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The Independent Online

THE militants are in full bloom this spring. They may be extremists in Palestine or gun-happy Serbs on an ethnic cleanse, or they may be the more amiable lunatics who captured the vote at the National Union of Teachers conference, but they have one thing in common: their views differ from those of the general populace. They are all minorities.

Yet we were all militant once, at least all Christians were. The word started as militare, to serve as a soldier, and the Romans also used it of lovers. In English, however, to be militant was to be engaged above all, not in the sex war, but in a compulsory war between good and evil. Our hymn books are full of the imagery of battle. A priest-led, banner-toting procession (a religious demo really) singing 'Onward Christian Soldiers' is obviously militant, but so was the old country vicar pottering about his study; he too was fighting the good fight, remembering St Paul's advice about putting on the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of faith. The 1662 Communion service still has its prayer for 'the whole state of Christ's Church militant here on earth'.

has long been secularised, of course. The banners say 'Strike Now'. Suffragettes were among the first political activists to take the word to their bosoms; Emmeline Pankhurst flaunted it. Mary Hufford, the militant deputy general secretary of the NUT who is reported to be pressing for the union to take up more 'gender issues', is a spiritual descendant, though they might not have got on.

Today the only militants who actually flaunt the word are probably the ones with the capital M, who have tried to hijack it. In general, militant is not half the word it was when it appeared in the Prayer Book. The professional golfer Colin Montgomerie, I read in the Guardian, 'is hampered by his tendency to be militant about trivia. He has berated a child for unwrapping a sweet paper'. Here it just means 'stroppy'. A far cry from Bunyan's pilgrim, fighting with giants.