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An idiots’ guide to Lent, by idiots


I HAVE managed to resist the temptation to write a coaching manual on the art of golf, with the flimsy excuse that I have never picked up a golf club in my life. So I wonder why those who are similarly ignorant of theology should produce a book on the subject. But here it is, Live Lent: God’s Story Our Story, ‘sponsored’ by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, in other words written at their direction.

It begins in that excitable tone by which Modern Churchmen are instantly recognisable, as the Archbishops enjoin us to ‘hold out for change’. No need to ask what sort of change or in which direction: for, in today’s not-so-much-with-it-but-way-ahead-of-it Church of England, any change of direction will do – so long as it’s to the left. To begin with, the Archbishops reassure us that there will be nothing in their book to tax our brains. Don’t be afraid, for the book is nothing if not accessible in this Lent Course which ‘is not a Lent Course or a plan to do something difficult’. By their disclaimer, the Archbishops make it clear that they intend not to overestimate readers’ intelligence or moral resolve. So what is Lent for?

Besides their not knowing any theology, Messrs Welby and Cottrell haven’t a clue how to talk to people. Their language is of a species that would sound patronising in the pre-school playgroup:

‘Everybody loves a story. We watch films to be gripped by a story and we find ourselves turning the light off to go to sleep later than we meant . . .’

But shouldn’t our mummies and daddies turn the light off for us?

Now, to give an early specimen of that theological ignorance of which I spoke at the start, the Archbishops present Jesus’s parable of the Lost Sheep. Alas, they don’t know what it means! For they conclude by telling us, ‘There is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and have never strayed.’

Unfortunately, that’s not what the Bible story says. Jesus ends this parable with the words, ‘more than over ninety-and-nine just persons which need no repentance’. The Archbishops miss the whole point of the parable which is all in its scorn for those who think themselves righteous – the Pharisees, the hypocrites.

In case we can’t understand the meaning of the word lost, there is help at hand in the form of more baby talk:

‘Your car key is a small thing, but if you lose it, a much bigger thing – your car – will not work.’


This is such a difficult point for us to grasp, so the Archbishops feel it necessary to offer ever more examples of the word lost:

‘Your wallet is a small thing, but if you lose it, you may also lose access to your bank account which is a much bigger thing. If you have a complete set of books or records by an artist you love, and one goes missing, somehow it can spoil the whole connection.’

Now, gentle reader, do you at last understand what these untheological nursery maids are trying to tell you about the word lost?

And the social services are with us even in the playgroup:

‘There was a man unable to function in society.’

Unable to function in society? The King James Bible – which the C of E has abandoned –says, ‘a man that hath an unclean spirit’.

In the next bedtime story, from The Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’s disciples are threatened by ‘the priests and captain of the temple and the Sadducees’. But in Live Lent they are merely told off by ‘the council’ – which only makes me think of the quarterly bill for water supply or about them in’t town ’all wot won’t stop some folk riding their bikes on the pavement.

The book’s Left-wing attitudes prevail from start to finish, but we have to wait until we reach page 34 for this remarkable advertisement:

‘Each Saturday in The Guardian . . .’

This is just before the bit where the Archbishops inform us: ‘Most of us aren’t called to be great theologians.’

You’re telling me!

‘Jesus was moved with compassion’ (Matthew 9:36) might suffice for St Matthew but the compilers of Live Lent have to demonstrate their street-cred.

‘Jesus was moved in his gut.’ What, had that fish which Peter brought for him out of the Sea of Galilee been under-smoked?

‘The Woman of Samaria’ featured in St John’s Gospel becomes Jesus’s ‘conversation partner’.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul says: ‘The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain.’ This becomes ‘left slightly despairing’.

(By the way, how does one despair but only slightly? Mildly agonising, was it?)

St Luke tells us of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus in words which thrill to the bone. Live Lent says: ‘It’s a powerful and moving story.’

That reminds me of the TV cricket commentators who tell us, ‘That’s a good shot!’ when we have just seen it for ourselves.

If you struggle to the end of this nonsense and doggerel you will read how to get out of your playpen and ‘take the next steps’.

May I suggest what these next steps might be? Heave this silly book into the bin. Instead for your DIY Lent Course try this: Open the Book of Common Prayer and read the Collect, Epistle and Gospel set for each day. Then you might say The Confession and the General Thanksgiving.

That should see you through until Easter Morning.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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