When I was first ordained, in the mid 1980s, there were still senior clergy who had come from monied families, men who had been at university in times when such education was beyond the hope of most ordinary people. Had one suggested that some were elitist in their attitudes, that some were plain snobs, they would have rejected the accusation, but by their words you would have known them.
When gathered together for meetings, some seemed to enjoy nothing more than telling mocking stories about members of their parishes, the snobs particularly sharing examples of “bad taste” exhibited by those in their spiritual care. Holiday souvenirs were a favourite target for sharp, and, supposedly, witty comment. Ornaments on mantlepieces brought home from Blackpool or other seaside resorts would be described mockingly, it never seeming to occur to those telling the stories that working people would have saved all year for a week in a boarding house and that the ornaments represented their memories of that time. It must have particularly irked some clergy that parishioners might fly off to Spain for a fortnight in the sun, for there would be sarcastic laughter about people flying home from package holidays on aircraft filled with sombreros and toy donkeys.
The clergy seemed to simply fail to understand the deeper thoughts of the people who attended (or, by the 1980s, who no longer attended) their parish churches. Perhaps those who had grown up in a former age felt that deep thought was the preserve of those who came from a particular background, perhaps those who had the ornaments and the donkeys had never been equipped with the words that might have expressed what these things meant to them.
Buying an acrylic painting inspired by a derby match between two Basque rugby clubs, I sat and pondered why a painting of Bayonne playing Biarritz should have prompted me to part with money. Of course, it was a picture inspired by a game I enjoy, but it was about much more than that. It is a painting that evokes memories of family holidays and all the happiness that went with them, it evokes warm summer days, and vast beaches and meals eaten outside on balmy evenings, and the beauty of the Pyrennees, and the dramatic history of those places, and the traffic jams and the ice creams and the laughter, and the Bayonne fans filling the air with the strains of “Vino Griego”,and all the other stuff that filled those days with an intensity no w gone, and being a thousand miles from the damp greyness of home.
The painting will hang above my desk, so that on days in November and February and all the other dreary days of the endless Irish winter, it will recall other times, and there will be an awareness that it is an outward and physical sign of something inward, just as were the souvenirs of Blackpool and the sombreros. And if clergy had recognized that people had a better understanding of what was meant by something being “sacramental” than was ever expressed in a sermon, they might have thought twice about their snobbishness.