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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
A few short questions
November 2002

A decade or so ago, it was my duty and my joy to be selling advertising for a living at the Cambridge Evening News (the Voice of Mid-Anglia). One day, Beverley, my sales manager, took me into her office for one of those character and initiative tests that unlock the mystery of who you are in about twenty minutes – neatly arranging the variegated glory of human nature into three or four categories.

Summoning the blood, I answered the questions as best I could and handed them to Beverley, who, having pondered these things, informed me in a rather disappointed voice that I had turned out to be "an amiable". Not just "amiable", you understand, but an amiable, as in an eskimo.

This revelation meant that, in Beverley's eyes, my sales career was as good as over – no great loss to their circulation as it turned out. I was an amiable – friendly, but harmless, a bit like a spaniel.

The irksome thing about such tests is their presumption – they don't just comment, they categorise. The only way to engage with the bally things is on their terms – you answer their questions and are defined accordingly. No possibility that the questions are inadequate; no opportunity to change or grow – no dialogue, basically. It's enough to make you bellow like a bison, even if your natural, amiable state is to beam like an imbecile.

You can tell it still smarts. Perhaps this is because summary judgment of one another continues to be so damaging to the Christian church. I can't help hoping that, somewhere amid his bookish past, the Archbishop of Canterbury-elect has had a brief spell in telesales to prepare him for the wearying trial-by-ticklist he has faced in recent weeks.

Come to think of it, he would surely excel in this line of work: who could refuse that profound well of a voice asking if they, sir, are the homeowner? Each stage of the call would seem like a challenge to discipleship – "are you really content with your gas bill?". He couldn't fail.

What bothers me about the reformed challenge to Rowan Williams is not the disagreement per se, but the way in which perfectly reasonable concerns over specific issues become the dismissal of an entire ministry.

The approach is not unlike that of the Gileadites in the book of Judges, when they were trying to work out which passers-by were their enemies, the Ephraimites. In the absence of their handily wearing a big "E" on their tunics, they decided to ask them to pronounce the tricky noun "shibboleth" (the equivalent, one presumes, of "Worcestershire" in English). If they said "sibboleth" they were (probably) first laughed at and then promptly put to the sword. It proved a devastating test and, we learn, a quick route to the grave for 42,000 men.

A besetting sin of the church is that we regularly apply the shibboleth principle to those who are not our enemies, but our brothers in Christ. We badly need a sense of proportion which doesn't ignore the gravity of difference, or even of error, but is able to work it through without immediately putting the knife in.

It seems only history gives us a sense of balance about the mixed bag our leaders are bound to be. Martin Luther famously suggested taking the Epistle of James out of the Bible because it didn't appear to fit his theology. Yet today, this heresy – set against the background of his achievements – is greeted with indulgent smiles of the "ah well, that was Luther" sort.

It's no different when it comes to biblical characters: we applaud the wisdom and poetry of Solomon, and overlook his 700 wives as if he were a child taking more than his fair share of Maltesers.

The present reluctance to reflect upon the whole person is not limited to the Church of England, nor the evangelical wing of it: media culture has become so focused on "issues" as to lend an irresistible pharisaism to all aspects of public life.

In this climate, two parables of Jesus which could well do with an airing liken the kingdom of heaven to a field containing both wheat and weeds, or a dragnet that catches all kinds of fish. The inference is that separating the righteous from the unrighteous is an extremely subtle business that has carefully to be done at the right time and by the right person. Judgment is certainly coming, implies Jesus, but in the meantime we are to lay the scythes aside and grow together.

And the first person to mention the word "amiable" can meet me outside.
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
also see
crow's nest
Stephen Tomkins' regular column of tales of religious lunacy from the far reaches of the Net
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
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Also by Stephen Tomkins... a regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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