Carl and I spend most of the journey to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne doing this week’s Watchtower Bible study. The topic is ‘Be Watchful: Satan wants to devour you’ and Carl has brought along a large-print edition of the magazine, which makes it easy to read as we head up the A1. He announces the section headings one at a time: “Satan is powerful”, “Satan is vicious”, “Satan is deceptive”, and then guides us through the content of the study, cross-checking references, as required, from the Bible app on his iPhone.
“Anything you disagree with there?” Carl asks from time to time, grinning, and most of the time there isn’t. The big contentious themes of Christ’s divinity and the Holy Trinity do not feature in this week’s study and nor do the more obviously presenting Jehovah’s Witness issues about Christmas, birthdays and blood. It’s the cheerful simplicity of The Watchtower’s tone that grates a bit. There is no room for mystery or tension in the study; it explains the great mind-bending issues of evil and suffering in a brisk, matterof-fact style that soon gets on my nerves. We have covered this ground before. Carl finds the whole idea of mystery suspect; it’s a tool used by the priests and ministers of false religion to keep their flocks befuddled and obedient. He asks infuriatingly difficult questions about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ in a downto-earth, no-nonsense tone of voice which leaves me floundering and exasperated.
“It doesn’t have to be complex, mate,” Carl reminds me yet again as we speed past Morpeth, and at one level I agree with him. I am honestly envious of Carl’s straightforwardness and conviction in matters of faith. But I also know that some bits of religion are complex and mysterious, and you have to learn to live with that. Language, I assume, is stretched almost inside out when it turns to God, and sometimes it has to collapse into humble silence. Carl is humble enough, but he isn’t silent. He explains Watchtower truth in simple terms and leaves people to take it or leave it. And if people choose to leave it, he wears their rejection as a mark of authenticity.
“You’re just an Arian,” I tell Carl, because (not for the first time) I can’t think of anything else to say. The retort has little effect; Carl doesn’t care about being an Arian (ie someone who denies the divinity of Christ). I don’t think he even knows what an Arian is. And, anyway, if he’s an Arian, I think that I may be vacillating and lukewarm in my faith, which is probably worse.
We have agreed that we will not talk about work during our trip, but when we finish The Watchtower article our resolve falters. We both work as trainers for the railway and Carl always has a railway rules question to fret over. His rulebook knowledge is the best I have ever known. I have watched him explain ‘Blocking back inside home signal’ and ‘Train or vehicles proceeding without authority’ to trainee signallers with the same incredible thoroughness and patience that he uses to explain the identity of Babylon the Great or the eschatological significance of the 144,000 heaven-bound believers to me.
I tried to make the point once that, unlike the Railway Rule Book, the Bible is a diverse text, composed of varied genres of writing: history, prophecy, poetry etc and that to read it respectfully and truthfully you have to take account of its plural styles and contexts. My argument was never going to fly with someone who denies the incarnation. As far as Carl is concerned, the Bible says what it says and that’s that
MONKS AND MUSSELS
It is foggy and chucking it down with rain when we arrive on Lindisfarne. I park in the pay and display car park and we buy a tub of mussels each from a seafood van before trudging up the road towards the castle. We are an unlikely pair to be making the pilgrimage (if that’s what it is). I come here from time to time because I still can’t help visiting monk places, especially slightly extreme monk places like this. I know from experience that I haven’t got what it takes to be a St Aiden (the seventhcentury founder of the Lindisfarne monastery), or anything like him, but I am still glad that some people have lived wild and absurd lives for Christ’s sake.
Carl likes Lindisfarne for the scenery, which is unfortunate given today’s weather, and also because he regards Aiden and the rest of the Lindisfarne monks as kindred spirits, fellow protesters against a decadent establishment Christianity. I am not sure that Carl can readily recruit St Aiden and the Lindisfarne monks to his view of the pure gathered Church. The Celtic monks fled the world in the sense of fleeing its passions and corruption, but St Aiden didn’t abandon the grot and compromise of the Church or the violent, complicated world it inhabited. He was a major political figure in his day.
The rain gets worse so we give up on the castle and hurry back to Lindisfarne village, dodging the puddles and the tourists. On the way we call in at the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, which is surprisingly full of visitors, a large number of whom appear to be praying. We examine the sculptures and paintings and then amble around the nave until we arrive at a flag propped against the wall on the left of the altar. The flag looks like it is something to do with the army.
“That just about sums it up for me,” Carl says, nodding at the flag. “That’s just garbage, that is.” Carl sounds genuinely angry, which isn’t like him. He is a relaxed and friendly bloke, but takes real issue with having military paraphernalia inside a church. On one level, it can’t be easy to belong to a separatist, no-compromise brand of religion. I know that Jehovah’s Witnesses are persecuted for their pacifism and that a good number died in concentration camps, partly for their refusal to serve in Hitler’s armies. In a much more minor way Carl also suffers for his beliefs; he spent ages explaining to me why he couldn’t come out for drinks on my birthday or sign my card, and he’s hinted at the anxieties he has about blood transfusions, particularly when it comes to his kids. But his vehemence about the flag is still unsettling and mildly irritating.
