I remember the ephemera at the back of St Barnabas. The church stands in Oxford’s suburb of Jericho, near the University Press. It had proper church clutter: stumps of candles, dogeared pamphlets and reminders of long gone diocesan initiatives. St Barnabas – a beautiful Italianate monstrosity, plonked by the high Victorians, with their classic tact, amid a cluster of crabby little houses, once slums but now worth millions – is good at collecting this stuff. In the sacristy is a vestment made from the coronation hangings of Tsar Nicholas II, smuggled out of Petrograd at the revolution; now the double-headed eagle peeps through the incense, delighting porters, dons and motor workers alike on high days and holidays.
The piece of uselessness that most captivated me, as I pretended to help tidy up at the back when an undergraduate, was a pamphlet entitled ‘DID JESUS COME TO BRITAIN?’. The question was answered in the very first word of the long diatribe that followed, which was an emphatic, capitalised ‘YES’. Even among the collection of publications advocating zany ideas and seemingly lost causes that make up this sort of church clutter, this one stood out as particularly loopy. Obviously it became my favourite.
The hypothesis is that Christ came to Britain – specifically the West Country, which was one of the ancient world’s primary sources for tin – with an elder relative, the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea, who would eventually provide the tomb in which he would be laid on that first Good Friday. Joseph was a wealthy trader, specifically in metal, and so, it is said, he allowed the young Jesus to travel with him on a sort of business trip. Certainly civilisations as early as the Phoenicians used Cornish tin, and archaeological finds from the Mediterranean can be traced, with some accuracy, to the gloriously named ‘Ding Dong’ mine near Penzance.
It is said that the ship carrying the teenage Jesus took refuge in a cove, near to the church of St Just in Roseland on the southern Cornish coast.