Friday, 23 December 2011

Is 'touching wood' a religious gesture?

I ask this because a short while ago I received a steroid injection for a painful shoulder joint. One of the medical practitioners involved explained that there were very few risks involved (I had to sign a consent form) - it could lead to an infection, but "touch wood" that wouldn't happen.

Having frequently commented on this in sermons, I felt obliged to point out that the wood god wasn't going to help either them or me, but that I'd every confidence in the procedure.

As far as I'm concerned, that's an end to the matter. But in these days of the litigious mentality which sees the need for recourse everywhere to rules and regulations to uphold 'my right' not to be offended (or is it just 'my right' to take offence?), I couldn't help wryly asking what might have happened had - perish the thought - the same person appealed for help at that moment to the God of Israel rather than the demiurge of the nearby bookcase.

Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend:


  1. Once, long ago, I made a similar comment and was informed that crossing one's fingers and touching wood are gestures based on the wood of the cross and the cross itself.
    I have never heard anyone else say this, but I keep my options open.

  2. You should have checked your horoscope for the day John just to make sure...

    Chris Bishop

  3. I'm not convinced it has anything to do with the cross, and even if it did it belongs with such vacuous phrases as "say one for me, vicar" in the file marked "noncommittal". I do cross my fingers when singing "Away in a manger" though!

  4. Years ago I was told that the saying "touch wood" was derived from the wood of the cross and have used this when some one who isn't a Christian or at least a practising Christian to point out how heavily dependent we all are on the sacrifice made by Jesus.

  5. I think this topic highlights a certain foolish that is creeping into our lives. One aspect of this is a belief that officers in public agencies have a legal duty to expunge religion from the workplace. Much of my working life has been within the public sector and I have NEVER heard mention of a prohibition on personal religious belief being expressed in the workplace. What clouds the waters regarding this topic are high profile cases presented by a few ‘Ambulance chasing’ Christian legal charities. You may well remember the case earlier this year of Dr Scott – as the Telegraph put it ‘GP rapped for talking about God with patient...’ ( The inference was that the GP had just mentioned God and a complaint was made... However as the GP himself stated: ‘In our conversation, I said that personally, I had found having faith in Jesus helped me and could help the patient.’ – here the GP (a person in a position of very real cultural, legal and personal power) made a recommendation to a patient (a person in a vulnerable position because he was dependent upon the GP for his present and future treatment). It is where recommending a particularly belief, in addition to the power (real or perceived) of the speaker, and the vulnerability of the listener come together that a public officer can overstep the mark. There would have been no difficulty if the GP had said ‘Personally, I’m a Christian and I have found my faith has helped me.’ and left it at that... But he didn’t, he went beyond a neutral position. Yet despite the fact both the Christian and Right Wing press portrayed this as a case of a Christian being victimised, the NHS website tells us ‘Bethesda was a place in Bible where Christ healed a lame man... The 6 [GP] Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees.’ (see: Remember, this is an NHS website! Which I think demonstrates the foolishness of some of the beliefs that are propagated in the Christian media and within Christian culture, that Christians are marginalised and oppressed in the workplace. This Christian GP practice is bankrolled by the state – which rather flies in the face of the idea of ‘Christians being excluded or marginalised’.

    The second area of foolishness in this matter of displays of faith in the workplace is the readiness by which many - particularly within a Christian media of a certain Right of Centre flavour – WANT to believe Christians are oppressed in the work place. There is evidence to suggest a certain delight in the inverted pride of victimhood. It is interesting to note that many who write on this topic have very little, if any, experience of working within the public sector. Every local authority I have worked within has had a Christian staff group – which have held prayer meetings in the workplace. I’ve often seen Christian symbols or lines of Scripture decorating a person’s work station (I myself had an Orthodox icon of the ‘Foot-washing’ on my desk for years). The only time I have known staff to be reprimanded is when they have tried to proselytise other staff or clients.

    My own feeling on this issue, is that it would be better for Christians – and faith groups in general – to stop continuing this myth, that religion is removed or excluded from public service provision. Because it might just come to pass that secularists get wise to the fact hundreds of millions of pounds (indeed billions of pounds if we include faith schools) of public money is channelled into faith-based and/or faith affirming organisations; and that expression of faith in the workplace is not condemned. This present day habit of crying ‘wolf’ might just mean when persecution really does take place, no one is willing to listen anymore...