I kept a straight face, but only just. The person next to me kept a grip too. If one of us had succumbed the other one would have followed suit. Last evening’s events have me puzzled and troubled in almost equal measure, but this morning I’ve recognised that I spent an hour and a half yesterday in Royston Vasey, or at least in the company of that fictional location’s macabre and grisly cast.
It would be easy enough to mock the exuberant baptist minister MC: during the Q&A session when he was quizzed by a couple of young people from one of the town’s two primary schools he admitted that he became a baptist minister (rather than any other brand of minister) because it was convenient. I’m paraphrasing, obviously. What he did say was that at the time he was deciding to train the nearest church happened to be a baptist one, rather than anything else. It was an outstanding moment of clarity and honesty if not of deep religious conviction.
The other three ‘panelists’ were a charisma-free mayor, a irish gymnast-turned-music-teacher who leads the High School’s gospel* choir and a caricature bluff warrant officer who did a stand up comedy routine with his wing commander.
This ‘do’ was supposedly a civic function and a celebration of community, but the police, the fire brigade, the ambulance and air ambulance, the coast guard and lifeboats went unrepresented. The scouts and girl guides were missing and no-one stood for the charitable work that goes on in the community. The new headteacher of the improving-but-from-a-low-base secondary school wasn’t there, and if the head teacher of the smaller of the two primary schools attended I didn’t spot her.
Credit then to the head of the other primary school who bothered to show up, and with her husband in tow. He and I afterwards had a brief word, a kind of verbal eye-rolling at the lamentable mayoral performance.
If I found what was notable by its absence rather puzzling then I found that which was present deeply troubling when I didn’t find it all simply risible. I accept as a starting point in the civic life of this country that it is not a fully fledged and properly functioning democracy and that there is no separation of church and state but only last night was I required to confront the woefully low quality of what elected representation we have, and how insidious and unbalanced is the entwining of religiosity with political life.
The front two rows were occupied by town councillors and their other halves and our unfortunate local member of parliament. This is a commuter town and so while those with land are busy working it the rest of the talent based here is too busy grappling with the commute into London to take an active role in local life. I know whereof I speak, when I commuted I knew next to nothing of the town and very few of the people I lived among. And so it is left to a few talentless busybodies to take up the reins of local government. They are a powerful walking talking breathing argument against devolution of powers from Westminster.
It is always and understandably easy to assume that the opposition of MPs to any relinquishing of responsibility in any form in any area of administration or policy is a matter of power-craziness; but after last night and bearing in mind MPs must endure this sort of thing night in, night out, I’m almost inclined to believe that they are taking good care of the nation’s best interests. Even if they’re doing so inadvertently.
The entire thing should have been funnier than it actually was. In fact I found it mostly horrifying. I mentioned earlier that the MC was the baptist minister. This is no hotbed of non-conformism, though there was once a temperance hotel. That building has since been a wine bar before becoming a kebab and hamburger joint. Before it was a wine bar it was a tanning salon, operating a brothel out of the back rooms. Since this is Essex that building though it didn’t know it was always destined to be a fast food outlet or a hairdresser-cum-tanning salon, with or without additional services provided on the quiet.
There’s nothing funny about the glittery waistcoat sporting spouse of an indolent and very stupid former colleague of mine. He and his father and other family members are embeded in town and local government as members and representatives of the centre-right postured Conservative Party. But the dark unspoken truth is in this part of the world and at his level of political activity it isn’t always necessary to set up a BNP branch as those of that political disposition are already well served. I didn’t see a single black face at the gathering and only one person who was obviously not entirely white.
And then there’s the god-bothering. The absence of any separation of church and state on parade and in all its provincial pomp. This celebration of civic life was held in the baptish church on the High Street, but since the baptist minister would also be in the gospel** choir he’d co-opted the services of the minster of the United Reformed (ex-methodist, I believe) from further up the High Street and, to provide what I suppose was to be considered some semblance of balance drafted in the Church of England minister from the lot at the top of the hill to ‘lead us in prayer’.
At this point it might be helpful to know that I’m the child of an agnostic and anglican. The agnostic was the son of a pair of anglicans while the anglican was the daughter of presbyterian and a methodist. He attended a presbyterian boarding school, while she attended a methodist run boarding school. Naturally the school they sent me to was run the group by then calling themselves the Anglican Church of Australia. I may have been amused by the baptist minister’s story about how he came to be a baptist, but not in an unsympathetic way.
The picture is clouded though by the fact that my surname, stoutly Irish Catholic in its connotations reflects the fact that my paternal grandfather was the product of a catholic father and a redoubtable anglican mother who had her way in the matter of their children’s religious upbringing. They grew up on adjoining properties, were married more than fifty years and lie for eternity in separate sections of the same cemetary for the sake of their differing religious affiliations.
The presybyterian grandfather and anglican grandmother (and she the decendant of west country quakers) worshipped at different churches throughout their life together but now lie in the same grave.
All of that is a bit of a distraction from the central troubling point, which isn’t that the jehovah’s witness lot who have a temple next to the industrial estate, the catholics who have a functional little church down one of the side streets, the jews and the muslims who must both travel out of town to a formal place of whorship, the buddhists, sikhs, hindus & etc etc, were not part of this religious dimension to last night’s procedings. So that semblance of balance was a rather frail thing if actually extant.
The allegedly very familiar hymns were musical drivel and the prayers were fatuous but again that’s not quite the point.
In a disfunctional democracy we get the representatives we deserve and when there’s no separation of church and state we have to put up with our vaguely camp on the night and therefore possibly seditious MP delivering a reading from the book of revelation (as rendered in some uber-modern translation) to cast a light on civic life.
You might notice the stylised letter A in the sidebar : I’m an athiest not an agnostic. I’m baffled by the belief of anyone in any concept of god I’ve ever had explained to me but ordinarily people who do don’t trouble me greatly. There are worse things they could do than believe in fairly benign omnipotence, as most do. The line that was crossed last night is the line that precludes atheists from participating in public life or demands hypocrisy or obfuscation. By the end of the night I was having no trouble keeping a straight face.
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