Sunday, 30 June 2019

37. St Mary Magdalene, Taunton

With God on our side we will win; he will defeat our enemies. The words come from Psalm 108 and have formed the sticking point to any number of debates theological or otherwise down the years.

The idea of enlisting the almighty to wade in on your behalf has been used by every army that ever fought - more often than not as a salve to their own side that they shouldn’t fear death and opt to run off before the event. 

It’s perhaps a slightly quirky view of mere mortals’ relationship with the omnipotent that WE should come up with the plan and then enlist HIM to do the necessary - much of Christian teaching tends to have matters the other way round.

It’s also used as a justification for whatever dirty business the combatants want doing. Turning weapons on others when there’s no overwhelming reason for doing so can be made to feel all the more justifiable if it’s been cleared by Heaven. Bob Dylan famously confronted this avenue of thought in a song which ended up angering the military-minded as much as any armed enemy had previously managed.

Getting your deity to pick up arms on your behalf made some sense, I suppose, when you had a different God or gods from those of your enemies - It becomes a version of ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’. But when you and your opponents both pay homage to the same God, it all gets a bit complicated.

We all make individual, plaintive deals with whoever we believe in. Frequently at moments when we feel the helping hand from on high would help to turn a fairly evenly-balanced issue in our favour.

It’s still before 8.00 on a bright Sunday morning and I’ve already put in two and a half hours of driving to arrive in Taunton for a much-anticipated day at the cricket. Somerset have made a hugely promising start in their endless quest to win the county championship for the first time in their long history, but the intercession of the almighty on their behalf would surely help things along.

But I’m not here just to pray for James Hildreth to bat well and for Hampshire to drop every catch that comes their way. St Mary Magdalene, together with St James just up the road, have always played a big part in Somerset’s history. There can’t be many pictures taken of the ground - mine included - which don’t feature the two towers looming over the boundary. Sports fans are known for having lucky routines on the way to each game - a lucky place to meet, a lucky pub for a lucky drink on the way to the match. So why not a lucky communion service?

If it is a workable idea, it hasn’t been taken up by many. There are something like eight people in St Mary Magdalene this morning. They’re dotted around the pews as if they all have a favourite place to sit and will make for that however sparse that might make things appear. I’ve chosen St Mary over St James mainly because of timings - St James has a family service starting about the same time as the first over in the cricket thus making it slightly inconvenient and increasing the chances of being felled by a heartily-smote cricket ball while wandering in the churchyard.

St Mary’s is a beautiful church inside and out - ornate and packed with features to tempt the eye. The service is short and the readings are focussed on the rather apt subject of remaining steadfast in the face of difficult challenges. I find myself wondering if someone, somewhere has taken note of Somerset’s recent tendency to cave in before even reaching the first batting point. We need to show a flinty face, we are told, and stay true to our convictions when others may be throwing difficult questions our way. I instantly resolve to look flinty beneath my Somerset sunhat whatever setbacks the pre-lunch session may throw at us.

Back out into the early morning sunshine in this fine town and I join the many-more-than-eight making their way into the ground aiming for their own favourite vantage points carrying with them perhaps a few prayers as well as the generous hampers. I try to sit somewhere where I can at least see the towers watching over the immaculate grass and the gentle passage of the day’s play.

As Hildreth reached his century and later as Somerset passed the significant 400 mark, I wondered if God had indeed answered my prayers or whether it was just the home batsmen coming into form with perfect timing for my visit. It should be noted however, that I saw no evidence of any Hampshire hats being worn among the eight people who put in the early shift.