Kitty heaven and other miscellanies

by
19 May 2017

In an extract from his new book, Simon Jenkins offers a satirical take on some of the weird and wonderful ways in which Christians express their beliefs

DO ANIMALS go to heaven? Will there be mewing, woofing, and squeaking on the streets of the New Jerusalem? Theologians have only occasionally bothered their planet-sized brains about this weighty question, which these days is raised whenever a blogger loses a much-loved cat, dog, or budgie.

I tried to find out whether any of the great theologians actually kept a pet, hoping against hope to discover that the prim John Calvin kept a raucous, red-bottomed baboon. But the Google search kept getting distracted by words such as “dogma”, “catechism”, and even “rabbi”. I was pleased, though, to discover that the German theologian and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer was very attached to Parsifal, his pet pelican, whom he adopted when the pelican’s mother was shot, and that he observed: “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”

Meanwhile, talking-animal enthusiast C. S. Lewis had three pets at the end of his life: Ricky the boxer, Snip the cat, and a ginger tom (called Tom) whom he described as “a great Don Juan and a mighty hunter before the Lord”. Lewis’s positive approach led him famously to speculate that animals which relate to humans would have a share in eternal life.

His attitude is a bit of a contrast with that of St Bernard of Clairvaux, who popularised the saying, “Love me, love my dog” — Qui me amat, amat et canem meum — several centuries before it became a top ten hit. The saying might sound like a warm invitation to cuddle up to my pooch, but in fact it is intended to mean that if you love me, you have to accept everything about me, even the ghastly bits — which is hardly a compliment to my dog.

It took another St Bernard (St Bernard of Montjoux) to atone for that insult by giving his name to the breed of brandy-bearing dogs used by monastic communities high up in the Alps to rescue pilgrims stuck in the snows on their way to Rome.

 

THE reason I started thinking about all this is because I spotted a new book, Truly Devoted, by the devotional writer H. Norman Wright. The book cover, decorated with bones, kennels, and pawprints, features two grinning, panting retrievers, and has the subtitle: “What dogs teach us about life, love and loyalty.” It is, verily, the perfect Christmas gift for the dog-obsessed Christian, with chapters drawing life lessons from how dogs gnaw bones (“Our worries are the same. We bite and chew on them”), obedience training (“How do you respond to God’s request to be obedient?”), and even a dog’s big nose (“Look in the mirror. How do you feel about yourself?”).

That kitschy approach is very much on display in a new trend: pet baptism and confirmation services. Earlier this year, one New Yorker took her miniature pinscher for confirmation in a church service involving godparents and a confirmation gown. This followed in the footsteps of a Pet Baptizing Kit sold on eBay, which came complete with holy water, a baptismal certificate, a prayer (of St Francis, naturally), and instructions for a ceremony that will “enrich the lives of both you and your pet”. My feeling is that, if this trend really takes off, it will soon split in two, with some dogs going for a sprinkle at the font (so to speak), while others choose full immersion in a baptistery, followed by a jolly good shake and a roll on the church carpet.

I’m sure kittens have earned their place in paradise, if only for the work they do in pointing people to the Lord via the medium of the cheesy poster. One example I saw recently shows a tiny tabby peeking out from behind a sunflower, while the text burbles: “Be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.” Not one to view on a full stomach. Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Rather than “Will animals go to heaven?” we should be asking, “How on earth can they live with us?”

 

CHURCH names have similarly got a bit out of hand in recent years. It used to be so simple: you had a saint who once lived locally or you admired (or you thought would help stave off the next bit of Viking pillaging), and you named your church after him or her. You slapped in a few wall-paintings of St Cuthbert or St Dorothy, and that was it. Job done.

A book published 100 years ago contains a league table of medieval English church names. Apparently, St Mary leads the field with no fewer than 2335 churches to her name. St Peter comes in second with less than half that number at 1140, while St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdalene lag behind with a mere 500 and 187 churches apiece.

