Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Blessed Beer
Simon Jenkins enjoys blessed beer
A priest walks into a bar and asks the barman to give him a Hail Mary. ‘Don’t you mean a Bloody Mary?’ replies the barman. ‘And two Our Fathers for insulting the Blessed Virgin,’ says the priest.
The relationship between priests and barmen, and between churches and pubs, has got quite complicated in the past few decades. As congregations shrink and people increasingly need binoculars to see if anyone else is in the faraway pews of their monster Victorian churches, the buildings have been boarded up, then pulled down or flogged off, and some of them have been turned into pubs. The Church of England alone has got rid of some 1,570 surplus houses of the Lord since the end of the 1960s.
Anxious ecclesiastical bureaucrats have tried to fathom what’s gone wrong by putting the Church under the microscope – they’ve had to, it’s that tiny now. And the trend has prompted theologians to ask: ‘How many denominations can dance on the head of a pin?’ The answer is: ‘All of them, even the ones that forbid dancing.’
And so it has come to pass that Muswell Hill Presbyterian Church is now an Irish pub called O’Neill’s, where dirgy organ music has been ditched for live rock’n’roll, and bread and wine for Peroni and pork scratchings. But the traffic isn’t entirely one way. A bullish Diocese of London struck back in the 1990s by planting a new church, Church on the Corner, in a derelict Islington pub, the King Edward VII, and it hasn’t turned back into a pub yet.
This game of musical chairs by pubs and churches was anticipated way back in the 18th century by William Blake, who penned a subversive poem, ‘The Little Vagabond’, which says:
But if at the church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the church to stray.
To which I’d only add, throw in live rugby on a jumbo plasma screen and it’s a deal. I’ve always harboured a secret ambition myself for turning a pub into a church and calling it ‘The Everlasting Arms’. Even though it’s highly unlikely that will ever happen, I’ve started to collect the names of beers which would lie most happily in the cellar of my dream pub church. To start with, there’s a beer brewed in Salt Lake City, the capital of Mormonism, which rejoices in the name of Polygamy Porter. Its marketing slogan? ‘Why Have Just One?’
Following that, there’s a whole heavenly host of baptised beers. You can sup a pint of Saint Cuthbert in Durham, order a Grim Reaper and a bag of crisps in Gloucester, chug a Churchyard Bob in Warwick or a Rev James in Cardiff, and even put away a glass of All Creatures Bright and Beautiful, as brewed by the aptly named Black Sheep Brewery. Then there’s Bishop’s Finger, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and William Wilberforce Freedom Ale, ‘produced for the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.
There are two patron saints of beer in the British Isles: St Arthur Guinness and St Jack (CS) Lewis. Arthur was a Dublin saint who lived at a time when getting trashed on cheap gin was the toxic temptation of the working poor. The enticement was: ‘Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for twopence.’ As a good Methodist, Arthur spotted a highly profitable opportunity to save people from the gin bottle, and started brewing a stout which evolved into the black, creamy elixir which eventually put his name in gold on a billion beer glasses.
Meanwhile, St Jack Lewis did his bit for beer and belief by getting in some serious time at the Eagle and Child in Oxford, downing bitter and enjoying holy smokes with fellow saints JRR Tolkien and Charles Williams. The booze and fags side of the creator of Narnia is a bit uncelebrated, to my way of thinking. Three pints and a bit of chain smoking over lunch is hardly standard material for the life of a saint, but then standard saints aren’t capable of writing books such as The Screwtape Letters and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Maybe it’s time to rewrite that joke. CS Lewis walks into a pub and asks the barman for a White Witch Surprise. ‘Why on earth do you want one of those?’ asks the barman. Lewis replies: ‘Narnia business.’
This article was published in the November 2016 edition of Reform.