Alan Cole recounts certain heavenly events, with apologies to Peter Toon
THE GOD OF CONVENTIONS glanced from the window of his study above cloud nine. It was nearly time for the weekly divine staff meeting. Hurriedly jotting a few last-minute notes – he was to give the chaps a paper this morning, entitled, “Intervention Technology: Part II, Human Affairs.” – El Shadow (as he had become nicknamed by the celestial gang of seven) swept his papers into an angel-feather briefcase.
Using his reflection in the crystal sea, as he adjusted his precisely-trimmed beard, El Shadow stepped outside to hail the cherubic InterDeist transit, to make the two days’ journey (by the obsolete biblical measurement) across heaven. Called for one hour past timeless, the summit convened at a redundant pearly gateway, now angelically referred to as “Asgard”. Only six were present, apology having been received from Adoughnut, God of Many Names, currently attending an intergalactic Aroma Therapy convention. Having waited for the preliminary throat-clearing and paper shuffling to subside, Hello-HIM (the Grand Chair-HIM unto ages of ages) called the gathering to order. Just a little routine business required attention before El Shadow got stuck into his theme. Hello-HIM whistled up a golden seraph to hand round the refreshments.
One had a choice of milk of divine irreverence or the new Sanctification shandy, straight off the tap. All Cheery, God of Supply, had brought some barley cakes he had rescued from a raven feeding them to an old codger in a cave. He pointed out that these had been injected with phaeto-oestrogen to lend the deliberations a certain friskiness.
Chair-HIM emphasised the present serious demand for revised intervention technologies, as the human race appeared to have envisaged a panoply of methods for subverting the natural order. He was confident that El Shadow would creatively explore ways in which the universal lid could be kept on.
“In the present day and ageless,” El Shadow began, “the church militant there in earth has completed a twenty-year period of reception of the dogma of ‘necessary and perpetual change’. This year, under the guest chairpersonhood of ECUSA, the World Reincarnated Ecumaniacal Council of Knowledge (WRECK) had united all affiliated religious bodies within the Concordat of Changing Knowledge (COCK), whose sub-committee for Unilateral Protocol was happily styled COCKUP. Frankly, El Shadow (asked by the gang of seven to maintain a watching brief) was not altogether comfortable with recent developments in WRECK policy.
The novel doctrines on change and decay were well-intentioned, El Shadow felt, but he nonetheless held reasons for concern. Largely, it boiled down to inefficient communication from below. How could a doctrine be promulged in the church below as of divine revelation, if doctrinal changes implicit therein had not been notified to the gang of seven beforehand? At the very least, it ought to be on record which of the seven was supposed to have inspired the enlightened propositions in question. Given reasonable notice, the gang up here might lend revelatory clout to whatever dogmatic twists had become necessary in the earth-church process of imposing a new era of theological thought.
Intervention Technology was the current buzz term within the Seraphic Synod. The new strategy sought two objectives. El Shadow had to pause before explaining these, to hear a plea for clarification from the God of Unconventions, Alf O’Meagre. This major demiurge, who always came up with something odd at meetings, recommended calling the new dogma the ‘Compact on Perpetual Transition’, so that not mere changes were enforceable, but ‘changeless and unceasing change unto salvation’, in ensuing encyclicals neatly to be styled CAUCUS. But El Shadow already smelled a rainbow trout in his goldfish tank and put down this proposal at once. You clearly could not accommodate a Compact on Perpetual Transition – with the acronym COPT – when it was recognised everywhere that Copts were the one church militant there in earth, where room for transition amounted to none whatever! Alf O’Meagre went silent. El Shadow now developed his two objectives of Intervention Technology with a flourish.
“First we have to impose a level playing field with a glass ceiling.” At this point, Hello-HIM’s aside that a glass ceiling would empower voyeuristic humans to stare up the divine robes was dismissed as fatuous. All Cheery said it was an unworthy suggestion, ‘impugning the trust we have placed in the descendants of Adam.’
“Secondly,” El Shadow went on again, “we may soon need to renumber the laws of nature, to bring about confusion. For argument’s sake we might transform Celestial Canon 22 (hitherto causing vertebrectomy at the consecration of an earthly bishop) into CC15, thus mutating practising lesbians into special commando units. In principle, the imposition of unanticipated change will confound change of any kind. Respectfully, I remind my co-urges that in an earlier aeon, we were universally deemed to be changeless. Now, by contrast, we are demeaned as inauthentic and irrelevant unless we contradict a previous revelation at every seasonal convention.”