Admittedly, some churches tried to get creative within this predictable system. A London church rejoicing in the name of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, for example, once occupied the site where the Gherkin now proudly rears heavenwards. And if that isn’t a sign of the times, I don’t know what is.

However, the churches I knew when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s had no saints’ names. That’s because I was in south Wales, and the churches were Congregationalist, Baptist, or Calvinistic Methodist. The names of these churches always impressed me: forbidding names such as Tabernacle and Ebenezer; mountain names such as Moriah, Hermon, and Carmel; names of places where prophets and patriarchs had met God, such as Ararat, Bethel, and Zion. The Welsh revivalists who named these chapels were very taken with Old Testament encounters with God, and wanted their grand and grumpy buildings to deliver the same experience.

Since those times, church names have risen and fallen with the tides of spiritual fashion. Today’s hipster churches of the Western world have determined that pompous is the best way to go when you’re getting your name and logo together. Where once you might have gone to St Paul’s Church or Salem Chapel, you’ll now find yourself in The Edge, Ikon, The Pursuit, or Empower. Meanwhile, churches in Nigeria are pushing in the opposite direction with brilliantly tasteless names such as Guided Missiles Church, Healing Tsunami Ministry, and (possibly the best church name of all time and eternity) the Happy Go Lucky Church of Almighty God in Jesus Name Amen.

However you choose to name your church, one trend above all others is definitely worth keeping an eye on. The New Jerusalem Church in Little Bolton changed its name several years ago. It’s now called Bolton Carpet Warehouse.

 

INDEED, as congregations shrink, and people increasingly need binoculars to see if anyone else is in the faraway pews of their monster Victorian churches, the buildings have been boarded up, then pulled down or flogged off, and some of them have been turned into pubs.

And so it has come to pass that Muswell Hill Presbyterian Church is now an Irish pub called O’Neill’s, where dirgy organ music has been ditched for live rock’n’roll, and bread and wine for Peroni and pork scratchings.

But the traffic isn’t entirely one way. A bullish diocese of London struck back in the 1990s by planting a new church, Church on the Corner, in a derelict Islington pub, the King Edward VII, and it hasn’t turned back into a pub yet.

This game of musical chairs by pubs and churches was anticipated way back in the 18th century by William Blake, who penned a subversive poem, “The Little Vagabond”, which says:

 

But if at the Church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

 

To which I’d only add: throw in live rugby on a jumbo plasma screen, and it’s a deal.

I’ve always harboured a secret ambition myself for turning a pub into a church and calling it “The Everlasting Arms”. Even though it’s highly unlikely that will ever happen, I’ve started to collect the names of beers that would lie most happily in the cellar of my dream pub church. To start with, there’s a beer brewed in Salt Lake City, the capital of Mormonism, which rejoices in the name of Polygamy Porter. Its marketing slogan? “Why Have Just One?”

Following that, there’s a whole heavenly host of baptised beers. You can sup a pint of Saint Cuthbert in Durham, order a Grim Reaper and a bag of crisps in Gloucester, chug a Churchyard Bob in Warwick, or a Revd James in Cardiff, and even put away a glass of All Creatures Bright and Beautiful, as brewed by the aptly named Black Sheep Brewery. Then there’s Bishop’s Finger, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, William Wilberforce Freedom Ale (“produced for the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade”), and Sin Boldly, with a picture of Martin Luther on the bottle.

In fact, Luther enjoyed his Wittenberg ale so much that he gave it this joking justification: “Whoever drinks beer is quick to sleep. Whoever sleeps long does not sin. Whoever does not sin enters heaven. Therefore let us drink beer!” I’m sure St Paul would have approved. In fact, I can just imagine him at the far end of the bar in my pub church, nursing a glass of red plonk and reassuring those around him, “I’m just taking it for my stomach’s sake.”

 

This is an edited extract from Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse by Simon Jenkins, published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-281-07721-2.

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