Attending an evangelical gathering, it was a delight to listen to a speaker who gave a systematic but inspirational exposition of verses from Saint Luke Chapter 9, examining the attitudes of the disciples, he spoke of the need of Christians to avoid rivalry, elitism and harsh and judgmental approaches towards others. It was the sort of presentation that would have been met with applause had it been a secular conference, but it being an assembly of non-hand waving traditional conservative Christians, there were no more than sage nods at the end.
Pausing to chat afterwards, I smiled a greeting at a man who carried a Bible of such a size that it might have stunned someone if it had it been used as an offensive weapon. “Where are you from?” he asked, in an accent that was unmistakably Northern and in a tone that would immediately have raised the hackles of those whom I know who are not favourably disposed toward anyone from the North, believing it a hostile place.
“Mountrath”, I replied.
“Yes”, he said, “but which church?”
“The Church of Ireland”, I said. If he had known Mountrath he would have known that there were only two churches and I cannot imagine that my Catholic colleague would have found the gathering particularly welcoming.
“I was a member of the Church of Ireland for nineteen years.”
“Here we go”, I thought, “we are going to have some story how the Church of Ireland is not Christian.”
He continued. “I knew the old archdeacon in our parish. I thought he was alright, the man who followed him was just a pagan. Anyway, when the old archdeacon was dying I was one of the people that was allowed to call in to see him. I asked him if he was right with the Lord, if he had taken a decision.”
I nodded, the script would not have been hard to write.
“He said to me that he had decided years ago that he did not believe in heaven and that he knew when he died he would go straight to hell.”
“Oh”, I said, not wishing to tell the man that I did not believe him. Three decades of ordained ministry have taught me that people who do not believe in heaven do not believe in hell either, and that the likelihood of the man being admitted to the bedside of a senior cleric was at best improbable.
But why did the man even feel the need to tell the story? His implication seemed clear, that someone who was a Christian would have left the Church of Ireland, as he had. The entire teaching of the previous hour seemed to have passed him by, the stress on the need to avoid rivalry, elitism and harsh judgementalism seemed to have been ignored.
It would have been easy to have responded that many in my own community would not have regarded him as a Christian, that many Church of Ireland people would regard evangelical churches as no more than religious sects that have more in common with the Pharisees than with Jesus, but where would have been the point in such an exchange? We do not see ourselves as he sees us, and he would not see himself as we see him.
His words had soured the experience. Saint Luke Chapter 9 had been an appropriate passage of Scripture, it includes the tale of the transfiguration, the mountain top moment of delight that was followed by the bitter rows down in the valley.