Catholic Herald, 13 July 1990
Are you prey to doorstep salesmen? Peddling anything from politics to dusters, to outskirts religion? Sometimes it’s enough to hail them with a cheery “we’re all Catholics here” – though not, of course, when dusters or politics are on offer. (I can never resist a duster. Who decreed that they had to be yellow?).
Political canvassers of the red, blue, green or orange hue are not easily dislodged from the doorstep, but the most persistent salesmen are those with God in their satchels. They practise a hard-sell technique a double-glazing rep might envy.
From my earliest youth to just the other day, the purveyor of religion, zealous to impart his version of good news, has punctuated my life as regularly as the common cold. No matter how remote the address, one or two quietly determined bodies are bound to turn up with bundles of tracts or exotically illustrated bibles.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most frequent callers. Far from being a deterrent, the announcement that the entire household is Catholic is a provocation to lengthy argument.
This usually centres on one’s concept of personal salvation, a concept I find difficult to phrase succinctly in a howling draught with something burning on the cooker.
Or how does one account for all the evil and misery in the world, which is just as hard to deal with crisply.
It seems churlish to be curt with people who sacrifice time and effort to spread their version of the christian message. But don’t be deluded, swapping religious opinions on the doorstep is probably no more than verbal repartee.
Thirty years ago, when we lived in Hong Kong, a dishevelled and emaciated Ancient Mariner figure became a regular visitor. This herald of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society needed good solid food more than spiritual duelling, but references to biblical texts were exchanged to preserve the proprieties before tucking in.
Other regulars in Hong Kong were the Mormons. You could spot them a mile off. They were always American, always, male, always in twos, and always wore hats. They were invited inside for fruit juice (every other liquid refreshment apparently forbidden them), provided they agreed beforehand not to discuss religion. We learned a lot about Utah.
On two occasions I have been accosted in the street by members of the Unification church, better known as the Moonies. Their method was Moonies. Their method was rather different and their purpose disguised to the extent that it took me some time to rumble them.
This sideways approach annoyed me: “why didn’t you say straight away that you’re Moonies?”
Presumably their reputation precludes a full-frontal attack. So far I have not tangled with a Holy Roller; neither have I encountered a Ranter. Treats in store perhaps?
I was reminded of these small personal experiences, not untypical of many a reader I suspect, while reading The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism (Clarendon Press Oxford, £32,50) by Bryan Wilson. The book is subtitled Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society, and the author is the world’s leading authority on this subject.
It is a work directed at the academic, but sectarianism is of increasing interest to the layman, and I doubt if you will find a more complete enquiry into the subject than this fine collection of papers and essays written during the last 15 years.
The book opens with a definition of the religious sect, explores the conflict that frequently arises as sects pursue a lifestyle often at odds with society, examines their status in the eyes of the law, and describes their impact on both those who practise and those who “host” these new religious movements.
One chapter, written with Professor Dobbelaere of Louvain University, surveys several congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium, a Catholic country.
Why are there so many converts to the Witnesses from Catholicism? And not only in Belgium; as many know, Italy too is providing many converts.
The chapter explores many of the reasons for the dissatisfaction these converts felt for their received (native) faith. It makes uneasy reading and brings one into immediate contact with groups of individuals struggling to make spiritual sense of their lives.
I could not help but reflect upon the thousands of lonely, anxious, disorientated souls, searching for salvation and peace of mind. A sociological exploration does not, of course, seek to uncover the theological or doctrinal reasons for a person abandoning their faith. But this chapter exposes the many failures of a Catholic community, be it at family or parish level.
Myths of sects
Sects often arouse fear and hostility which is understandable when one considers the fog of ignorance that shrouds many of them. This book does much to dispel suspicion, and explodes a few popular myths. It encourages one to be more tolerant .
We no longer live in isolated religious bubbles (if we ever did) but collide ever more frequently with others who hold clear creeds and practices very different from our own. I have barely touched upon the scores of themes and mass of detail in a book which is written in the most gloriously lucid prose that reads as easily as Dickens.
Out of print
Books have a horrid habit of going out of print. Some publications (eg The Spectator) have a little corner where readers may lodge a request for a particular longed-for title.
I know someone who is desperate for a copy of Patrick O’Donovan’s A Journalist’s Odyssey (Esmonde Publ. 1985), and I myself am hunting for The Hermitage Within, by A. Monk (Darton, Longman, Todd, 1977).
If any reader by any chance. . . I could reciprocate by publicising your out-of-print choices. If, that is, I have time between telephone calls. The salespersons have quit the doorstep and taken to the wires.