Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Warwickshire Vicar Says “Jesus was a Traveller”

Opposition politics is in a sorry state in this country. What with voters chasing after the money and parties chasing after the voters, whose got any time for justice? Recently, certain members of the Church of England have been stepping into the vacant opposition seat and, disturbed by the mass worship of the capitalist calf, praying loud.

Squall 5, Oct/Nov 1993, pp. 28-29.

Christianity comes up for a right slagging sometimes and, in many instances, quite rightly deserves it. What with an unwhole host (geddit?) of Government ministers lining up to use Christian morality to back up capitalist principles (Margaret Thatcher, Anne Widdicombe - the Minister of Social Security, and most recently Michael Portillo - Chief Secretary to the Treasury). Combine this with the oppressive mis-use of church power over the centuries and it’s no wonder people are losing faith in its message.

But from within the ranks of some parts of the church, vocalised dissension against the materialistic, anti-community direction this society is settling for, is on the increase. Whilst members of the cabinet use what is left of people’s faith for their own political ends, church leaders such as the Bishop of Durham, the Bishop of York and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, have been speaking out against the “worship of the economic god” and their words are unusually specific.

In all honesty, who could be brought up amid a Christian mythology and not see Anne Widdicombe’s insistence that TV cameras film her receiving holy communion, as anything other than a direct repetition of the parading praying pharisee vilified in the New Testament? There must still be many vicars and priests biting their tongues in the hope of inheriting the earth with a meek and mild ministry, but one vicar who could stand the dichotomy no longer is Canon Norman Howes, from the parish village of Wellesbourne in Warwickshire.

After the recent arrival of some New Travellers in the area, the village people, in true parochial English style, rose up with intolerant animosity. To counter this dark surge of unchristian thinking, the Canon pointed out in his Sunday sermon that Jesus was most probably a traveller and would almost certainly have displayed more loving tolerance than that shown by the gathered congregation of so-called Christians.

Imagine the surprise of the parishioners as they heard Vicar Howes’ sermon and then looked up at the picture of a long haired bearded man with an exposed yet shining heart, which had hung on the church wall all their lives. The same guy who hung out in the wilderness with people who wore goat-hair jackets and ate only locusts and wild honey (aka John the Baptist).

And did the surprise lead the congregation to their own revelation on the road to Damascus, persuading them to forsake their former lives as intolerant persecutors? …..Er No.

“What the canon said was naive,” pronounced the vote-conscious Geoff Freeman, Liberal Democrat councillor for the village. “People are getting fed up with Travellers. I’m sure Jesus might have been more sympathetic to them than some others but we’re not happy with them.”

“The spirit of Jesus requires an openness to the stranger - and especially the poor,” countered the Canon, feeling himself to be alone in a certain spiritual wilderness.

“It’s not a Christian view shared by shopkeepers who have had people peeing in their refrigerators,” replied a spokesman for the police who, with no evidence or convictions (geddit?), did not seem to find irony in his false witness.

Vicar David Penny from Salisbury is another example of a man who risked position and popularity to speak up for Travellers. Vicar Penny was head of the C of E Social Responsibility Council in the Diocese of Salisbury, and a member of the National Anglican Social Responsibility Council. He managed to get both these organisations, and three other diocesan councils, to write to the DoE, condemning the Government’s proposed legislation against Travellers as intolerant and morally wrong.

He also wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, asking that the General Synod should discuss the matter. Carey agreed and, as well sanctioning the ordination of women, the Synod passed a motion that the Government’s Traveller proposals amounted to a “criminalisation of the travelling way of life.”

As one might imagine from conservative Salisbury, he was none too popular with his dioceses’ predominantly Tory congregation or the don’t-rock-the-boat hierarchy of the Church. As a consequence, he was sent away on a sabbatical, to research a book on Travellers. His response was to buy a van, take his brand of enlightened Christianity around the Traveller sites of Britain and then write about the experience.

“On the whole the Travellers are a very spiritual people,” he told SQUALL. “They take their spirituality from a number of different sources although they are essentially anti-religions. And I feel the same way. Spirituality is far more important than religion because God manifests himself through a fellowship of people.

"I’ve held hands with druids and pagans in the middle of Stonehenge before because I found them also to be a spiritual people with a strong affinity with nature. And its right that someone should feel spiritual about nature. Its certainly something that the Christian Church should be addressing because we have an eco-crisis on our hands ”

The Social Responsibility Council have said that when this three month period is over he will not be returning to the Salisbury Diocese.

“I was a thorn in their side and they pretty much said the same thing,” continued Vicar Penny. “There’s not that much room for radicals in the institutionalised church. It’s very difficult for the CofE to criticise the spiritual consequences of capitalism and economics-as-a-religion, when they themselves are making financial investments in it.

But personally, I just don't think this is what Jesus was about. I would rather be at the cutting edge with my spirituality, than catching up years later."

No-one is suggesting that Travellers are convoys of modem day Jesus Christs, but the fact that this still- professed Christian country will not tolerate practical Christian behaviour from their own vicars, suggests that there is very little spirituality going down between the pews and benches these days. It is, however, going down in certain pulpits, for as long as it takes the congregations to evict the preachers.

As the comedian Lenny Bruce once said: “If Jesus came back now we would all be wearing little silver electric chairs round our necks by next month.”

What do we learn from history? Apparently nothing. Nothing Nothing.