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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Religion in post-war Calliope 1

Let me tell you about religion in a tiny country township in Central Queensland in the 1950s. From the inside.

   Firstly, I must make it clear that when I say 'religion', there was only one in our township, and that was Christianity. It never occurred to me as a child that there might be any other. We hadn’t been warned. No other religion was on the School Syllabus, I am certain of that.

   So no other religion in the entire world was relevant to our lives. I'd never even seen a person who admitted to being anything other than Christian. If anyone had asked you what your religion was in Calliope, they would have meant which sect within Christianity. If you'd said "Christian", they would think you were being obtuse and want a proper answer, with a clip over the ear for being cheeky as well.

   Come to think of it, religion was a taboo subject for the most part. It was personal and no-one had the right to ask you. In any case, if you were both local, they would already know. It was a bit of a sissy thing to talk about, and men, at least, never discussed it man to man. If you had questions or doubts, you usually kept them to yourself. I mean, to ask an adult "Is God real?" might have brought who knows what sort of fearsome response. How could you guess? Adult disapproval would have been one thing; Godly objection to the question invited disaster. Shut up. Play it safe.

   You might think that just one religion would simplify matters in the Calliope what-happens-when-you-die department. Maybe it did. Good people went to heaven and bad people went to hell. Good people spent their lives doing virtuous things and had a one-way ticket to heaven. Bad people swore and fibbed and cheated at Monopoly (but not as bad as Bimbo Brown) and played wicked tricks on their sisters. At every religious instruction period it was strongly implied that all of us, even Jan my eldest sister, who never did anything wrong, were going to the other place, because we were sinners and were told to admit to it in all our prayers, and beg forgiveness.

   In my case, it was true. I might have been eight, but I had spent my life in sin. Just ask my sisters. I could see I was doomed, so I just had to make the best of it while I could. Were I to die, I hoped it would be in my sleep, somewhere between when I'd said my prayers and before sinful thoughts came to me in pre-sleep fantasies.

   But this isn't about metaphysics and philosophy. We've had enough of that, I know. This is about the sociology of religion in a little place that probably wasn't much different in attitude to spiritual affairs from any other little country town in Australia at the time.

   It's about the sect of Christianity you were born into, because no matter what, once it was entered into the School Register, that was what you were and where you'd stay. It didn't matter if you never went to church; it was a system rather like caste in India. You were born in it and that's how you were branded forever and ever amen.

   That's as long as you lived in Calliope, of course.

   There were basically two generic brands of religion on the market; Protestant and Roman Catholic.

   Notice how I said 'Roman Catholic'? If I had said 'Catholic', you would have known immediately that I was a Catholic born and bred. But there, I said it. I was a Prod, because I used the pejorative delimiter 'Roman'. I had no more say in being Protestant than that I had white curls at age four and for years at school they called me snowball.

   I won't go into why the difference in terminology, but you can probably work it out if you don't know already. Here I'll be kind and call them Catholics, even if they are Roman Catholics. OK? I'm not prejudiced, as you can see.

   Within the ranks of the Prods, there were two main sects, Church of England, and Presbyterian. No Baptists, Jehovahs, no SDAs, no Mormons. Mitt Romney wouldn't have got a look in in Calliope. 

   But there were Methodists. I had no idea what Methodism was except it was austere, and I thought they must have been totally against spirituous liquor and methylated spirits, and that's where their name came from.

   Mr. Curtis, our headmaster, was Methodist, but he smoked his pipe in his own house and yard – admittedly, never in the school grounds surrounding his house on three sides. I didn't think that would bar him from getting into heaven – maybe with just a tiny question mark, because every time I got caught attempting to smoke it was A Very Bad Thing, so there seemed something a wee bit out of kilter with his quietly puffing away on the faithful old walnut in his garden.

   As an aside, my sister Lyn wrote to me just a day or two ago:
When Jan [our eldest sister] and I were kids we were very keen on saying our prayers before bed. Jan and I had Grannie's big old iron bed at that stage. This particular night I had jumped into bed before Jan, and when she came in she asked me if I had said my prayers. I said that I had, but Jan then asked, 'but did you kneel down and say them?' I replied that the floor was too hard and I said them in bed, to which Jan replied that I had better do them again, but that I could kneel on the bed! So I did as I was told and said them again, kneeling this time, and hoping the revised edition was satisfactory.
   Enough Applied Theology. Back to the main theme now....


  1. Until I read this, I'd always resented my parents for raising us as lackadaisical Church of England but reading about prayers on hard floors and being stuck in a caste makes me realise that the Church of England, with its wooly forgivingness and tolerance is, indeed, the one true faith

  2. PS were you really trying out smoking at eight years old? What a devil

    1. It was all Bimbo Brown's fault. Now you have no choice but to read this.... one of my earliest postings. Your penance for your first comment.

      Bimbo, the Blitz and Tobacco

    2. I liked that, Denis. How well you describe the social and religious attitudes of the time, and how it conjures up for me an English village childhood.

      Father a Methodist, mother Church of England, although neither of them ever attended a service. But I - for my sins - was sent to church on Sunday mornings and to chapel on Sunday afternoons. Then (with most of my male peers) I enthusiastically and voluntarily attended bell-ringing on Sunday evenings. This latter was less religious dedication than for the sheer joy of watching the lovely Faith Beasley's short skirt ride up and down with the slow movement of the bell rope.

      My less-than-brilliant career in the church was, at that time, swinging wildly from ultimate sin to repentance and conversion. From creeping into the place of worship early, to release a bag of snails in the pulpit - much to the vicar's discomfort and my private delight, to a 'saved repentant, destined to become a missionary bravely saving the souls of the heathen in far-off places.

      This early brush (of doubtful virtue) with God and the godly, however, did not carry through into my adult life.

      Sister-baiting, though, was a different story. My first live game trap (a pit carefully covered with twigs and grass), enticingly baited with a boiled sweet, snared my first victim. This resulted in a tearful three-year-old sister, a spanked and tearful (but happy and unrepentant) older brother, and the foreshadowing of many happy years in colonial Africa.

      Not, I am pleased to report, as a missionary saving benighted souls but as a fellow savage, living life as it came - without fear of divine punishment or heavenly reward.

    3. I'm sure your just deserts await you, Mr Lake, and not in the form of Faith Beasley either. That or karma, which will send you back as a worm.

      Evil, evil. ☺ But well tolled [dare I say?] By the way, your wife would make mincemeat of the lovely Faith B.


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