Monday, 30 April 2007
Westward Ho and Hot Protestant Dinners.
The Young Walter Raleigh. I loved this picture as a child. Now it epitomises the robust certainties of an England past.
My Jansenist fears of hell slowly foundered. I remember as a child cheerfully telling my Aunty Lily that all Protestants were damned. She laughed merrily. “Well that’s not very nice. I’m protestant, so is most of your family.”
I was thunderstruck. How could this be? My mother looked embarrassed.
“Are you going to tell him, May?”
Aunt Lily was grinning.
It was true. The Parry’s were protestant and my mother to escape eternal damnation had married my father. I tried to make sense of it, then put it to one side as something inexplicable.
By about twelve the cracks began to show. Protestantism was rich and savoury. It smelt good, like steak and kidney pie and hot roast dinners. I was being tossed upon the sea of Satan’s wiles. I knew it, and yet…in contrast, Catholicism seemed stern and cold; it smelt of camphor and myrrh, tobacco, its mysteries hidden by certainty. Despite all the statues and flowers, it frightened me.
The book that really shook things up was Westward Ho, by Charles Kinglsy. I was Amyas Leigh, the protestant hero who sailed with Drake, fought Spaniards on the Spanish Main. I cringed at the villainous Eustace. Was this what it meant to be Catholic? Eustace. Catholic and slimy. Eustace.
Amyas was the Sun, the one who got the girl, the beautiful Rose Salterne. Eustace was the moon, treacherous and cold, and Catholic to boot.
Such confusion and fears. The irony was that in adolescence I exchanged one set of certainties for another: Marxism , and the process began all over again. I’ve since outgrown certainty. I just know that life is very short.
So, what have I learnt? The church is something to hang on to, but not to embrace. It has the power to smother, burden you with guilt and restrictions that change with time and circumstance. When I was a child I feared hell and religion was cold and smelt of candles, rattled with rules and celebrated deprivation. Now it is about love, but part of me waits for the wheel to turn.
I remember the guilt, not the love
In Monmouth parish the priest inaugurated a Mao tse Tung initiative, reminiscent of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. It was part of the ‘listening church’ or something like that. Parishioners were encouraged to write their thoughts and suggestions on small post-it notes and stick them on a cork board at the back of the church. Week to week it made fascinating reading. One suggested woman priests. The following week it had a reply beneath written in block capitals. ‘Impossible. The church represents the body of Christ and Christ was a man.’
It’s a bit like a fire or a pit. Get too close and you’ll burn or fall in. At the same time, take away faith and you'll limit a culture, close a door, cripple an instinct - replace it with a different kind of authority. For me the Church is the grit that nourishes pearls. The alternative smells worse.
Here endeth the lesson for today.