29 December 2015
I had forgotten that Barchester was now twinned with a liberal Episcopalian diocese, thereby providing the reason why Bishop Armitage Shanks was accompanied into the Cactus House by some very obviously American women clergy of an extreme type. But I had little time to think; Shanks homed in on me with a manifestly malevolent intent. "My dear John", he cried. "I was so sorry there was all that trouble about your ordination in the Roman Church, and so terribly glad that you eventually managed to get it sorted out. And all for no better reason than your praise of Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, and the Latin Mass! How incredibly unjust!". In plain English this translates as: "How amazingly amusing it was, after all those decades you spent agitating for union with Rome, that one or two members of the English Roman Catholic Church didn't want to be saddled with such a trouble-maker! What a laughing-stock they made of you! How we did all enjoy it!".
I dislike condescension; and my experience - I pass this tip on to juvenile readers for whom it might be useful - is that it is best dealt with by immediate verbal brutality. People who are accustomed to receiving deference and Yes Bishop or Yes Minister or Yes Headmaster have generally grown so unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of real life that it hits and hurts them all the more to get an occasional dose of it. "My dear Shanks," I said "I'm sure you're aware that I've never liked you. Would you like me to explain why? Shall we discuss what your nickname was at Staggers and how you acquired it?"
But, to do him justice, just for once my favourite tactic totally and dismally failed. The fixed and insincere smile on his beautifully groomed face never for one nannosecond faltered. He did his retaliation by addressing the clergywomen: "Sistren", he said, "these are a couple of loud-mouthed former Anglican clerical troublemakers whose crude and rampant misogyny and homophobia led them to become Roman Catholics. The shabbily dressed one with the badly tended beard is the worse ... he is even a pathological reader and admirer of ... Rat-zinger". A murmur of horror filled the Cactus House. I looked more closely at the ladies. Somehow ... you know the tricks memory plays upon one ... there came into my mind (I can't for the life of me place where from) ... some hexameters starting tristius haud illis monstrum nec saevior ulla / pestis .... Some of the clergypersons were wearing badges. One such badge showed the Obama in its Messianic pose; another had the inscription TRANSGOD YES CISGOD NO. But one of them was wearing a much more interesting badge; "Gracious" I thought, "a fellow Classicist ... and a Patristics scholar ... and it's not often you meet a girl who keeps S Vincent's Commonitorium in her boudoir". It read "FOETICIDIUM SEMPER ET UBIQUE ET AB OMNIBUS".
Meanwhile, the Sisterhood had discovered that Jill was married to Colin, and were engaging polemically with her, urging upon her like Workshops and like Role Plays and like Group Massage Sessions to like sort of liberate her you know from like the Shackles of Patriarchy. Colin, feeling that he ought to protect his wife, was hobbling ineffectually about and bleating on the periphery of the melee ... dear friend that he is, I would have to admit that he is a trifle wet, even when not lamed. But he need not have troubled. After all, Jill did box for St Hugh's, and, I think, got her Blue in a year of particularly fierce competition. And she was the founding Chairman of the universally feared Oxford University Inter-Collegiate Women's Pancration Group (OUICWPG). Drawing herself up majestically, and enunciating clearly so that however dense their colonial patois they would at least assimilate the essential core of her message, she proclaimed "D*rty P*rv*rts".
"Oh dear", I thought. "I really had better dissociate myself from this. Not only is she jumping to totally unwarranted conclusions about the sexual orientation of these estimable ladies; she really has not understood the CDF documents, and the very definite utterances of the recent Magisterium - including the Catechism of the Catholic Church - about the total right of homosexual persons to full and unambiguous human respect, both from Society and from individuals, in thought, word, deed and omission. Such a clever girl ... after all, her doctorate on the Collyridians was supervised by dear Rowan himself before he changed his mind on the 'ordination' of women ... but very seriously off-message as regards correct Modern Catholic Attitudes. It will be terrible if the Tablet hears about all this. But who am I to judge?"
So, stepping carefully over Fr Colin's prostrate form, I motored off at a rate of knots towards the quieter if damp joys of the Tropical Rain Forest ... just as the less immovable of the cacti began to hurtle through the air. As the door closed behind me, a prolonged scream suggested that Bishop Shanks himself was undergoing a novel vegetable experience from which a full recovery might prove improbable. Girls will be girls!
A full account of the free-for-all that followed and the latest up-to-the-minute bulletin on Bishop Shanks' deteriorating condition can be read in The Barchester Chronicle incorporating the Hogglestock Times and Silverbridge Morning Examiner.