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Ghosts of ministers past

  • 04 July 2017


Like Shakespeare's Earl of Salisbury most of us occasionally want to call back yesterday, but it sometimes happens that yesterday calls us back instead, in a kind of collision of time. This happened to me last week when I received a letter from a widow who happens to read Eureka Street: I knew her when I was very young, but have met her only once in 60 years.

She was writing to tell me that her husband, a Presbyterian minister, had died recently. He was quite old, and there are obviously fewer of his ilk around these days, for the church has changed a great deal in the last five decades. And so had the man himself changed, for he had become a minister of the Uniting Church.

But when I was a small child, Presbyterians and their ministers, including my great-uncle Jack, seemed to be everywhere. So did the vocabulary that went with them: the Assembly, the Moderator, the Session Clerk. I had only a vague idea of what these labels meant, but I did know that my schoolteacher grandfather was always Session Clerk.

They march through memory, my ministers: soberly suited, dog-collared, determinedly cheerful and often dull, although Old Jack preached a fiery sermon, and could well have taken to the stage instead of the pulpit.

They were eventually replaced in my life by a procession of Greek Orthodox priests, who seemed very exotic as they strode along the village streets with their black robes flapping and their stove-pipe hats by some miracle staying glued to their heads. As figures of power and authority, they would extend their hands to be kissed in a gesture that my nonconformist soul used to find quite shocking.

In my young life there was no escape from Protestantism. Even though my siblings and I attended state schools there was the weekly period of religious instruction to be endured. I had almost forgotten the particular men of the cloth who taught the subject, but I do remember two: one was an evangelical battler who had little idea of classroom teaching, used as he was to an enthusiastic congregation and not a bored captive audience. The other was a Lutheran of great good sense, who taught interesting lessons about the biblical canon, and was very enlightening on the topic of Superman comics, then very popular. 'Man's yearning to be God,' he said, matter-of-factly, thereby introducing the class to a