Monday 17 December 2007

Oh my God, I can't believe it....

I spent a couple of days last week working in our big Milton Keynes branch, lending an extra pair of hands to help shovel more Christmas tat out onto the shelves. To be honest, I was quite glad to escape the politics of the office to do something completely different and to have the chance to interact with some real customers. There's something very soothing about making sure that the shelves are well stocked and nicely presented, and I'm convinced that there is zen to be found in shelf stacking.... in fact, it would be a great job if the bloody customers didn't keep ruining it by moving stuff about. Tsk.

Anyway. The reason I chose the Milton Keynes store is that it is fairly close to where my mum and dad live. We're not spending Christmas with them this year, so it was an opportunity to spend a couple of evenings with them before we bugger off to France at the end of this week. C. and I usually eat our dinner in the living room in front of the telly or in the kitchen, so it was really nice to have a couple of proper sit-down dinners at the dining room table with my parents. Of course, this also meant that instead of making sure we were up to date with the episodes of "Californication" we have got sitting on the Sky+ box, I was obliged to engage them both in honest-to-goodness conversation.

For real.

As is often the case with my parents these days, the conversation soon took a turn towards God. I'm a heathen, of course, so they really should know better, but their new house is pretty much in the hulking great big shadow of the church of St. Winnicent the Magnificent (or whatever) and they just can't seem to help themselves. My mum is only really interested in the community of the church, and busies herself with things like the church cleaning rota and baking cakes, but my dad has always had bible-thumping tendencies and has had his passion well and truly reawoken by the arrival of a new vicar a couple of years ago.

"Father" Gary is an Anglican vicar, but he likes to call himself "High Anglican", which - as far as I can tell - essentially means that he's Catholic in all but name, but likes to hold out the forlorn hope that he might one day get a girlfriend..... he believes in confession, he likes to abase himself in front of the cross at Easter, and he abhors the idea of women priests.... that kind of thing. Long before I actually met him, I heard an enormous amount about him from my parents who seemed to think that we would have a lot in common and would get on like a house on fire. Imagine my surprise, then, that when I finally met the elusive "Father" Gary, he turned out to be a horrible little sneery weasel of a man. I resigned myself to having to talk to him only to see him duck meeting me... something (I'm delighted to report) that he has continued to do ever since.

So. There I was at the dinner table enjoying a rather tasty roast chicken and a glass of white from the excellent local wine shop, when dad decided he would engage me in a conversation about the church in general, and "Father" Gary in particular. I was tired from a long day in store, but I had also had just enough wine that I was feeling mischievous enough to probe exactly what "High Anglicanism" is. My dad launched into some rambling explanation or other, but I decided to cut to the chase:

"Where do they stand on the whole transubstantiation and consubstantation debate then?". I studied Medieval history, so although I'm not in the least bit religious, I do have an enduring fascination with the history of the church. I find it amazing that schisms have started and wars have been fought over such nonsensical questions as to whether or not the host used at communion is LITERALLY transformed into the body and the blood of Christ, or if it only SYMBOLICALLY represents it. Quite why anyone would waste any energy over that, I don't know, but I do know that it is at the nub of the differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism.

"Ah, I'm pleased you asked me that", replied my dad.
"Yes, because under the articles of faith for the Anglican church, it's actually forbidden to believe that the the host actually becomes the body and blood of Christ"
"mmmm. So where does this leave "Father" Gary?"
"Well, I asked him this question, and he simply tapped the side of his nose and said, 'Well, let's put it this way: if I spilt some of the wine onto the floor, I'd have to burn the carpet'".

(apparently, Gary also marvelled at how the methodist church in the village could use an actual loaf of bread in the communion service instead of those little discs. Imagine the crumbs! You can't be leaving the actual body of Christ for the mice, can you? Heavens! The corpse of our Lord is only to be enjoyed by true believers!)

I was now confused.

