‘Is it true, Father, that in Scotland men wear skirts?’

A Massai man Fritz Pölking/DPA/Press Association Images

Catholics, shown last night on BBC4, was the first of three films about British Catholics, scheduled for the next few weeks. If you missed it, you can (if you live in the UK) see it here.

It was fly on the wall documentary about young men training for the priesthood at Allen Hall. It has received some favourable reactions already, such as this piece in the Daily Telegraph. I have also noticed some favourable comments on Facebook and Twitter.

I myself did not know what to make of the documentary. There were certain things I found distinctly odd about it, such as the background music, which made my spine tingle a bit – perhaps it was meant to. And the camera did dwell at considerable length, or so it seemed to me, on various items of religious statuary; and there was an awful lot about vestments and clerical dress. One thought that kept on going through my head was this: how would a non-Catholic, or a non-religious person, watching this, make of it all?

Funnily enough, until some years ago, I used to teach in a seminary. But that was in Africa, and things are rather different there. For a start we had large classes, usually, for the main courses, of over a hundred students. (There were almost three hundred students in each year, and so each year was split into two, to make numbers more manageable.) Not all these students were for the priesthood. Quite a few were nuns, and there were lay people too.

Given the numbers, I would talk, and the students would make notes, but there would also be a fair amount of questions and answers and point-making. There was also, I think, a sense of pressing urgency about the whole theological project, for everything we covered was an actual question in Kenya at that time (and still is today). We were tackling the foundational questions of morals, but the applications of these foundations were all around us: abortion, murder, crime, tribal conflict, female circumcision, polygamy, you name it. There was a very strong sense that theology mattered, and that culture mattered, and that the nexus between the two was vital.

There was a great deal of discussion about the foundations of culture, and how culture had to be informed by, and sometimes reformed by, the Gospel. We often used to end up discussing the role of dance – yes, really: for Africans, dance is serious business and of great cultural significance. In fact the one word that constantly came up, again and again, was that word “culture”. The way we do things, the reason we do them that way, the way we ought to do things, and the reason to change, these are all cultural questions. And, incidentally, the thing I thought was most important was the Church’s teaching that Christ has come not to destroy cultures or to set them aside, but to bring them to completion. In other words, believing in the Gospel will make you a better Maasai, a better Kikuyu, a better Luo or a better Chagga.

One thing that also used to surface was the difference between cultural convention and moral law and how people frequently could not tell the difference between the two, or use one to justify the other. I used to point out that matters of dress are almost entirely cultural conventions with little moral foundation. This led to a question: “Is it true, Father, that in Scotland, men wear skirts?” My answer was that, yes, it was true, in Scotland men did wear skirts. But I had a question of my own: “Is it true that in Maasailand, men wear mini-skirts?” Just goes to show, matters of dress are cultural not moral. A man would look pretty strange wearing a mini-skirt in Leighton Buzzard, but out on the great plains of Africa, no one would turn a hair.