A clerical detective story by PDJ Amyes
To visit the Holy Land at the beginning of the twenty-first century, concluded Whelan on his return to the American Colony Hotel after a brief reconnaissance of the old city, is to have stepped through the looking-glass. Everything is absurdly sinister or strangely absurd.
The walls of the City of Peace are patrolled by teenage Jewish Rambos with sub-machine guns. The two competing tombs of Christ seem equally improbable – the one shrouded by a marble kiosk in a style best described as Turkish Baroque, the other manicured like a National Trust property and complete with pressed-flower bookmarks and hexagonal pots of very expensive jam. To cap it all, he and the Commander were on their way to visit an Arabic Anglican Bishop, who had previously rejoiced in the Gilbertian title of Archdeacon of Nazareth, and who held court in a perpendicular gothic cathedral full of heraldic hassocks embroidered in gros-point.
Eve Melhuilish took it all philosophically. It was true that St George’s Cathedral would obviously be more at home in Godalming than Jerusalem. But then everything about the religion she had once embraced was faintly ridiculous. And if a house could wing its way unaided from Palestine to Loreto, why should not a cosy little cathedral uproot itself from the Home Counties and settle down just off the Nablus Road? She fully expected Bishop Abu ben Ahdem to be sporting a frock coat, apron and side-whiskers, and to entertain her to tea and cucumber sandwiches to the strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 2.
Abu proved, on the contrary, to be a rather up-to-date, high-tech sort of bishop. He had computers at every elbow and bank accounts on three continents. ‘That was the ABC,’ he said, without introduction, as he put down the telephone. ‘I am waiting for Arafat to get back to me. Meanwhile… what can I do for you?’
Commander Melhuilish was not intimidated.
‘We are conducting an enquiry, Bishop,’ said Whelan with studied formality, ‘into the theft from the Muniment Room of Lambeth Palace of the Lambeth Quadrilateral.’
A beneficent smile spread across the face of the bishop. His black leather executive chair swivelled effortlessly in the direction of the Commander and her assistant.
‘Then you have come a long way for nothing, Commander,’ he replied. ‘We in Palestine have much more to think about than these petty denominational shibboleths. We are engaged here in a life or death struggle. The very future of Christianity in the land of the Lord’s birth is at stake.’
Truth to tell, both Whelan and Melhuilish were taken aback. This language was both passionate and forthright; the more so from the mouth of the oleaginous prelate who addressed them. Perhaps, they both thought instantaneously and simultaneously, appearances are deceptive. Perhaps we are all governed too much by cultural stereotypes. Perhaps this man from whom no rational being in North London would buy a car was really the representative of a people repressed and down-trodden.
‘What you have to understand is what Anglicanism means to Arab Christians in the present crisis of our people and our land. It has nothing to do with your Western doctrinal disagreements. The Greeks and the Syrians and the Armenians and the Copts have been squabbling here over syllables and diphthongs since the apostles were boys. But this’, he said, indicating an impeccably cut purple cassock and modestly fringed cincture, which Eve’s practised eye immediately attributed to the Tufton Street workshops of Messrs Watts and Company, ‘this means something else.’
Eve was embarrassed by her instinctive response. ‘And what, pray,’ she found herself saying though pursed lips in the manner of an Edwardian governess, ‘what does that mean?’
‘It means British diplomacy and American money. It means another voice for our people with the world’s media.’
The Commander must have looked either astonished or disapproving. The Bishop went on.
‘Don’t be surprised at what I say. I have learned this from your Western Bishops at the Lambeth Conference. Anglicanism is a new kind of religion. Previously religions were about fidelity and obedience to the will of God. To put it crudely, they were, as you might say, about rules set down in a book. We Arabs understand that very well.
But Anglicanism, we have learned, is not like that. Oh, no! It is, as my friend the presiding Bishop in America says, ’inclusive’, ‘pluriform’. Not only can you ignore what it says in the Book; you can do exactly the opposite. This is something we have not seen before. It is part of what we call the genius of our Anglican Church. Instead of being about God, religion is about anything you want it to be about.
Mostly in the West, of course, you want it to be about sex. You are like that – that is what rich people in peaceful countries are most concerned about. For us it is different; for us it is politics. It is the self-determination of our people.
‘I do not pretend that there will ever be more than a handful of Arab Anglicans. That is not the point. The point is that the purple gives you power, a seat at the table; a voice that is heard. The smoke and mirrors do not matter. The means and the end are one.’
Whelan was appalled at the cynicism. Melhuilish simply made haste to leave. It was obvious that her enquiries would get no further here. It was true that there was a faint but undeniable smell of corruption in this strange congruence of the Cloister and the Souk; but she knew instinctively that Abu was not her man. He could hardly be less interested in the future of Anglicanism if he were the Grand Mufti of Cairo.
That evening the Commander took a thoughtful walk alone beside the walls of the old city. The noise of the Arab bus station was dying down, the neon lights of the prosperous Jewish suburbs to the West were distant amber pin-points against the sunset. As she reached the north she turned her back on the Damascus gate and, oblivious of the traffic, quickened her pace away from Jerusalem. Was everybody, she wondered, in this self-important little church in it for reasons both self-serving and nefarious? Even the ardent secularist she had become wished it were not so. But with a sudden and confident insight she knew that it was.
Back in the air-conditioned orientalism of the downstairs bar at the Colony Hotel, and after a stiff raki, she realized the full import of what had happened to her. She had had her Damascus Road experience. Nothing in this case would be the same again.