Communion at St Ethelred's

The Reverend O would have been all right if the Bishop of Mount Kilimanjaro had not been visiting from Arusha. The Bishop was staying in a very reasonable hotel at nearby Walking Bottom and had arranged to meet up with the Bishop of Dorking on Easter Day for an early morning communion. They planned to then return to the hotel for some Cumberland Sausage and boiled eggs with toast soldiers. They had chosen St Ethelred's because it was close at hand and suitably rustic and peaceful.

Alas, they arrived to find St Ethelred's decidedly unready.

For a few moments the two prelates had sat quietly in the church, waiting for something to happen. And then, as they were enjoying the peaceful moment, they heard what sounded like a yelp from the vestry. The Bishop of Mount Kilimanjaro raised a bushy grey eyebrow. It sounded like an excited television commentator.

The pair then began to poke around and found the Reverend O in the vestry, watching the Malaysian GP, with his feet on a precarious-looking pile of "Hymns Ancient and Modern". O had expected just a handful of worshippers for "the eight o'clock" and was delighted to see that there was no-one there with five minutes to go. It was the school holidays and lots of people in Surrey had gone off to sunnier places.

For the 10 minutes that followed O was completely caught up in the excitement of Lewis Hamilton's battle with the two Ferraris and it was only when the two bishops walked through the vestry door that things took a turn for the worse.

The pile of hymnbooks fell over and at precisely the same moment Felipe Massa tried to pass Hamilton for the third time and poor O found himself looking in two directions at the same time.

The bishops raised four eyebrows and O had what he later described to The Mole as a moment that was "either an epiphany or a mild heart attack".

When he woke up the two prelates were leaning over him, looking rather concerned.

"I am most awfully sorry," he blurted out. "But there was no-one here and you see it is all Lewis Hamilton's fault. If he wasn't going so well, I would not have bothered turning the TV on. It's a local team you know."

"Lewis who?" said the Bishop of Mount Kilimanjaro.

"Hamilton," said his colleague. "He is a young British racing driver. And our friend the curate here seem to be something of a racing fan."

"Normally, it is all right," said O. "The races are on Sunday afternoons and they don't get in the way of the services but when the time zones get confused, it really is rather difficult."

The Bishop of Mount Kilimanjaro had sat down and was watching the race.

"He's a very splendid driver," he said. "Hamilton, did you say?"

"Indeed," said O. "Lewis Hamilton. In just his second race. He drives like an angel. He's been miraculous. Truly miraculous."

"Not quite as miraculous as the man we are celebrating today," said the Bishop of Mount Kilimanjaro.

"No, no, indeed not," said O.

There was a pause and, feeling a little uneasy, O began to talk about time zones.

"Putting together a logical Formula 1 calendar has long been a problem," he said. "The biggest following is in Europe and thus if you want to get the biggest possible TV viewing figures, you must aim to hit Europe at prime time but that is really not very easy because the first three races take place in Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain."

"Really?" said the Bishop of Mt Kilimanjaro. "I don't think we have this in Africa."

"Perhaps one day," said O. "It is very popular over here."

The Bishop paused for a while.

"What I don't understand," he said, "is that if you want to have a big audience, surely you should preach to the converted. You should time your broadcasts to get to the people who want to watch it. Should these races not be timed to be broadcast in the evening? After the news. Everyone watches the news. If one wants to do that, then surely it would be wisest to have the races taking place to the West rather than the East?

"If they raced in the afternoons in America surely that would be perfect for your prime time in Europe."

"That is absolutely right," said O.

"If you stop and think about it," the Bishop went on, "I don't really understand why they have races on Sundays at all. Surely that means that a percentage of the world's two billion Christians will always have trouble watching the racing. Depending on the time zone. It may suit the 1.3bn Muslims and the billion or so non-religious people, but I think we Christians have the best numbers."

"Yes, but if you switch to Saturdays that will get into conflict with soccer fans," said the Bishop of Dorking.

"Well I think only a billion or so watch soccer," said the African. "I did look it up the other day. Besides, in Africa we are football fans and Christians!"

"Yes," said O, "You are doing rather better over there, aren't you?"

"Yes," said the bishop. "We are. Rather better than here! Still, a communion with only two bishops in attendance would have been a rather sorry affair. Let us go and find some Cumberland Sausage and ponder how to bring the people of the world back to the churches."

"Yes," said O. "With Lewis Hamilton in F1 we are going to need a few miracles of our own to keep up interest."

"I shall have to write a sermon about this," said the Bishop of Dorking. "That would be very modern, wouldn't it? I shall have to say that the Church of England is in competition with Formula 1 for the souls of the righteous. Perhaps I can talk about how we should finance the church by selling TV rights."

"What a splendid idea," said O, delighted that he seemed to have got away with his transgression.

"Yes," said the bishop. "It was a very good idea, wasn't it? Perhaps I shall write an article for the Church Times."

April 11 2007

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