Thursday, 28 August 2008

Evensong in Leominster

I went to church while I was out and about this summer. That’s ‘to church’ rather than ‘to a church’, just to be clear about it. I do the latter quite a lot, checking out the architecture, browsing the gravestones. But apart from weddings and funerals I can’t remember the last time I went to a service.

It was evensong, Sunday, late August at St Peter and Paul’s, Leominster. It’s a big church that is almost as wide as it is long by virtue of having two naves. One is plain Norman (round arches, no decoration), the other high gothic (pointed arches, lots of adornment). You can sit in the middle and get an instant history lesson in the development of English church architecture.

It was pouring with rain, as it was almost everywhere this summer, and the roof (sadly neither Norman nor gothic, but a dull restoration) was leaking. The pews are gone and the hundreds of chairs that replaced them were empty. The service was taking place in the far corner, by the altar. Including the vicar and me (and since I sat at the back, I don’t really count), there were seven people present. One of those doubled up as the organist. If any of them were under 60, they’ve aged badly.

I stayed because, well, it seemed rude to leave, it was very wet indeed outside and Leominster really is a very lovely and interesting church. I paid special attention to the sermon to see what it might have to offer this minuscule gathering of the faithful in this place that would once have hosted many hundreds.

The vicar had taken as his lesson Matthew 15:21-28. Matthew relates how Jesus was asked for help by a woman – a Canaanite – whose daughter is possessed by a demon. First, Jesus ignores her. (‘But he answered her not a word’). Then his disciples ask him to get rid of her because she’s making a scene. (‘Send her away; for she crieth after us.’) So Jesus tells her he’s only here to help Jews (‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’). When she persists, he calls her a dog. (‘It is not meet to take the children [of God]’s bread and to cast it to dogs [like you].’) Only when she says that even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table does he finally relent and cure her daughter.

This is one of those disquieting passages from the bible in which people are required to jump through all manner of hoops to demonstrate their subservience before God, or in this case his son, deigns to be nice to them. But the vicar at Leominster made a reasonable stab at turning it into a lesson on our modern-day treatment of minorities, with special reference to Romanies in Italy, asylum seekers in Britain – and a drunk who’d recently tapped him for a couple of quid in his own churchyard.

From what he said, the vicar seemed a decent sort of man, and I don’t suppose there were many places on a wet and windy night in Leominster this summer where you’d have found someone wrestling with moral issues about what to do when a woman from an unpopular minority group starts screaming at you for help in the street. Do you, he asked the elderly few who made up his congregation, a) ignore her; b) tell her to bugger off; c) say you only give to your own kind; or d) call her names?

And, he also asked, if you decide to help her, do you need to be sure that her daughter really is possessed by a demon and she isn’t just spinning you a hard-luck yarn before you do so? Well?

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