Up to this point, Jay Hovis, crusty old God of the C of E, had remained pensive. In days long gone, he had settled, by direct revelation to Herren Luther und Bucer, the debate over the make and quality of communion bread. It is said that when his fiat was relayed to the English, via an archbishop of Canterbury, the said prelate had exclaimed, “Crumbs!” and then gone to tell the Queen. Jay Hovis had never recoiled from his judgement in that case. Even now, hard pressed by El Shadow’s revealing things from across the Atlantic and cloud nine, he was loathe to perceive change as other than the ‘mystical transformation on the individual human soul from slavery to base passions into voluntary servility to the English episcopal convocations. Jay Hovis now delivered himself at length.
“It hath been apparent unto all men diligently reading holy scripture that Moses taught the people good manners in the wilderness, by lifting up serpents and all that sort of thing. Remember, that it was All Cheery here, who had to spend forty earth years stuck up at the summit of Mount Tabor, trying to get it into Moshe’s head what the people had to be told. It had not helped matters that the foolish man kept poking his frame through the clouds with a damp dishcloth draped over his head. But that sacred site was where change was established as a natural law, the one renumbered ST 2:41 by Aquinas the Angelic Doctor. Surely, we can all see that true change is ‘metanoia’ rather than alteration of the natural law as an essence in itself?”
This was rather tough cheese for the august gathering, who presuming all substantive revelations to have been delivered aeons past, were seldom in the mood for introspective self-analysis in the guise of theology. After a frustrating pause and some uneasy shuffling, El Shadow was prompted to proceed.
Revelation used to be sufficient, he recollected. You just said it in an eerie voice from on high and the human race fell into line and stopped drinking, albeit rising up to play periodically. In latter days, since that Polish priest had questioned the flat-earth revelation (which Adoughnut had called out as a joke from Olympus in proto-Hellenic times), the sons of Adam (and a great many more, who could not tell whose sons they were) had started messing with the word of truth. First, they had gone to the Witch of Endor, to find out whether the latest message from up top could be taken seriously. Then they had instituted a ‘goodly fellowship of prophets’ to keep tabs on the celestial internet. Then somehow, truth got into the hands of the Patriarch of the West. Eventually, after the Galileo fiasco, the uncontrollable Dubble-you-pee era had dawned.
Alf O’Meagre, feeling a bit jaded, had not been to the same Miami Beach conference and so missed this reference. “What Dubble-you-pee era?” he enquired. “Come on, Alf!” El Shadow coaxed, “WP, the great era of Western Philosophy! Anselm and his push were okay – remember Alf, you got a mention in the Proslogion? – but Gaunillo kept pestering him with questions, and Occam’s closely shaved answers led to compulsive scepticism. Some believed our early revelations but Kant couldn’t. After that, it made no difference if you demanded an oecumenical council or even sent an earthquake; church fathers from Vatican to Lambeth defined dogma in even more novel and exciting ways.”
“We must conclude, therefore, that a restructuring of intervention technology is long overdue. Killing people off in anger, striking their cattle with hot thunderbolts and putting lice in all their quarters are no longer effective means of control. You remember how reluctantly we gave up knocking down their skyscrapers (Babel was fun) and sending floods. Repenting us of the evil every time simply became wimpish and embarrassing. Polls indicate that the majority no longer even believe we are here. So the challenge of the moment is to throw together a devastatingly new method of showing the human world who really runs things.”
The divine auditory meatus now strained to learn of El Shadow’s state of the art intervention schema. First, it seemed, natural laws had to be renumbered, to subvert artificial intelligences. Churches would be built with domes and steeples pointing downwards. Lay people would be required to wear mitres. Six plus seven would equal sixteen. Bishops would manage butcheries and a gambling syndicate be placed in charge of each diocese. Synods would be open only to transvestites. The Hebrew bible would be adopted as an experimental text. In the period of confusion for a thousand years, prayers would be answered only in Greek or Syriac. Western Philosophy would now officially be known as Oriental Magic. Scientists would be permitted to believe only such things as they had conclusively disproved.
