SERMON: Nightmare Interlude by Martin Thornton

Nightmare Interlude by Martin Thornton

From A Joyful Heart: Meditations for Lent

My recurrent nightmare grows out of a pastoral dilemma.  I have hinted more than once against the prevalent habit amongst clergymen of treating their congregation, not only as an audience but as a near moronic one.  In the bad old days when a congregation was regarded as a crowd of individual spectators, there may have been some excuse, but with the concept of full participation within the organism of the Body of Christ such an attitude will no longer do.  Traditional Anglicanism claims appeal to mature religion, to a laity who are informed and knowledgeable.  Yet the idea persists: everything has to be simple, nice little moral tenets, and above all, no theology.

It is a nineteenth-century trait, certainly not Carolean, and, if social circumstances partly account for it, the clergy are far from blameless.  Nevertheless, the laity cannot be entirely exonerated: “You cannot expect me to understand that, I am only a layman.”  The speaker can be a high-court judge, a university professor, or chairman of a multinational company, but in church he is only a layman with a pathological terror of the word, theology.  And so to my nightmare, which follows on neatly from the cricket analogy.   I have made apology to those readers who do not understand cricket, yet most newcomers to cricket seem to cope better than their counterparts in church.  I once took two American friends to a cricket match.  After just six hours, with a minimum of commentary, we had dinner where they waxed more than enthusiastic about cover point, LBW, maiden overs, off-spinners, and all the rest of the jargon.  Why does it take intelligent churchfolk not six hours but six years to feel at home with redemption, grace, Pelagianism, adoration, contemplation, and suchlike perfectly ordinary terms?  My American friends had even picked up something about Grace, Hobbs, Woolley, and Hammond: we never get around to Augustine, Anselm, Bernard, and Aquinas.

So, nightmarishly, I make my way to Lords (or is it Lourdes?) and enter the Grace gates (efficacious, prevenient, sanctifying, or Dr. W. G.?).  I am accosted by a dapper little man wearing an I Zingari tie, presumably his badge of office for the occasion.

“Good morning, I. Z., I notice.”  The official was obvioiusly taken aback by the fact that a mere layman understood the sequence of liturgical colors.

“Yes, indeed,” he replied, “and good morning, good morning, how nice to see you, and how terribly good of you to turn up.”

I replied testily (or Testily) that I had come along at my own freewill because I wished to watch the match; I was a confirmed disciple of the game and I was doing nobody any favor.

“Of course, or course, my dear sir,” he replied, “now you do realize, do you not – we have to assume that most of our congregation do not – that today is the third Test Match after Trinity?”

“Of course I do,” I replied, “that is precisely what I am here for; and Australia are one up, having won the first by five wickets, the second being drawn.”

“My dear sir, I do apologize,” spluttered the man in the I. Z. tie, “I had no idea that a mere member of our congregation, a layman in fact, could be so well informed about church affairs.”

At that point, he thrust into my hands a small booklet, The Rules of Cricket, together with a virgin score card.

“You will need these,” he explained, “in order to follow the service.  The Ordo, or Rule Book, has been considerably abbreviated and simplified, especially for the use of the morons. . . excuse me, the laity.  I think that you might find the more definitive work (published by the Society for Promoting Cricket Knowledge) a little beyond your intellectual capacity.  It contains, I regret to say, a good deal of theology, and what is worse, it is apt to include slight changes from year-to-year.  Such a pity, why cannot they leave things alone?”

“Presumably,” I replied, “because cricket is a living thing, which demands change and development according to circumstances and experience.  Would you not consider the new Luther-Benedict-Wesley rule an improvement upon the old Hambledon rite?”

“I fear you have the advantage of me,” simpered my mentor.

“But surely you are au fait with the LBW law as recently promulgated by the Magisterium of the Cricket Council?”

“Well, perhaps you had better keep the little book by you, despite your astounding knowledge of the service; one always needs a reminder.  I strongly advise you to follow the Rule, keep your eye on the test and make sure that you never lose the place.  Of course, you will not see much of the game, but that is a small loss compared with a thorough understanding of the theory of the thing; superstition and even emotion can so easily creep in.  And, dear me, there goes the bell and the umpires are out: you understand about umpires?  One at each end you know.  Well, good day, and enjoy the game, and, oh, your score card, you had forgotten it.”

“Thank you, but it is unnecessary. . . .”

“But it has the names of the players on it. . . .”

“Thank you but I know them by heart, it was all in this morning’s paper.”

“My word, you do take things seriously!”

In spite of this inane conversation, I managed to get a place behind the bowler’s arm.  Settling down happily, a voice came through the amplifier; it was the Bishop of Saint John’s Wood, cricket’s chief Shepherd, and President of the MCC.

“Good morning, good morning!  What a lovely day and such a large crowd.  Welcome!  Welcome!  And how wonderful of you all to turn up.  First I must announce that Australia have won the toss and elected to bat.  I do not suppose that you will all understand that rather technical statement, but never mind; you are only lay spectators after all.  In that case, by the way, perhaps I should offer a few words of explanation to that solid core of Cricket of England fans who do not come along very often to watch, and of course, who never actually play.  Quite simply the game is played between two teams of eleven players each; perhaps you might care to turn to page 6, section (b) of the rule book.  The gist of the thing is that the fielding side tries to dismiss the batting side for as few runs, or points, as possible.  There are various ways to dismiss a batsman: look up page 13, sections (c) to (g). But please do not feel in any way uncomfortable if you do not quite understand it all.  Just follow the book and I will explain things as we go along. . . .

“Now just a word to the many thousands of good churchmen who will be following the match, on and off, on the television.  Now I must apologize to the majority of you but unfortunately the commentary will be given by a team of ex-professionals who will insist on talking in awful jargon: slips, cover-point, run out, leg-before-wicket, square-cut, off-drive, and a horrendous lot more.  We have taken it up with the broadcasting authorities, but so far to no avail.  One bumptious official had the impertinence to suggest that keen cricket-lovers ought to take the trouble to learn the meaning of all these technical terms.  That is asking far too much of any enthusiast, and we will continue our crusade for simple non-theological language.  In the meantime, our apologies; just relax and take it easy.

“Finally, there will be two intervals during the day’s play when tea and buns will be available at various centers around the ground.  There was a suggestion that beer and cider might be made available, but the Master of Cricket Ceremonies wisely ruled against it, not wanting to risk causing our weaker brethren to stumble.  However, do join in with the refreshment available, and offer friendship to your neighbor in jolly fellowship.”

Then the bell rang again, but happily it was the alarm clock.  A nightmare parody, unfair, unchristian, cruel, and uncharitable.  But it is not so desperately far short of what happens all to often: whose fault is it?

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