November 0004

 

THE CHURCH OF THE NORMAL
 

Sebastian Weems’ revelation occurred on the 25th March, 1932 

Weems was born to a poor family in the Ozark mountains in 1906. Scenting opportunity in the expanding automobile industry, the family moved to Dearborn, Michigan towards the end of the First World War. 

This appears to have been a formative period for the young Weems. The Ozark Mountains he had left were romantic, exciting, and poverty stricken. His last memory before leaving them was the sight of his grandmother dying of jaundice, and the twelve children in the family had had to share one pair of shoes between them. In contrast, Dearborn brought the American Dream with it. Weem’s father’s first week’s pay packet was more than he had been used to see in two months in the Ozarks, and he was rapidly promoted from assembler to assistant foreman to foreman to senior foreman. Weems senior’s only recorded utterance is this: “I agree with everything Mr. Ford has said, is saying, and will say. On principle”, and his conventionality and acceptance of the status quo were amply rewarded. The family moved from one suburban box to another, slightly larger one, and in 1925 achieved the accolade of obtaining a mortgage. When they lived in the Ozarks, the family had worshipped at the Bradley’s Pit Serpentizing Chapel, but in Dearborn they were rapidly accepted, first by a small Episcopalian Church, and then by a larger one, and finally by a big plush one. The Rotary Club, and eventually, the Freemasons themselves opened their doors to Weems Senior, and, after a short probation period, to Sebastian as well.  

Were it not for the ghastly disease which carried him off, Weems senior would have died a happy man, but the family consoled themselves with the thought that they had been able to afford a solid funeral, followed by interment in a substantial, but not ostentatious mausoleum.  

While this was happening, Sebastian had been a model student at school, and, on graduating from there, chose to study accountancy and bookkeeping. Despite the horrors of the recession which followed the Wall Street crash, he had no problem finding a job with good pay and regular hours, and he was known among his colleagues for his dependability, his fixed smile of mild contentment, and his amiable but complete conformity.  

It was on a Friday that Weems received his revelation.  

As he was returning home, a near-accident befell him. He was passing a building site when a steel girder fell from a crane, and landed little more than a yard away from him. Weems appeared rather shocked, and had to be consoled by concerned passers by. He politely refused to follow a policeman’s well intentioned advice that he should go to a speakeasy and buy himself a whiskey. The incident appears to have provoked a period of intense reflection in Weems. It is a matter of record that he asked his employers for the next Monday and Tuesday off. Coming from Weems, this was an unusual request, and was readily granted. He appears to have used this time to take stock of his situation. These considerations are well-documented, for they formed the basis of his first book, “Casting the Account of One’s Life: A Positive Balance Found”.  

His conclusions were:

That, had he been killed when the girder fell, he could have been well satisfied with his life.

That he had been a useful and unostentatious citizen.

That he had achieved everything he had achieved through diligence and conventionality.

That these were therefore the greatest virtues.

That it would be better not to think of what would have happened if the girder had fallen on his head.

But that if it had, he would have been remembered, if not in perpetuity, at least for a long period, on account of the solid memorial his funeral plan would have paid for.  

For the next few months, he spent his spare time in the evenings studying the articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the religions of the world. He came to the conclusion that the great virtues he had identified were regarded by none as cardinal, and that he should therefore found his own, which would value them. Indeed, he suspected that most religious reformers did not see that they were virtues at all, and that they were accordingly flighty, unconventional and untrustworthy individuals, wholly unfitted to the posts of responsibility they had assumed on who knows what authority. There was, of course, no time like the present, so his first step was to draft a constitution for his new religion. The full version of the constitution, of course, would have to wait for there to be enough adherents to hold a quorate meeting, in order to discuss possible amendments, and to vote on its final form. He also started to proselytize among like minded colleagues and acquaintances at work and at the various clubs and societies to which he belonged.  

Within a few months, there were a dozen members, and this was sufficient to hold a meeting at which the officers of the new religion were elected, and the draft constitution was approved, substantially without amendment. Karl Dingley, Weems’ neighbour, was appointed as Treasurer and Chairman of the Fund Raising Sub-Committee As we shall see, Dingley was to prove a dynamic and important individual. Thus was born the First Church of the Normal! 

