Balaam’s Ass

Last weekend saw the annual animals’ Christmas service at St Michael’s Church, Totnes.   This year, the church was full: I was told there were twice as many people as the previous year, and every pew seemed taken by women, men, children and animals – mainly dogs.   There were a lot of dogs.   There was also a cat, several chickens, and a gerbil.


My grandchildren brought their hamster, who stayed quietly in a red plastic box until his appearance under the lid attracted the attention of the dog in the pew in front.  My brother Richard and sister in law Jacqi brought the family donkey, who refused to enter the church through the front door and had to be brought in through the back.   Donkeys are traditionally known as humble and reticent creatures.


There were readings and short talks by representatives of animal charities and supporters of the homeless, who frequently have a canine companion.  The minister spoke about the place of animals in the network of human life and relationship, especially as a source and object of affection.   The animals kept quiet during the spoken parts of the service but the dogs appeared to take the hymn ‘O come all you faithful’ as a command: they  barked and howled in a cacophonous crescendo.  Jacqi (who is Mayor of the town) recited The Owl & the Pussycat with my brother, her consort.


It was an unusual service, but the church was unusually popular that afternoon.  The phrase ‘vernacular theology’ came to my mind, a phrase which, according to Nicholas Watson, professor of English at Harvard University, was first used in the sixteenth century.

Watson argues that, in thirteenth century England, medieval Christianity, an ‘elite, small-group religion’ with an emphasis on contemplation and theory, gradually accepted that, in order to include the common people, religious instruction had to take place in the vernacular.  In this process, according to Watson, the biblical figure of Balaam’s talking Ass took on symbolic meaning as a figure for the vernacular. Watson suggests that the phrase ‘vernacular theology’ contains liberating connotations of accessibility, free expression, and even democracy.

Perhaps something similar was happening in twenty-first century Totnes.

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