How to Make People Feel Awkward About Religion

by Belle Waring on December 8, 2004

Speaking of spirituality designed to get one out of going to church, I offer you the following passage from Stephen Potter’s superlative Lifesmanship. This could very well come in handy if you are ever invited to the sort of English country house where everyone is expected to go to church on Sunday. (I know little about such things, but my reading of Wodehouse leads me to additionally suggest that you not get involved in a church fête of any kind, in any capacity.) Potter:

The man who lets it be known that he is religious is in a strong life position. There is one basic rule. It is: go one better. Fenn went too far. This is his method–in his own words:

To take the most ordinary instance, the simple Sunday churchgoer. “Are you coming to church with us?” my host says. It is a little country church, and my host, Moulton, who has some claims to be a local squire, wants me to come, I know, because he is going to read the lesson. He reads it very well. He enjoys reading it. I heard him practising it to himself immediately after breakfast.

“Yes, why don’t you come to church for once, you old sinner?” Mrs. Moulton will say.

Do not mumble in reply to this: “No, I’m afraid…I’m not awfully good at that sort of thing…my letters…catch post.”

On the contrary, deepen and intensify your voice, lay your hand on her shoulder and say, “Elsa” (calling her by her Christian name for perhaps the first time):

“Elsa, when the painted glass is scattered from the windows, and the roof is opened to the sky, and ordinary simple flowers grow in the crevices of pew and transept–then, and not till then will your church, as I believe, be fit for worship.”

Not only does this reply completely silence opponent; but it will be possible to go out and win ten shillings on the golf course, come back very slightly buzzed from Sunday pre-lunch drinks, and suggest, by your direct and untroubled look, before which their glance may actually shift, that your host and hostess, however innocently, have only been playing at religion.

Potter is a genius, and it seems his books are coming back in print! Now millions more can learn those methods of winning without actually cheating so dear to my heart and to those of fellow Yeovil alums.



Henry 12.08.04 at 4:41 am

Great minds and all that … Robert Irwin “speculates”: on whether it “was not possible that Potter had learnt something from Gibran” in his review.


belle waring 12.08.04 at 4:55 am

D’oh! that’ll teach me to not read the linked wossname. I guess I’ll leave it up anyway, as an elucidation.


fyreflye 12.08.04 at 5:19 am

I must have read all of Stephen Potter’s books some fifty years ago and that particular little piece occasionally pops back into my head out of nowhere. They’re still the funniest things I’ve ever read.


Jackmormon 12.08.04 at 5:28 am

But! If you accept all that Quakerish stuff about the great open-air church, what would happen to the Great Sermon Handicapped Betting?


Delicious pundit 12.08.04 at 7:09 am

Yeovil is awesome and Gatling-Fenn is awesome and dolphin-breasted Paulette Odoreida is awesome. Out here in Hollywood I buy copies of the Complete Upmanship (used) and give them as gifts, but no one shares my enthusiasm. To be expected, I suppose.


John Biles 12.08.04 at 8:38 am

I must confess that I’ve never met a very religious person in my life who that routine would work on. They would unleash their religious-fu on you and destroy you. While a more social churchgoer would say ‘that’s nice, now come to church’.

Also, you’ll never be invited back. (Which might be what you want). Casting aspersions on someone’s religion is generally the best possible way to be thrown out on one’s ass.


Sam Dodsworth 12.08.04 at 9:35 am

I must confess that I’ve never met a very religious person in my life who that routine would work on.

True, but it’s not aimed at very religious people. It’s aimed at people who don’t think much about religion but go to church because it’s what Respectable People do – a classic, albeit long vanished, British type.


belle waring 12.08.04 at 9:50 am

that’s right; this is meant to work on nominal Christians.


bad Jim 12.08.04 at 11:05 am

Allow me to mention the churches in Spain and Italy that barred my entry because my fellow traveler insisted on her right to bare arms (and shoulders).


Sam Dodsworth 12.08.04 at 11:40 am


At the risk of over-explaining the joke, it’s not so much ‘nominal Christians’ as a particular stereotyped Church of England attitude. On the one hand, the squire is expected to play a leading role in village life, which centres around the village church. On the other hand, actual religious enthusiasm is incompatible with the ‘stiff upper lip’ and theology is ‘high-brow’. The result is that village squires go to church and feel jolly solemn when they read the lesson but don’t actually think about religion at all. The point of the gambit is to make them feel like ‘nominal Christians’ whether they are or not.


You do know those aren’t the same kind of churches?


jam 12.08.04 at 1:30 pm

“win ten shillings on the golf course”

That takes me back. Before you were born, I think, Belle.


Luc 12.08.04 at 3:10 pm


God may have replaced the commandments with the amendments for the Muricans, but those Yurpean churches are stuck in the past till God has convinced the Pope to do the same.


RA 12.08.04 at 8:14 pm

When I was a pagan I had the highest contempt for Jerry Falwell. I had never heard him speak or read any of his liturature. I just had heard what others said about the man. My wife became a Christian and tuned into his TV show while I was doing some calculus homework. I half listened and found that politically we were very close.
My point is, if you never go to an Evangelical service you don’t know what Evangelicals are. You just hear the stereotypes of 3 headed monsters that keep their wome barefoot and pregnant etc.
See for yourself. And if your in my house I’ll make sure your home in time for Sunday football!


David Margolies 12.08.04 at 10:29 pm

Back in the days of fountain pens, Potter’s advice to lend the pen when asked but hold on to the cap so the person your lend it to cannot then pocket it was amazingly simple and effective. Does not work so well with ball points (but I still always keep the cap if there is one) but their loss is less traumatic.


John Kozak 12.08.04 at 10:46 pm

I read them when I was fifteen, then again about twenty years later; delighted to find how much had gone straight over my head the first time (like the footnote about Tom Driberg).


David Margolies 12.08.04 at 11:06 pm

Okay, John Kozak, please tell us what the footnote said!

For those who do not know. Tom Driberg was a Labor MP and– I believe — junior cabinet minister and also gay. He wrote a memoir called Ruling Passions (published posthumously). I recall someone at the Spectator magazine, perhaps in a review of that book, talked about meetings as a reporter with Driberg in pubs, where Driberg would arrive with a young male “constituent” to whom Driberg would give a few pounds to play the fruit machines while he and the reported talked.


John Kozak 12.09.04 at 8:46 am

(From memory, so apologies for any errors) One of the books has a section on second homes, with a discussion of when these should be called “cottages” and when “houses”. A footnote to this says something like: “For a more detailed treatment, see ‘Cottagemanship’ by our Parliamentary correspondent, Mr Tom Driberg”.

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