Opinion & Features

Mary Kenny: A lesson for the Church from BHS

St Gertrude with her legendary pet

I can’t remember when last I shopped at British Home Stores – renamed BHS – but then I’m not a great fan of department stores. I prefer, where possible, small shops, which are more personal and on a human scale.

But it’s always dispiriting to hear of people losing their jobs, and it looks as though 11,000 staff will be made jobless with the closure of BHS, which has been going for 88 years. And their pensions could be at risk, too.

The commercial analysts are saying that BHS “failed to keep up with the times”. Shopping habits are changing, and woe betide any commercial organisation that doesn’t recognise that, and adapt accordingly. The head boffin at the research firm Conlumino, Neil Saunders, described BHS as “a firm that is out of step with modern consumer tastes, which lacks the finances to enact the major changes required. As such, it is now a retailer that is out of time.”

“Keeping up with the times” is always a tricky order. And yet while some outfits are doomed because they fail to modernise, some institutions that seem old-fashioned (Fortnum and Mason, London clubs, Lord’s cricket ground) not only survive and thrive, but are valued for their very old-fashionedness; That’s the key question: what do you change, in order to modernise, and what do you retain, to bring a sense of continuity?

The collapse of Woolworth’s was a metaphor for the reality that few empires last forever; and yet some are remarkably resilient. Churches, too, have to make this call. They do have to adapt to social change, yet they also need to maintain a solid sense of historic continuity, of being changeless in a changing world. It’s a fine balance indeed.

I’ve come across an engaging picture of St Gertrude of Nivelles as the patron saint of cats (and gardeners). Gertrude (d 659) was a young Abbess, who apparently carried out her responsibilities ably and gave encouragement to Irish missionaries. But the dictionaries of saints make no mention of her love for cats.

The pet specialist Celia Haddon – for many years the Daily Telegraph’s columnist on animal care – says that St Gertrude’s fondness for cats is probably more legend than history. Yet it’s intriguing, and I’d love to know where this legend came from.

There is a website called “Animals and Church History” which gives a listing of stories about saints and animals (though it doesn’t mention Gertrude of Nivelles). It tells us that St Brigid gave sanctuary to a wild boar, turned a fox into a dog and was followed by a cow; that St Gerard Majella could communicate with all animals; that St Martin de Porres founded a shelter for cats and dogs; and that a kind dog brought food to St Roch every day as he lay in a forest. And of course there are many accounts of St Francis’s love for all creatures.

Some of these stories may well be legends, but sometimes legends have a basis in folk memory. I think Martin de Porres was known to be kind to animals.

When President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle, came to London, he kissed the ladies (Sam Cam, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge) and she kissed the guys (Dave Cam, Princes William and Harry). When the President went to Germany, he and Chancellor Angela Merkel exchanged hugs and smackers. Is this a sign of affection, or a social gesture?

Possibly the latter. When, years ago, I was a companion to a worldly-wise elderly French diplomat’s wife, she explained that in the protocol of her milieu, a kiss signalled social parity: “You may kiss those who are your peers, and a public kiss signifies that such people are your peers and equals.”

So I’m thinking that such markers showed that the President and the First Lady bestowed kisses on those whom they recognised as their social peers. But observe that nobody kissed the Queen. She only kisses (apart from her family) other royals who are of the same standing – the Queen of Denmark, the Queen of the Netherlands, and so on. It seems that the social rules of kissing haven’t changed that much since I was instructed in the matter.

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