohol and drugs.
There were 30 or so of us round the table. I glanced at the
handout that highlighted what we all did: everyone else seemed far
more eligible to be there than I was. The list included a dozen
professors of such subjects as addiction psychiatry, health
sciences, and sociology. Most of the rest were academics, all
highly qualified in relevant fields. They had me down simply as a
I waited for someone at the table to ask what on earth I thought
I was doing there. I am not sure that I knew myself. I remain
unclear as to what is the contribution of Christian theology -
beyond the emission of pious noises - to the formulation of social
policies that have to be hammered out with those who do not share
the premises of Christian theism.
The Bible has little to say, not even in Leviticus, on minimum
alcohol pricing. I wondered briefly whether to refer everyone to
Noah's disgraceful behaviour in his cups, or to St Paul on the
perils of the bottle. In the event, I kept my mouth shut. Perhaps I
was what we used to call "the Christian presence".
WE ARE on an island in the sun. It is the feast of the Epiphany.
We track down the church - borrowed for a couple of hours from the
RCs - where a small but enthusiastic congregation of expat
Anglicans meets for worship. We are welcomed at the door by a lady
with the right priorities. "Good morning," she says. "Are you UK
taxpayers?" And she promptly presses a Gift Aid envelope on us.
Having paid up, we are conscripted to join in.
We are asked to read the Old and New Testament readings. I read
from Micah about a "multitude of camels" bearing gold and
frankincense. After the service, Father Tim urges us to introduce
ourselves to the camel that lives in the field next to the church.
This amiable beast is delighted to see us.
Alexander Cruden, the compiler of the Concordance,
frequently went mad - hardly surprisingly. But he was never saner
than in his admiration of camels. He angrily attacked the idea that
camels are misshapen. Before listing every reference to dromedaries
in holy scripture, he tells us that they, and camels, are "no more
hunch-backed than other animals".
Nor are camels as ill-tempered as is often supposed. T. S. Eliot
was wrong to assume that those bearing the Magi were "galled,
sore-footed, refractory". Muslims tell us that the hundredth name
of God is known only by the camel. Surely that is why camels put up
with so much.
Today, on our island in the sun, as at this season every year, I
recall a feast of the Epiphany long, long ago, when I was taken ill
behind a remote pyramid deep in a desert. Out of the trackless
sands, a Bedouin on his smiling camel appeared, and - a Muslim
manifesting Christ to a piteous Gentile - came to my aid.
Have a gander
THE cathedral in Barcelona does not have a camel on its
premises, but it does keep geese in its cloister - 13 of them. It
is dedicated to St Eulalia, who was unpleasantly martyred under the
Roman emperor Diocletian. The geese are 13 in number to remind us
that Eulalia was just 13 years old when she met her brave and
A week or two ago, Pat and I visited the cathedral, and watched
these proud creatures being fed. I do wonder why more churches do
not have a gaggle of geese about the place. No villain stripping
lead from the church roof would dare descend his ladder if there
were an enraged goose at its foot. Nor, in the pulpit, could I
dodge the question "What do my fine words amount to?" if those
words were greeted by loud honking and cackling.
The Spirit at work
ABOVE all, geese in church would send us back to Søren
Kierkegaard. Provoked by taunts that his trouser legs were of
unequal length, he said that to live as a Christian was to
experience "the sustained agony of being trampled to death by
geese". Our merciful Lord may allow us to pay the cost of our
discipleship in small change, but stumping up is still going to be
Many a cleric finds means to supplement a meagre stipend or
pension. Some lecture on cruise liners; others enter into lucrative
understandings with undertakers. My moonlighting over the years -
and plenty of clergy have kept me company - has been in the marking
of exam papers. The financial rewards are small, but the task does
offer incidental pleasures.
In a recent paper I marked, candidates were asked to state two
ways in which the coming of the Holy Spirit is described in the
Acts of the Apostles. One student answered: (a) "as a badly shaped
dove", and (b) "as a problem". For (b) at least, full marks.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has
retired to Brighton.