Phil Thomson takes a broadside swipe at the Christian subculture.

The Gag They Couldn't Man: God using the insignificant and plainly incompetent

There is a closely guarded secret among Christians in the UK which may have serious ramifications for the 90s. Like all best kept secrets, everyone knows about it, but no one will admit it - there are a lot of square pegs in round holes.

Just about every Christian organisation I know is riddled with 'gifted' amateurs; well-meaning people who more or less failed at everything else, or wanted a change, then found God calling them miraculously into Christian service and they get the job because they're cheap and won't join a union. They're everywhere.

You'll find them lurking behind the record shelves with a 'finger-on-the-pulse - of-subculture-taste' look, just because they sat through the first half of the maiden gig by the Alethians in 1971. They are the ones who always recommend the latest 208-page sensational dirt-disher about sin and debauchery with the three paragraph conversion and Holy Spirit bit tucked self-consciously into the denouement on the second last page. And who's involved in the rising tide in quasi-country down-home tea rooms with Laura Ashley table cloths, carrot and ginger pie and oh-so-sincere token bookshelf full of out-of-date missionary bios? Someone must be responsible for the embarrassing tracts and large, badly designed appeal leaflets disguised as the 'Leading to a better life' Tent Mission. You've seen them. They have large coupons offering you the opportunity to covenant your entire pittance or bequeath your council house when you've passed over. You can learn more about tax avoidance in five minutes of one of these than a whole day's queuing down at the DHSS.

And the cafe's always closed when you get there in the rain, but that's okay because they're having a prayer meeting, and you can see them huddled around a single bar electric fire with backs to you if you press your nose hard enough against the Jesus-sticker laden glass and squint through their Laura Ashley chintz. I know of some traders who wouldn't stock a praise album in their shops because the cover featured a bare-chested Samson which they decided was sexually explicit. I'm sure they are still rounding off Bible College recruitment sessions with slides of white lady missionaries doing things to black children in open-wall huts with obligatory sunsets and 'I see that hand' choruses.

What worries me is that some of these pegs eventually get to wear suits and attend big meetings and sit on even bigger committees where they work out a strategy for spending all the money they've gleaned from big coupons in badly designed leaflets on the token bookshelves in converted Laura Ashley tearooms.

Is there some conspiracy of silence going on? Some capitulation to mediocrity that won't challenge the status quo? It's when these people have to sign a cheque for you, or run with a good idea - that's when you start to see the join. It's when you expect professionalism, real money, that the mask begins to slip.

I'm not allowed to test performance against national norms because, after all, we're in Kingdom business, and in any case, God gave them the job, and he must know what he's doing. I sometimes think the biggest cop out is to level that God uses the weak, the insignificant, the plainly incompetent things of this world to confound the strong. Thankfully, he does; but this is a consequence, not a practised tenet of the faith. Few are those who really know what they are doing, and why; who value professionalism, know their limitations, and who are prepared to admit they can't do it, or don't want to do it, or shouldn't be doing it. Someone who will say "but I know a man (or woman) who can." Someone who is prepared to recognise when it's just not on.

This is a true story: a thirty something elder arrived very early one Sunday morning at his small, non-conformist but rather traditional church, to prepare the bread and wine for an evening communion service. He covered the bread on its salver, placed the individual communion glasses in their little holes in the stacked silver trays, and looked around for the wine. There was no wine. He was in a hurry to be off for the day; however, he had no intention of letting anyone down. Raking through a cupboard in the kitchen, he came across a slab of Rowntrees Raspberry jelly Cubes. A well-diluted solution, he decided, would suffice, added cold water to boiled, proceeded to fill the little glasses with half an inch of, admittedly pink, 'wine', and carefully covered the trays on the communion table. It was to be a cold day, and a badly judged dilution.

That evening, napkins removed, the now solid elements looked no different from at any other time as the service moved gracefully into the sacrament. The ushers walked solemnly through the small congregation, passing out the glasses. When the minister came to announce, in sonorous tone, "Drink this in remembrance of me...," no one laughed, no one spoke, no one looked up; they all went through the motions, replaced their glasses in the little round receptacle on the back of the seat in front, and carried on as normal. The service ended, the glasses were collected, everyone exchanged greetings and left - and it was not mentioned once. No questions were asked; no one blamed. Who would dare to criticise what was, after all, sacred, ordained, sanctified and anointed, and patently stupid? It was never discussed.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. PHIL THOMSON CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.