The Parable of Mr Whippy

Recently I was reading press coverage about the demise of the iconic British ice cream vans, and it prompted me to think, slightly tongue in cheek, along the lines of a hypothetical parable that Jesus would possibly tell if He was walking around Britain today.

Behold, when you hear the chimes of Greensleeves or Teddy Bears’ Picnic, you know that the ice cream van cometh. It is surrounded by expectant, laughing children, deciding if they fancy a ‘99’, a delicious strawberry cone, or even a bubblegum lolly, as they are accompanied by indulgent parents or grandparents.

But then the jobsworth officials frowned when they observed such happy summer afternoon scenes. Such purveyors of pleasure were promoting undesirable trends towards increasing childhood obesity. Consumption of such delicacies that may contain unrefined fats or excessive calories was not in the national interest. Society needed to be protected from those who, however well-meaning, were marketing such unhealthy products right on the doorstep and in the privacy of people’s own neighbourhoods.

The guardians of our morals and social trends took counsel together. They concluded that if people really want to pursue an unhealthy lifestyle and even spoil their children with these things, then there are plenty of cartons of multiple brands available in the supermarkets. That is where such products belong - perhaps with a suitable health warning. Besides, peddling of ice cream in vans disturbs the neighbourhood with noise and pollution, so by-laws should be passed that they can only play their chimes for four seconds at a time. Transgressors will have their licence revoked.

Behold, the neighbourhoods are now quiet and undisturbed. Children stay indoors and eat crisps and chocolate bars instead. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Then the disciples of Jesus inquired what the meaning was from this parable. The answer was given: the ice-cream vans represent Christians who seek to go out into society and their community, sharing their faith in Christ, bringing joy and enrichment to those who are spiritually hungry and seeking fulfilment.

But the strident voices of secularism took offence. It is intolerant to disturb the peace in a neighbourhood by propagating a faith that many might find intrusive. Such faith may have its place, but that faith must remain confined to church buildings or the private home. Therefore policies are enacted to prevent nurses praying with patients. Employees must no longer wear crosses at work; Christian teaching and witness within schools must be strictly controlled; Gideon Bibles cannot be placed in hospitals for health and safety reasons; prayers will be banned from local council meetings; nativity scenes at Christmas should be removed from shops and High Street premises.

The chimes of the ice cream van can be likened to the sound of the church bells, which used to summon the faithful to worship. They will not be banned altogether, but the purpose of church bells now is to celebrate the Olympics or the Queen’s Jubilee. Pealing of bells on a Sunday morning for purposes of worship is now an unwarranted intrusion into the peace and tranquillity of those who are preparing to go out shopping or to the car boot sales. The Church’s ancient heritage is to be valued and respected, but if the faith it adheres to is taken outside its cloistered walls, then curbs must be put in place in the name of tolerance and protection against anti-social behaviour.

Therefore just as the number of ice cream vans has diminished from 20,000 in the 1970s to less than 5,000 today, so the influence and impact of the Christian Church in our land has similarly diminished. As a consequence, people may now feast instead on the sumptuous delights of the Gospels of secularism, consumerism and New Age philosophies, protected from the faith of those deemed by some to be bigots, who disturb the peace of our enlightened culture.

Jesus told parables far better than I can. But is the connection I make in my mind too far-fetched? I leave you to decide.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.