Role Models - People from the past who shape our futures. Part 1.
Why I'm not a Presbyterian.
Elizabeth was a presbyterian. A devoted, regular church-going Presbyterian, and probably the main reason why I would never consider becoming a Presbyterian.
Elizabeth was the mother of my first serious girlfriend, Kate. Through a mutual love of music, Kate and I had been friends since childhood, but it wasn't until I was 19 and she was 17 that we started dating. At that age, I was a bit of a bum, really. I had passed out of school with very few academic credentials, had been on the dole for a time, and had eventually started working as an office boy in a timber merchants. Kate, by contrast, was smart, bright, academically inclined and ambitious. The only reason her mother tolerated me, to be honest, was due to family ties. She had known my parents for years, and even though I was a bit of a tear-a-way, she was happy that, being of good stock, I would eventually amount to something.
While Kate and I had a very comfortable and affectionate 5 year relationship, I don't suppose there was really anything remarkable about it. We travelled much of Europe together and were always united by a passion for musical theatre, but we were both still growing, deciding upon the paths that our futures might follow, and while they were happy times, I never really believed that we were destined to remain partners for life. Perhaps that is why my memories of that era tend to be more focused on Elizabeth than on Kate.
I'm inclined to think that Kate took after her father, who was a down to earth practical man, and a butcher by trade. I suspect that Elizabeth's family may well have regarded her own marriage to a tradesman as somewhat beneath her, and I further suspect that Elizabeth herself might have considered her husband a lucky man to have acquired a wife of such good standing. Elizabeth was, I fear, a snob!
Her family had land, passed down from generation to generation. They were farmers in an era when rural wealth was considered much more prestigeous than new money acquired through business and industry.
"The world is full of chancers," she used to say. "Everyone can find a way to make a fast buck, but they're fools to think that money is real wealth. It's breeding that counts!"
I suppose I can't blame her for her attitudes. It was the way she was brought up. She had three sisters, and when they got together, they reminded me of the 'Dodson' sisters from George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss". They were almost caricatures of themselves. Busy-bodies who were always a step ahead of the local gossip, and who were quick to condemn anyone who behaved in what might be perceived as a 'common' or undignified manner. They thrived on scandal, and relished every opportunity to bask in their own shining righteousness, as they pointed fingers of accusation at those who fell into disgrace or dishonour.
Examples of such falls from grace were abundant. Teenage pregnancy. Unmarried pregnancy. Rumours of infidelity. Rumours of a drink problem. Dating a common person. Dating a Catholic..... yes, you heard me right. Dating a Catholic was almost as low as one could sink, almost as low as dating a black man. Perish the thought!
Kate and I had been together for some time when one of our best friends started dating a Catholic friend called Eugene. I'll never forget the day that Eugene first came to Elizabeth's house. The four of us, Kate and I, Sarah and Eugene, were seated in the kitchen having a sandwich and a cup of coffee, when Elizabeth arrived home from the shops.
"Mum, this is Sarah's new boyfriend Eugene." Kate did the introduction, and Elizabeth's face froze as the name registered. Protestants didn't call their boys Eugene. She didn't know ANY Protestant Eugenes.
"Eugene?" she tried to put a polite smile in place. "That's a name you don't hear too often. Nice to meet you Eugene." and she shook his hand. Had I not pre-warned Eugene of the way she would react, I'm quite sure he would have been very embarrassed by the situation, but as it was, he almost tittered when she turned away.
"So where do you hail from?" Elizabeth began her quizzing as she returned from leaving the shopping in the larder. "You don't have a strong Belfast accent."
"No. I'm from up near Antrim." he replied, knowing full well that the answer would be of little assistance to her quest to confirm her suspicions. Antrim wasn't either predominantly Catholic or Protestant. We all knew exactly what her next question was going to be.
"So what school did you go to up there?" There was no better way to determine a persons religion than to know where they were educated. Eugene, however, was a smart ass, and had pre-empted the tactic.
"Actually, I wasn't educated in Antrim." he smiled. "My parents didn't want me to be labelled locally because of the school I went to, so they sent me to school in Belfast." How we managed to get away from the house without laughing out loud at her frustration is beyond me, but we achieved it as quickly as possible. Kate apologised profusely to Eugene for her mother's lack of tact.
About a week later, I found myself alone in the house with Elizabeth and needless to say, the subject was re-visited.
"So how long have Sarah and....oh... what was his name? How long have they been going out together." she tried to sound casual.
"His name is Eugene." I needlessly reminded her, "And I think they've been together about three weeks now."
"Well I'm quite sure Sarah's Mum and Dad won't be too happy about it." she raised her eyebrows as if that was enough to explain her sentiments.
