(To be published in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel on Ash Wednesday 25th February 2009)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is a time when many - not just practicing Christians - decide to give something up.
What about you? Chocolate? or smoking? or wine? Remember: the idea is not to break a habit, but to give something up for Lent so that you appreciate it even more when you come to celebrate Easter. So give up chocolate by all means, to enjoy it again, but if your health requires a permanent change of lifestyle, then do it now, Lent or not.
The point of Lenten abstinence is not to give up or stop doing the bad stuff - but to give up the good stuff, because the good things of life are gifts of God and when we enjoy them again we celebrate his creation.
And it is for this reason, that there is one thing I won’t be giving up this Lent. This may mark me out as a very unconventional and rather wayward priest. So be it! I will not be giving up my visit to my local pub and enjoyment of its excellent beers. And this is because my local is the Coachmakers in Hanley, officially marked for destruction as part of the regeneration of the city. I can’t give it up, because it is on the point of being taken away from us for ever, and we will never to have it back again.
Now I’m only too aware that in the Grand Scheme of Things, there are far more important matters than an old, small pub in a crumbling city centre. The Credit Crunch, the developing world, the sick and the elderly, threats to schools, yes, all these rate higher, and I must care about them more. And in Lent I should be concentrating on my spiritual reading, and deepening my prayer life. And these matter much more. But because one thing is more important than another, does not mean that the lesser thing does not matter at all.
Those of us who care about the Coachmakers feel aggrieved by the way the planning has been dealt with, by the curt dismissal of ten thousand objections. But for me, the issue is not simply anger over a dysfunctional council.
Firstly, it’s the building. That little pub, with its warren of small rooms, represents something of our heritage. It is a truly public house, a dwelling converted for the sale of liquid refreshment and the enjoyment of company. This was how pubs started and how all pubs used to be. Unlike the big brash, superstore-style mega pubs, this is a place where you go not simply with friends, but to encounter other people. The closeness of the seating makes sure of that. No one can sit and converse in the Coachmakers only with their own clique. It is a place which literally, physically, brings people together.
And secondly, it’s the beer. Beer, like wine, can be beyond the ordinary. In the Coachmakers the euro-lager is there if you want it, but also are the real ales, different each week, produced by a vast variety of small breweries from all over the country. It is fare of high quality with enchanting, poetic and ironic names like Flaming Embers, Cherry Bomb, Wayland’s Smithy, Journey’s End, White Lady, Midnight Bell, Roaring Meg, and of course ... Cleric’s Cure.
These are amongst the good things of life, the gifts of God, and when we enjoy them we celebrate his creation. When I am sure they will not be lost, and only then, will I be able to give up the Coachmakers for Lent.