"So where does "Father" Gary stand on the Pope then?" Another key difference between the religions this one: Catholics believe that the Pope is the emissary of God and that what he says has an equal standing in the eyes of the church to that of the Gospels. Anglicans, presumably having paid rather closer attention to some of the clowns who have held the role, tend to believe that this is nonsense.

"Oh, Gary doesn't like the Pope. He doesn't believe that the Pope is the special emissary of God or any of that stuff"

I paused to deliver my killer blow.

".... but wasn't the whole issue of transubstantiation created as a result of a papal edict anyway? I don't believe that Jesus left any specific instructions about the actual presence of his body at communion in the gospels did he? It's all the interpretation of the Catholic Church."


My dad refused to allow this (or my long history of heathenism) to dent his enthusiasm though. "I've got a book I think you'd really enjoy". He jumps up from the dinner table and returns 30 seconds later, handing me a book. I glance at the cover: "The Meaning of Jesus". I put it down on the table.

"I'm never going to read this book Dad"
He picks it up from the table and gives it back to me.
"It's a discourse between two Oxbridge academics. One is a liberal Anglican, the other is much more traditional. They're actually really good friends, but it's amazing how opposed their positions on different things sometimes are!"
I glance at the cover and then put the book back down on the table. "But I'm never going to read it. Life is far too short. There are plenty of literary masterpieces already that are well ahead of this on my reading list."
"I think you'd enjoy it. It's really good!"
"I'm sure it's a real page-turner, but I'm still never going to read it"

.....and so on.

As you can imagine, conversations round the dinner table at home are a right barrel of laughs. Now I think of it, this might be the reason that C. and I are going to spend Christmas with her parents in France this year.....


  1. "There's something very soothing about making sure that the shelves are well stocked and nicely presented, and I'm convinced that there is zen to be found in shelf stacking"

    ... but not on shelf stacker wages, I'm sure.

    Where does Father Gary stand on divorce? Surely, as it is the raison d'etre of the CoE, he's for it?

    Tell your dad you'll read the meaning of jesus if he reads the Dawkins book.

  2. Ian - too right. One of the temps asked me if I was a volunteer and if I got paid at all for doing this for a couple of days. Erm.... no more than I usually do love.

    It's a tough old job though. I worked in a shop for nine months or something back when I was applying for "proper" jobs, and I always forget quite how physically demanding it is. I'm quite fit, I like to think, but my legs were killing me before long.

    I'm not sure I've the energy for the "God Delusion" myself, to be honest, and I was reading a terribly smug interview with Terry Eagleton in the Observer yesterday too.

    'The implication from Amis and McEwan - and from Hitchens and Richard Dawkins - is that civilisation and atheist rationalism go together, and I think that is a very dangerous argument to make. The debate over God - Muslim or Christian - is for them increasingly becoming code for a debate on civilisation versus barbarism. I think one needs to intervene and show the limitations of that.'

    What-evah, dude. Rationalise your religion all you like, but hokey religions and ancient weapons ain't no match for a good blaster by your side.

  3. A quick summary of the God Delusion for you: "So what created god then, you bloody idiot?"

    If nothing else, it's useful for beating Jehovah's Witnesses.

  4. It's worse, it is...the Russian orthodox church had their split from Catholicism over such fine points as the number of fingers you use to make the sign of the cross and whether, in doing so, you cross from right to left or vice versa.

  5. It is worse than that.

    It is a debate between two Republican senators about which is more religious and hence the right person to become the next president of the USA.

    You see, religion for the masses is just dinner conversation. Religion for the president of the USA is a MISSION!

  6. Have you ever read the Susan Howatch series of novels on the Anglican Church? If not, I'd recommend them - they're fascinating. I don't read a lot of non-fiction as I read to relax and I don't find that relaxing. But Anglican Church series is fiction set against true events/beliefs within the C of E and I somehow managed to learn a lot without really trying. :)