Monday, 31 March 2014


I had a school-friend called Norman, who always had one ambition, which was to become a Methodist minister. He made no secret about it: he would hum hymns rather than pop tunes, and even brought the "Methodist Recorder" into school with him every week. I don't remember him being bullied about it, or even particularly teased, though the boy who every week asked if he could have a look at the sports page must have worn his patience a bit thin. He was a good amateur actor too, playing the lead in Moliere's "Imaginary Invalid", and Professor Higgins in "Pygmalion" (where I played Alfred Doolittle). I always enjoyed talking to him, although I found his theological pronouncements rather extreme: he took a fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and refused to accept any evidence for evolution.

I once helped him prepare the food for a local Methodist function. There was also a well-meaning but dim youth who wanted to help, so we asked him to make some gravy. He read the instructions on the packet of cubes and then came asking for help. "It says, add to a pint of water", he said, "but we haven't got a pint measurer". "No", I said, "but there's milk bottle; that's a pint, so you can use that". He went away satisfied, only to return a few minutes later, complaining, "It's stuck!" He had pushed the cube down the neck of the milk bottle into the water, where it had swelled up and jammed. We took it from him and set him to put out the cutlery, where we thought he couldn't do much damage.

Eventually, after a few setbacks, Norman secured a place to train for the ministry. When I visited him at the college, he complained that more than half of his fellow-students didn't believe in God. I asked him what, in that case, they preached. "A mixture of egoism and social concern", he told me, which I thought sounded about right. While I was there he asked me if I wanted to attend  a lecture on Adam Clarke, a famous Methodist theologian from the early 19th century. Since I had come across Clarke's massive Biblical commentaries (where he attempted vainly to reconcile fundamentalist belief in the scriptures with the findings of science, and, if my memory serves me right, interpreted the Book of Revelations as prophesying the final downfall of the Papacy in 1945), I decided to come. I dressed in my "student-going-to-lecture" gear of cord jeans and an orange pullover, only to find that all the rest of the audience were staid Methodists in dark suits. They sat in rigid silence during the lecture and afterwards, whereas I asked a few questions. When it was over the lecturer came up to me and asked, "Are you a minister?", which under the circumstances I thought was rather amusing.

I once spent a weekend with Norman  and his wife at their church, and attended a group discussion he had organised on the Saturday evening. This was an odd experience. The church was located in what was clearly an expensive suburb, and the house where we held the meeting was quite large, but with hardly any books and very dull pictures on the walls. This ought to have prepared me for what followed. Norman's discussion was supposed to be centred round the theme of "creation", and he had put together what he hoped would be interesting and stimulating extracts from Arthur Koestler and other writers. These, however, went down like the proverbial lead balloon. At one point Norman said, "We all remember the opening words of the Bible ..." and paused for a response. Dead silence followed. I thought, "He's going to have to say them himself!", and indeed he did.

Norman eventually became quite an influential figure in the Methodist church. As far as I know, he is still at work.  

1 comment:

  1. I remember Norman: rather schoolma'amish if my recollection hasn't been distorted by the passage of time. My wife met him at the Methodist church in Penrith in the early 1990s.