Chapter 21

in which Father Smith is advised about God's foresight while fixing the flat tire on the Bishop's car.

The Bishop was sixty-eight years of age now and still very active, although he wasn't quite as good at getting out of the way of tramcars and buses as he used to be. Indeed, so wearying had walking and travelling become to him that he had bought an Austin seven in which he was able to visit, not only the various churches in the town, but a great number of those in the surrounding countryside as well. Although what he spent in petrol he economized in railway fares, the Bishop sometimes felt guilty as he drove about his diocese, and wondered if our Lord could really countenance such worldliness.

Two days after Canon Smith's speech at the chapter meeting, his lordship had a puncture driving along the High Street. Suppressing an exclamation of impatience, because he was on his way to administer the sacrament of confirmation to three black medical students and a corporal of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Abergirnie, he got out and was preparing to unscrew the spare wheel when Canon Smith passed and, seeing the Bishop's plight, offered to aid him.

'That is most kind of you, Canon,' the Bishop said. 'I am afraid that I am one of those who drive a car implicitly rather than explicitly. Carburetors and sparking plugs and cylinders are mysteries which I accept on the authority of my garage proprietor; and even so comparatively simple a matter as changing a wheel tries my mental faculties almost as sorely as my physical.'

It's quite simple really,' Canon Smith said. 'First you raise the back wheel on the jack.'

'I rather think I've got a tool like that somewhere, only I must confess that I always thought that it was called a william,' the Bishop said.

Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered on the pavement to watch the unusual spectacle of two elderly clergymen changing a wheel on a car. With open mouths and mooning eyes they stared, but none of them offered to help. The Bishop wanted to unscrew some of the bolts which kept the spare wheel in position himself, but Canon Smith refused to relinquish the spanner.

'Talking about war, we mustn't forget that the Church has always taught that it is legitimate to fight in defence of one's country,' the Bishop said gently as he watched the Canon's fingers nimbly untwisting the bolts.

The punctured rear wheel was well clear of the ground now. Canon Smith took the spanner again and began to loosen the next octagon of bolts. The crowd watched on with concentrated apathy.

'I don't deny that, my lord,' Canon Smith said. 'But there would be no need to defend one's country if the spirit of conquest and aggression were to be rooted out from the world. And then, with nation mistrusting nation, it is so difficult to say who is the aggressor and who is the defender. And, surely, my lord, it is the duty of priests to preach a wider charity. There is something revolting and hideous in millions of men learning to hate and to kill millions of other men they have never seen. For men are much of a mediocrity, my lord, be they British, German, Russian, French, or Spanish: vaunters about what they can't do, humble about what they can; liars in safety, truthful in danger; cowardly in smoke-rooms and brave in shell-holes; lewd with strange women and tender with their wives; hating the misery they can't see and succouring that which they can; stupid with books and clever with spanners; all with bellies and all alone with the stars and the sky not caring; all so very pitiful when you see them asleep; and all stamped in God's image, all fearfully and wonderfully made, all with eyelashes and fingernails and ears. Surely it is the Church's duty to make them love one another.'

'The trouble with you, Canon, is that you are a poet,' the Bishop said, but he did not say it unkindly. 'Perhaps that is why you are so impatient. Perhaps, too, you are unduly pessimistic. And remember that our Blessed Lord Himself said: "Multi enim sunt vocati, pauci vero electi." And the essential difference between Christianity and other religions is that Christianity is a difficult religion. It is not easy for men to abandon pleasure and prosperity and power and live each day as though it were their last. It never has been and it never will be. Bearing this in mind, the Church is patient as God behind His screen is patient. She is patient because she knows that men are not converted by argument alone, but by God's grace as well; she is patient because she knows that she carries a great responsibility: that of saving down the ages the greatest possible number of human souls; but above all, she is patient because she knows that she will ultimately triumph because Christ has promised that she will.

'So with her pharmacy of sacrament she waits, healing as many souls as possible, preaching the startling truth that whosoever shall lose his life shall find it, controverting, carrying the cross into strange lands, pleading, condemning, threatening, but always aware that she must not unnecessarily give offence lest she lose souls for Almighty God. That is why she makes pacts and agreement with heathen and heretical governments, that she may distribute the Bread of Life as widely as possible and succour her many children in strange lands. And that is why in times of war she is impartial, because she knows that no nation perfectly practises righteousness and that the rulers of all nations are proud and blown out with vain ambitions. For the Church, Canon Smith, is very old and wise, and she has preached the Gospel in ice and fire and heat and snow. It does not astonish her that there should be sin and disorder in the world; rather is she astonished that there should also be virtue and order. And she knows, because she reads reality in God's mirror, that there is one thing that is worse than a million young men dying on the field of battle, and that is one old man dying in his bed in a state of final impenitence. And now I am afraid that I must fly or I shall be very late indeed. That's right, Canon. Just put the william back in the tool box.'

Canon Smith knew that he had been rebuked for what the Bishop no doubt considered an excess of zeal, and he felt very humble, because he knew that the bishop was a much holier man than he.

'I am sorry if any words of mine should have given offence, my lord, but I assure you that I was genuinely troubled by certain signs in the world and still am,' he said.

'The answer to all our troubles is to carry out the old, old duties of our priesthood patiently,' the Bishop said. 'And remember that we are always wise at the altar, because there God gives us the words and guides our hands. And talking about the priesthood, I am thinking of sending you young Joseph Scott as a curate when he's ordained.'

Canon Smith knew that he was forgiven when the Bishop said this, because the Bishop was as fond of the young man as he was. With his hat in his hand he stood smiling as the Bishop drove off in a snort and a puff of pale blue smoke. The crowd mooched away in sullen disinterest, but the Canon still stood there smiling, thinking how wise the Bishop was and how proud and ill-informed himself. It was not until later that evening that he remembered how wrong the Bishop had been about the good that was going to come out of the last war, but he put the thought away from him, because he wanted very much to believe that the Bishop was right now.


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