The next few years were exciting and strenuous for Sebastian. One of his first actions as Chairman of the Church was to propose, and see passed nem con, a resolution requiring all adult members of the Church to be in steady employment, or, if female, to be housewives, or retired and in receipt of a pension. This meant that the entire work of organizing the Church, and its missionary activity had to be done in his spare time, although his employers appear to have been generous in allowing him to make use of their stationery, and even to make occasional telephone calls!  

That the Church was a voluntary activity, and therefore necessarily spare-time was clear to all. This called for steady rather than spectacular growth, and for them to select appropriate areas for proselytization with great care. They soon discovered that the areas which offered the best return on time and money invested, in terms of numbers of members recruited, and of their suitability, were newly – built and expanding suburbs in prosperous regions with modern industries. Dearborn, of course, was a perfect example. They soon established a network of missionaries, or as they preferred to call them, recruiters, which covered all suitable parts of North America. By the mid 1930’s there were more than 20,000 members in the United States and Canada, and the church was growing at 9.7% per annum. 

The AGM of 1938 accordingly turned its attention to the question of overseas expansion. The uncertain political situation made a presence in continental Europe or Asia undesirable, and they concluded that the United Kingdom was their most attractive target. The British subsidiary was established in January 1939, under the chairmanship of Ethel Fieldhouse, and proved to be most successful. Within year, it had four thousand members, and three churches, in Dagenham, Morden and Selly Oak.  

The Morden Normal Church is of particular importance, as it is there that the Church’s list of sacraments was finalized. These were: 

The Opening of the Post Office Savings Account. Members with newly born children were required to do this for them within six months of birth, with a minimum deposit of £5. This was quite a lot of money then. 

The First Suit. Usually purchased at seven or eight years of age. Originally, this had to be pinstripe, but in the early 1970’s the requirement for a particular colour or pattern was dropped. In 1993 it was reinstated, but this time the suit had to be charcoal or navy blue in colour.. 

The Excursion to Southend. This was an annual ritual, and the Morden Church hired a charabanc for the purpose. Members in the Midlands went to Skegness, those in the north to Whitley Bay or Blackpool, and those in Scotland, to Dunoon. In 1966, this became a week on the Costa Brava, amended to two weeks in 1969, and in 1994 the destination was changed to Bangkok.  

“Listening In”. This meant the radio, and in practice has been largely replaced with television. This is important in the eyes of the Church, as it is a daily observance which enables members to feel at one with the world, and to learn the attitudes, interests and opinions expected of them by society..  

This list of sacraments was important, as every other Church of the Normal in the world used it as a basis for a similar list of their own. 

While this was happening in Britain, important events were taking place in the mother church in Dearborn. In particular, Karl Dingley had been appointed to chair a committee to establish the theology of the church. The first question they turned to was who was entitled to apply for membership. This issue proved to be something of a disappointment. The investigating sub – committee reported that, in the event of Jewish applicants, there could be no grounds for excluding them, as, by applying for membership in the church, they would be demonstrating a willingness to cease being Jewish. This meant, of course, that it would not be possible to establish a quota in order to exclude them, as did most other respectable associations and enterprises. However, the question of people of color, as they were then known, had a happier outcome. The same sub committee reported that the concept of a formerly black person was an absurdity, and that it would be entirely appropriate to operate a bar against them, and that this appeared to them to be in accordance with the expectations of polite society. Although this was seen as a safe approach in the late 1930’s, it proved to be something of an embarrassment forty years later, and the church drew what they called “a blanket of oblivion” over the entire discussion. This particular phrase represents the greatest poetic height achieved by the Church of the Normal in its entire literature. 

Dingley was perhaps the first spiritual leader ever to apply critical path analysis to his work, and he had reasoned that if he set up a sub – committee to deal with the question of black and Jewish membership, his own General Purposes Committee would be able to concentrate on establishing the basis of the faith of the Church of the Normal, and that both committees would be able to report sooner than would otherwise be the case. As it happened, Dingley was able to issue his report, entitled “Spirituality for Continued Growth: Some Ground Rules” in August 1938. 

This established four basic tenets. 

Conformity is all.

Personal problems are to be kept quiet.