On another level, I suppose I think that it is easy to be a Jehovah’s Witness. If you can cope with the prose, there must be great comfort in having a large-print copy of The Watchtower to tell you what’s what each week, and also in belonging to a close, committed band of true believers who keep the wagons tightly circled against a wicked and unbelieving world. It must be warm inside the wagon circle. (And Carl doesn’t just do religious things with his Jehovah’s Witness mates; they go off hiking along the Northumberland coast, and visit scooter rallies and northern soul festivals. Carl’s social life never ceases to surprise me; I am a hermit in comparison.)
Carl and I leave the church quickly and quietly after the incident with the flag. The rain has stopped and so we wander around the island a bit more while Carl takes photos (photography is another of the things he and his Jehovah’s Witness mates get up to when they’re not flogging The Watchtower; I honestly don’t know where he finds the time.) Then we go to the English Heritage shop in the village and drink as many taster glasses of Lindisfarne Mead as we can get away with, before buying a bottle for later. Then we get a crab sandwich each in the pub and head back to the car.
"I am honestly envious of carl’s straightforwardness and conviction"
MAKING ROOM FOR MYSTERY
That afternoon the weather brightens and Carl and I drive south on the coast road to Alnmouth where we are staying the night. We stop at Bamburgh to look at the castle and then we stop again in the middle of nowhere because the beach looks so splendid. Without really thinking about the consequences I strip to my underpants and run into the sea, hopping about ludicrously in the surf and then diving into the waves. After a couple of minutes I dash out again with my pants hanging half off my bum and pull my clothes on quickly while Carl giggles.
We drive on to Craster and stop for a third time to go for a drink in the Jolly Fisherman, taking our pints into the beer garden to sip them slowly while the damp patches on my shirt and trousers dry in the warmth. The view is spectacular. The sky is huge and close, and milky sunlight sparkles through the haze of sea fret that hovers above the waves and the rocks.
“How long ago was St Aiden on Lindisfarne?” Carl asks suddenly. “I think he was seventh century,” I reply. “That’s 1,300 years! Thirteen flipping centuries. Same sea, same sky, same sun. Only we’ve changed,” Carl says as he frowns and drinks his beer. A moment later he continues quietly yet resolutely, “But really that’s the wrong way round, because we’re the ones with eternity inside us, nothing else.
” And this is what I want to say to Carl then: “Carl, I know that you are a deeply committed Jehovah’s Witness. You are principled and I don’t doubt that you would suffer for your faith to the point of shedding your blood if the situation demanded it. But don’t you ever feel, just for a moment, that the Kingdom Halls, and the trudging from door to door in suits, and the boring large-print copies of The Watchtower are all much too small to catch hold of what you’ve just said, about the sea and the sky and the sun and the eternity that might be inside us? Don’t you ever long for something bigger and wilder and – I’m going to say it – more mysterious?”
I don’t say it, though. When I was doing my theology degree, Carl was already working for the railway in Tees Yard, shifting freight wagons around. When I was trying to be a Benedictine monk and then breaking my vows and running away, he was a trackman, shovelling ballast. I don’t believe any nonsense about manual work purifying the soul, but I think that I am too compromised and too full of useless words to challenge Carl so rudely. I don’t think that I have the right.
"There must be great comfort in having a copy of the watchtower to tell you what’s what"
What do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe?
Jehovah (God) has a son called Jesus Christ who was God’s first creation. Jesus is not God nor is equal to God.
Their name comes from scripture: “Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen..” Isaiah 43:10 (KJV)
Jesus did not die on a cross, but on a single stake.
In the End Times only 144,000 people will go to heaven and will rule the earth from there with Jesus.
They do not celebrate Christmas, Easter or birthdays because they are viewed as pagan customs.
FRIENDS AT THE FRIARY
I’ve booked us into the Franciscan Friary in Alnmouth for the night. There we are greeted warmly by the friars and given cheese on toast. Straight afterwards, we go into town for another tea of gammon and chips and another pint. Then we go back to Carl’s room and drink Lindisfarne Mead while my Jehovah’s Witness mate plays us lectures on his phone about birthdays, Christmas and blood.
“Anything you disagree with there?” Carl asks from time to time, and there is, there’s loads of stuff I disagree with, but I don’t say much. Talking about blood always makes me feel faint and, anyway, I am warm and happy and a bit tipsy as the late northern dusk settles around us, and I can’t be bothered to have a row.
I know that it’s not an obvious way to spend a Saturday night, but then it hasn’t been an obvious Saturday. It’s been complicated, at least for me, but it has also been good. At the end of the day I still can’t fathom Carl out (in some ways, I feel that I know him less well now than I did this morning) but, still, I am very glad that we are friends. And I have plenty of time to work out how all the bits of him – the northern soul, the Bible studies, the doggedly angry pacifism, the eternity inside – all fit together. Goodness knows what he makes of me and how I fit together; he must know by now that I’m never going to be a Jehovah’s Witness but it doesn’t seem to stop him wanting to be friends. Anyway, I hope that we keep talking. There are lots of other monk places we can visit.
THOMAS WARD lives near Leeds and works as a trainer for Network Rail. He was previously a Benedictine monk for eight years and before that he was an RE teacher.