Thus far, Jheewiz, God of Unpronounceable Concepts, had not obtruded so much as a cough or a grunt. His deific diffidence was often humorously chided by the gang, in referring to him as “Jheewiz come lately”. Shy in himself, he was even more self-conscious about his name, which no-one seemed to get right or spell properly. During the Jahwistic era, Jheewiz had, by direct revelation, inhibited prophets and priests there in earth from speaking or printing his name. Being a jealous God was not easy. All others in the gang had comprehensible, articulable names. But he had to put up with something that was all consonants and which meant “He Who Whiz, Whaz and Whill Be”. Which also meant he had to put up with it for ever, unchanging and immutable. How, then, would Jheewiz respond to the new agenda of intervention?
In answer to El Shadow’s quizzical grimace, Jheewiz confessed he was not one for overdoing the subversion of human affairs bit. Having been there, done that, worn the T-shirt and endlessly practised being incomprehensible, he felt more relaxed about letting the humans get on with it. It was adequate to drop in unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, as someone had put it, to do an on-the-spot judgement. He rather fancied they style of an archdiaconal visitation.
“We had better go round the mulberry bush and get consensus,” announced Hello-HIM. Adoughnut will have to read our report on his return smelling like a perfumier’s bottle. Doubtless, He’ll be calling himself Zeus by then. All Cheery, what about you?”
The Provider had just passed around some freshly-toasted barley cakes (bad luck, Elisha!) and topped up the beverages. His concern for the gastronomic emerged along with his mystical temperament. Limiting change to repentance and turning over new leaves, All Cheery believed, was just a bit severe. After all, quoting one of the Councils he had visited in 602 of the salvation dispensation (Trullo), “a change was as good as a feast, and who doesn’t want a feast?” More seriously, though, you had to have change, didn’t you? Or else how would all the bread and wine he had supplied over the centuries turn into something they did not look like? Poor old Melchizedek would be left standing there in the Vale of Shittim! Or how would dowdy Hannoverian chapels in Wales and the Marches be converted into baroque shrines for Forward in Faith pilgrimages? You simply had to allow change.
All Cheery had made his point, to which Jay Hovis, God of the C of E, retorted with alacrity. “If the human constituency will merely have a change of heart – turn from their wickedness and live, as the Philokalia says – all other change, natural or provoked, must needs be righteous.”
However, Alf O’Meagre, who had never read the Philokalia, opined that this was all very sombre and cut joy and spontaneity out of life. As God of Unconventions, he wanted folk to discover themselves, do their own thing and express the glorious liberty of the dispossessed daughters of Eve. Regeneration meant a fresh start. Too many constraints already looked like the beginning of the end, he thought.
Then in a fit of eloquence, reminiscent of cathedral deans before the Home Office announces episcopal appointments, Alf intoned, “Let all be transfigured in the twinkling of an eye; let WRECK navigate the ark of ecclesial polity through the seven seas of minimalist imagination; let a shepherd lie down with a man, the gryphon and the unicorn gambol with the cicatrice.”
“You have not mentioned the minotaur or the gorgon,” observed the Chair-HIM tartly, as the less charismatic Urges recomposed decency and order in minds muddled by Alf’s ecstasy. They had lost the plot for some celestial moments. All at once, inspired intervention became highly desirable It came not from the Babel at Asgard, but from an unomniscient and far less likely source.
For it was at this moment of irresolution that there came a ring on the royal telephone, that direct line from those in earth whose privilege it is to command instant attention from on high to any perceptible need. “On High 777 7 777!” barked Hello-HIM, receiver to his omnipresent ear.
“Van Culin, reporting Resolution C of the Lambeth 98 preparatory commission. We hope you are all happy and relaxed up there.”
“Your respects have been registered on high. The said Resolution C will now be accorded our Beatific Audience. Go ahead.”
“Be it resolved by their eminences, the primates and archbishops of this Lambeth Conference standing committee, convened under the esteemed chairpersonhood of our antipodean and most primate-like brother, that: Revelations no longer bearing veridical character as once accorded them here in earth, and having in mind that interventions contemplated from on high have frequently proved a coarse method of achieving consensus; we do now require all theophanies, miracles and apparitions to be submitted to this committee for examination and adjustment to contemporary norms, at least five calendar years prior to any Lambeth Conference at which it may be proposed for reception. Given over our Seal, this…”
All Cheery had noted the colours of divine wrath deepening on the countenance of the Chair-HIM, as the royal receiver was replaced firmly in mid-sentence. The ensuing pause seemed an eternity. Hello-HIM fixed the gang firmly, all-seeing eye to all-seeing eye. Then he said, “Take your thrones, chaps: it is time for the LAST JUDGEMENT!”
Fr. Alan Cole is Priest in Charge of Holy Trinity, Ilkeston, Derby