Sarah's parents were actually the nicest people you could hope to meet, and they certainly had no issues about their daughter dating a Catholic. Elizabeth had decided, though, that as the father was organist in a local Presbyterian church, he would obviously share her prejudices. Rather than waste time circling the issue, I decided to get straight to the point.
"To the best of my knowledge, they have no problem with him being a Catholic." I replied. "And neither do I. He's a good friend, Elizabeth. Why should being a Catholic make any difference?"
"Ha. You're too young to understand." she dismissed my opinion. "It's in their nature to be aggressive and confrontational. It's part of their culture."
I rolled my eyes, thinking how it wasn't a bit of wonder the country was in the state it was in, and feeling quite relieved that I was a part of a new generation who aspired to erase such attitudes and prejudices. I knew there would be little point in attempting to alter her point of view. She closed the conversation with a crass observation.
"He seems like a nice enough chap, but I have to be honest. When it comes down to it, I could never really trust a Catholic."
That statement in itself was enough to make me remain distant from Elizabeth all through my relationship with Kate. I had grown up with Catholic neighbours. They were my close friends and they were people I not only loved and respected, but with whom I would have trusted my life. I thanked God (for at that time, I wouldn't have considered doubting his existence) that I had been born into a compassionate, tolerant and non-judgemental family.
It wasn't Elizabeth's attitude towards Catholics, however, that turned me away from the possibility of ever becoming a Presbyterian. It was due to an incident that involved me on a much more personal level.
Kate and I had been at a party on a Saturday night, and as it had been a house party pretty close to where she lived, I had stayed the night at Kate's house. I did so in the knowledge that I would be expected to attend church with the family, the following morning. With this, I had no problem, except that I hadn't brought a change of clothes. No matter. I was sure the outfit I had worn to the party was decent enough. Corduroy trousers, (Oh give me a break, it was the early 1980's!) a casual shirt and jacket, and a decent pair of shoes. I was in the kitchen eating toast for breakfast when Kate came in with a perplexed expression.
"Erm... Peter. Mum says you don't have to go to church with us." she blushed, and I understood immediately that what she meant was Mum doesn't WANT you to go to church with us.
"But I'm more than happy to go. What's the problem?" I was a bit put out. I thought it was quite a polite gesture to share a Sunday service with the family of my girlfriend, despite the fact that I was of a different denomination.
"The problem is," Elizabeth entered the kitchen and took over the conversation, "You can't be walking into the church looking like you've just left the pub. You don't even have a jacket and tie."
I was in shock. I had always been pretty particular about my appearance, and although she was right about the lack of a jacket and tie, I considered myself to be very well dressed.
"You kidding. Right?" I asked, even though I was sure she wasn't.
"It's our church you're going to, Peter, not some modern free-thinking tabernacle with no standards. We have a code of practice which includes being respectful to God." she ranted. "You can't show respect dressed like that. What would people think?"
And there it was, in a nutshell. "What would people think?" I watched Elizabeth with a kind of quiet loathing as she attached her fussiest Sunday hat to her over-styled hair. The hat which was perfectly picked to coordinate with her priciest Sunday dress, her polished high-heels, her matching handbag, and her immaculate fur-collared coat, and I suddenly realised that, to her, the church aisle was a cat-walk, upon which she could parade herself to her neighbours. She was the kind of woman who would sit as far to the front of the church as possible to ensure that the whole congregation would get to see her in all her finery. And I thought to myself, "Is this what going to church should be all about?"
1Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
2Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
3But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
Jesus, it would appear, was quite specific on the topic..... but then again, Jesus wasn't a Presbyterian!
Now, before the Presbyterian community jump on my back and claim that their church is not like that at all, I hasten to add that I am being critical of an individual, not the whole church, but you see, life is like that. It can sometimes only take one bad apple to convince you that the barrel is infected.
I did, actually, make the effort, one other Sunday, to go to church with Kate and her family, and I was glad I made the effort. Not because I suddenly found inspiration, but because I had the pleasure of watching Elizabeth being considerably humbled on that occasion. The poor woman had very bad eyesight, which was deteriorating rapidly, and that particular day, as the congregation were exiting the church, Elizabeth stopped to address what she thought was a familiar face.
"Isn't it a lovely day?" she offered. "It's so good to see the sunshine after such a bitter winter."
"Indeed it is." the friendly face replied. "It's as if God is smiling on us all."
"I'm so sorry. You'll have to forgive me." Elizabeth apologised, "My eyesight isn't what it used to be. I know I've often spoken to you before, but I just can't, for the life of me, put a name to your face."
"I'm the vicar!" the Vicar replied.
God moves in mysterious ways!