Thursday, June 3, 2010

You'd Better Go Teaching

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During my later years at University I began to have increasing doubts about becoming a Presbyterian minister. But I did go south to Knox College. There, I went to my tutor and tried to explain how I felt. The interview proved unhelpful. I felt he oversimplified my difficulties. No doubt he believed I exaggerated my concerns. I wrote to Maureen a student in Christchurch with whom I become friendly, mentioning a switch to the Anglican priesthood. Would she come to capping ball with me for the second year running? Back came her reply, enthusiastic on both points.

I told my pastor that I was contemplating exchanging creeds. "Your choice," he said testily. He didn't even try to argue, which at the time irritated me. Looking back I think they probably had reached the conclusion that I was going anyway. My self-centredness at the time would not have seen that.

Towards the end of term, I received an invite to preach at Morven and Glenavy in South Canterbury. A local farmer met me at the train Saturday evening. At mealtime, he asked me to say grace. After I finished my ritualistic one, he began another impromptu which went on and on full of God's vengeance and His protection against Satan's hellfire while the roast mutton cooled in front of us. That night, before I drifted off to sleep, I thought of Hooker's criticism of Calvinism. The Anglican Church would be better. Only a cynic would point out that it would also involve training in Christchurch where Maureen studied.

The next morning at the church, the elder prayed for me at length before the service, again asking Christ to defeat the powers of evil and calling down the Holy Spirit to enable me to speak with enlightenment. Irritated, I glanced at my watch; already past eleven. He must have sensed my movement, for he switched to pray for our acceptance of God's plan outside man's temporal time.

The spirit he asked for did speak to me in that pulpit. As I waited for the singing of the first hymn to die away, something welled up from deep inside me: "You’ve no right to be up here." "Before the Anglican altar", I queried. "Not there either." As I commenced the service, my lips said the words, "Oh come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our Maker," but my interior mind toyed with my revelation. As I continued, a sense of well-being flooded through my body. The service and sermon were well-delivered. The elder praised my presentation. "You've got the power, lad."

Lunch was difficult. I wanted to explore the tumult of my thoughts, polish the moment and cherish it. Instead I found myself defending my argument that a personal Satan did not exist. The elder got out the Bible to support his case. I argued the Devil did not appear in the initial chapters of the Bible. He equated him with the serpent. In the circumstances it was a bizarre argument. His wife tried to change the subject, but he remained determined to make his point - evildoers must suffer in the next life and the issue was not one of frivolity. I spent the afternoon when I decided to leave theological training arguing theology. After preaching again, it was not till I caught the railcar at Studholme could I relax. "I'm leaving, I'm leaving", the refrain ran jubilant around my mind in tune with the clickety-clack of the wheels.

It would be unfair to blame or, indeed, thank that elder. Various factors had built up, but his emphasis on humanity's depravity finally tipped some psychological balance. Released from the corral in which they been herded, my feelings ran in all directions - hard now to explain the elation. The incomprehensible Being could remain precisely that; I did not need to try to fit it into a pattern or shape. If the world still refused to make sense, at least I could explore it through my own sensory experience without interpretive control. Existence seemed enough satisfaction and justification. Now longer would I need to push theory past the point of self-defeat. Foolish youth!

The last fortnight in Dunedin proved satisfying. No one tried to dissuade me from leaving. Tutors gravely said good-bye and wished me all the best. They assumed I departed to join the Anglicans. I did not enlighten them. Students treated me with that curious mixture of covetousness and aversion of the elect for the sinner outside the fold. "It will be easier to be an Anglican," a women deacon trainee said enviously. "One can be so much more worldly. Enjoy a sherry."

Skipping lectures I wandered through the gardens in the shortening sunsets, past caged birds and late roses and dahlias. At St Kilda beach I walked along the sand-dunes, watched the southern waves roll in to crash upon bleak sand and indulging in useless thoughts in the mode of Byronic heroes down the ages. I commenced an orgy of fiction reading. At the book-shops, spending money I could ill-afford, I bought Ian Cross's The God Boy and Chapman and Bennett's Anthology of New Zealand Verse. Much of the cultural capital that has enriched my life was soon to be published - Sinclair's and Oliver's histories of New Zealand, Pearson's Coal Flat, Frame's Owls Do Cry and Hilliard's Maori Girl. I found the personal truthfulness of Cross's novel, and even more the poetry mind-expanding in that they spoke of a world I knew, ordinary but made remarkable. In a strange way I found ‘New Zealand’ in that last fortnight. The decision to leave the known habitat enabled me to make that discovery.

From this distance the decision to go south to Dunedin appears quixotic and foolish. But I don’t regret it. I went far enough down a particular path to know definitively it wasn’t the right one. That knowledge is useful. The issues discussed weren’t trivial or unimportant. Indeed, they are crucial for humanity. From my lecturers I’d learnt a sense of perspective and moral criticism; also, a sense of duty - maybe "service" is the better word. Further, their stress that human beings are more than market units remains a useful corrective in my life.

Back with Maureen, she enthusiastic about the Anglican decision - I didn't reveal my hand, a mistake, for it built our relationship from the first upon a withheld truth. But as writers customarily say that is another story.

At the ball, Maureen, vivacious and sparkling, on my arm the whole world seemed possible. While she and Mrs Phillips were "powdering their noses", Prof Neville Phillips – I had majored in History - asked, "What do you propose Harvey to do now?"
"I don't know."
"If you can't stand the Presbyterians, what makes you think the Anglicans are any better?" he grumped. "You'd better go school-teaching."

I did - and to my surprise enjoyed it.

1 comment:

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