Diary

07 March 2014

ISTOCK

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 "theologian".

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".
 

Conversant camels

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 untimely death.

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 painful.

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.

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