Sitting in a coffee shop, a double decker Dublin bus went past. My companion recalls a conversation overheard in a Dublin bus forty years ago.
Passing the YMCA, one of a pair of Dubs sat in front of him catches sight of a sign with a Bible text, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”.
He reads the words aloud and turns to the man beside him. “Jayz, what does that mean?”
“Ah”, says the other man, “I’d say that would be dating from feudal times, lords and all the like”.
“What do you mean feudal times? What’s it mean then?”
“Sure isn’t it obvious what it means? It means the lord is in charge of things and the people are like serfs. Nothing they do is any good unless the lord says the can do it”.
“Jayz”, says the first man, “I don’t like the sound of that”.
“No”, says the second, “isn’t it a good thing the trade unions put a stop to all that”.
My companion does a great impression of the late Jimmy O’Dea, one of Ireland’s greatest comedians, as he tells the story.
We look out at another bus.
“The trouble is that the story is serious. Someone put that Bible text up thinking they were saying something to passers by, and it meant nothing at all, or, even worse, was taken to mean something completely different”.
We talked about Christians using strange language – the 1611 King James Bible, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer – the Christians were convinced that these were the right forms of words while, like a pair of Dubs on the top of a bus, the rest of the world went on by without a clue of what was being said.
“Did Jesus die so we could use Seventeenth Century English and have strange organizations full of people with funny titles?”
It was hard to imagine that the wandering preacher in First Century Palestine really envisaged the way things would turn out. Yet, if someone attempted an endeavour as modest as simply removing archaic words from the vocabulary, stuff like ‘archdeacon’, ‘canon’ and ‘select vestry’, it would be voted down at any synod by those for who the institution has become an end in itself.
We finished the coffee and left the shop. There was gridlock in the street; cars attempting to go in four different directions simultaneously, while the way was blocked by a bus trying to turn right from the left hand lane. It seemed an apt picture of the church we had discussed: everyone heading in a different direction and going nowhere.