Death is imponderable and unquantifiable, and should be avoided as a subject for thought or conversation.

The Church of the Normal is aspirational. 

In addition to the articles of faith and the sacraments, the Normal Church esteems a number of virtues, of which the most important are::

Shopping at supermarkets and other multiples.

Avoidance of second hand goods.

Anonymity. The ideal member is believed to be indistinguishable from his colleagues.

Not giving money to beggars.

Talking about cars, and washing them on Saturday morning.

Brand loyalty. 

Extracted from the List of Virtues, 1997 ed. 

Many older members believe that in enjoyed its heyday during the Second World War, during which adherents of the Church of the Normal were found to excel as rationing supervisors, neighbourhood organisers and government leaflet distributors. By 1945, the Church was able to congratulate itself on its astute avoidance of continental Europe and Asia ten years earlier, as recent events in these places could be seen as having been distinctly abnormal, and therefore reprehensible. 

The long period of peace and prosperity after 1945 brought both opportunities and challenges. The principal opportunity arose from the large increase in the number of possible members which was produced by widespread prosperity, and growth continued at a very satisfactory rate. There are now more than twelve million members of the Church of the Normal worldwide. It was paradoxical (and Weems himself once observed that the Church of the Normal always felt uncomfortable with paradoxes) but true that the same growth in prosperity which had produced their great opportunity also produced their greatest challenge. This was, of course, the need to keep away the wrong sort of convert. Karl Dingley recommended that the best method of doing this was simply to lose the membership applications of undesirable types. What an undesirable type was, was never defined, but then this scarcely needs to be articulated, but the fact remains that few people will persist in attempting to join an organisation after three successive attempts to do so have resulted in mislaid documentation.  

The logo of the Church of the Normal. The square symbolizes rectitude, the circle tasks completed and conformity, and the diagonal line steady growth from a solid base.  

Sebastian Weems spent most of his time playing golf from the early 1990’s, and was granted an unusually happy death just before the fourth hole on the Old Course at St. Andrews in 1997. Karl Dingley is still alive, but suffering from senile dementia, so no – one talks about him any more, and there is a strong sentiment in the church to revoke his membership before his death in the interests of avoiding any possible future embarrassment.  
 

This article has brought some interesting replies from readers: 
 

Dear Ropkind,

I must say that this is rather a sanitized account of the Church of the Normal. Whatever happened to the fearless muckraker of yesteryear? To take just one example, why didn’t you mention the incident in 1988 when Weems stabbed Dingley in a desperate attempt to regain control of the all – powerful General Purposes Committee? 

Sidney Lanchester, former member, Church of the Normal. Dunedin, New Zealand. 
 

And before I could say a word in reply, the great and good Barry Marples sprang to my defence: 
 

I don’t know why people keep on about this alleged stabbing incident. It is actually based on a confusion with a quite genuine incident when the communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, shot Mehmet Shehu, who was the chairman of his Council of Ministers, in a power struggle, and nothing whatsoever to do with the Church of the Normal.  

Barry Marples, Exmoor. 
 

Barry, this can’t be right. The Hoxha – Shehu shooting never happened. It was a CIA fabrication, and if this incident didn’t happen, there couldn’t be any confusion on which to base the alleged one between Weems and Dingley.  

Spiro Xenakis, Heraklion. 
 

No Spiro, no. Barry did get it right. Nexhmije, Hoxha’s widow, admitted that it had happened when she was released from prison to appear on Albanian Big Brother. So it could all have been as Barry says. 

Olaf Bengtsson, Narvik. 
 

As the UK General Secretary, I’m writing to congratulate Dr. Scharf on his timely and discreet article on our church, and to deprecate the above correspondence. Whether or not the stabbing incident ever took place, and I do know the true facts, but I am not going to reveal them, the fact remains that the leaders of the Church of the Normal have been extraordinarily successful in covering it up. And this is as it should be. Attempts to re – open old wounds, such as these above are decidedly unhelpful.  

Mavis Parkes, General Secretary, Church of the Normal. 

Mavis is right. This correspondence has gone on long enough. DRS. 

A branch of the Church of the Normal in the Penn-Can Mall, USA.

(Original image Kai Brinker)


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