As is traditional in this village, the Chapel congregation had walked the 100 yards up the hill to unite with the Anglicans for the Harvest Sunday morning service. The Chapel people are on the whole younger and more visibly filled with the Holy Spirit than the Anglicans. Retired postmistress Daphne was standing in the aisle, bubbling over as usual with love and joy, and bestowing hugs and kisses on anyone attempting to squeeze pass.
The Clarke contingent — mother, aunt, grandson — took a pew brazenly near the front. The service this year was led by the rural dean, who is an absolute babe. This was a rare visit, and we all of us, young and old, male and female, feasted our eyes greedily on her as she emerged theatrically from the vestry shooting her glamorous cuffs. ‘Is she going to do a pole dance?’ I said in a confidential aside to grandson Oscar, a once-a-year churchgoer since the age of five. At seven-and-three-quarters Oscar knows what a pole dancer is, I noted, because he tittered politely at his mad dog grandfather’s ludicrously anachronistic witticism.
My mother and her sister were too decrepit to rise for the first hymn, ‘God, Whose Farm is All Creation’. They had used up all of their strength extricating themselves from my 1.3 Fiesta at the church gate and tottering inside on their disability apparatus. The hymn, I read with surprise, was written by the ‘voice of cricket’, radio commentator John Arlott, and we sung it to a folk tune arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. ‘How English can you get?’ I said to Oscar, indicating the attribution at the bottom of the page with my thumbnail. Although Oscar can read, he had heard of neither.
The bible reading was taken from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 12. This wealthy chap had such a whopping great harvest he decided to knock down his barn and build a bigger one. Secure in his good fortune, he planned to ‘eat, drink and be merry’. God was furious. ‘You fool,’ he told the guy. ‘Your life will be required of you this very night.’ The moral of the story was that we should not store up wealth for ourselves but should be rich only towards God. Which seemed to me directly to contradict Max Weber’s theory about Protestantism being the turbocharger of capitalism. But instead of sharing this thought with my grandson, I kept it to myself, not least because I am an autodidact and it was probably erroneous on every level.
The rural dean mounted the stairs to the pulpit to give a sermon, and we sat back in our pews to enjoy the sight of her. ‘I don’t know about you,’ she said. ‘But the Brussels sprouts in my garden have fallen victim to a plague of green caterpillars.’ There followed a sort of near-silent uproar. Pretty much everyone present was moved to whisper an angry word or give an imperceptible nod of the head to indicate that the little bastards had indeed been doing the same to theirs. Her opening statement had touched a raw nerve in the congregation, galvanising it. If we thought they were greedy, she continued, we should listen to this. Green caterpillars must increase their body mass by a factor of one thousand to survive to the next stage. Eating is all they do. Their anatomy is designed for eating; their instinct devoted to it entirely.
I’m sorry but I’ve forgotten now whether our rural dean’s final advice to us was to emulate the caterpillar in our devotion to God’s Kingdom, that we might one day metamorphose and take wing. Or whether we should regard the caterpillar’s appetite as a metaphor for the selfish greed of the materialist who stores up treasures for himself. Whatever it was, her colourful sermon about these hungry caterpillars was rich food for thought for young and old, and nobody collapsed during it or had to be carried out.
The offertory hymn, obviously, was ‘We Plough the Fields, and Scatter’. Knowing the words off by heart, I sang out with gusto, abandon even, while ostentatiously forsaking my hymnal: ‘No gifts have I to offer, for all Thy love imparts, but that which Thou desirest: my humble, thankful heart.’ But when the velvet bag came around, I shoved in 78p anyhow.
After the service, we stayed for coffee and cake. An elderly farmer with hands like dinner plates talked football with Oscar and amazingly offered him cup final tickets via a connection at the Football Association. Around here, the farmers comprise an ancient hereditary Puritan aristocracy who have no interest in, or even conception of, bourgeois culture. I shook hands formally with the rural dean and was about to ask her for her phone number when this farmer intervened and monopolised her, I’m sorry to say, in a distinctly droit du seigneur manner.