Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Drama of St Paul's - who cares?

"St Paul's may have made a PR blunder but let's not exaggerate the impact. I've yet to hear it mentioned out and about" ran a tweet today from someone I've just started following.  This struck a chord with me, since I'd spent a good part of the morning on Tweetdeck, fascinated by the unfolding events at and apropos the cathedral - the resignation of Giles Fraser, the announcement of the cathedral's re-opening, and the Bishop of London's offer to listen to and engage with the OLSX protestors on Sunday.  I'd tweeted and retweeted; I'd devoured many and varied comments on these events which were (and, as I write, still are) flying round both blogosphere and Twitterdom; and - in spite of my utter dismay at whole fiasco - enjoyed hearing others' observations and contributing my own.

Then I went shopping to my local supermarket (which itself is used by St Paul's staff and other City clergy).  Now I didn't stop and ask any of my fellow shoppers what they thought about what was happening at the cathedral; but it was my impression and conclusion that this matter was not - shall we say? - unduly pre-occupying them.

I am an Anglican priest in the Diocese of London.  I live 10 minutes' walk from St Paul's cathedral.  My desk in the Bishop of London's office is yards from it.  While it's not exactly my bread and butter, this issue concerns people I know at least to some extent; it concerns the mother church of my diocese; and it concerns the Church of England which I serve and love.  I would be interested in it, wouldn't I?  I do fear that it has demonstrated yet again our apparently unlimited capacity for self-harm, and that it has made us look globally pathetic.  But I do not kid myself that those who do not share perhaps any aspect of my rather particular connection will have more than a passing curiosity in this ecclesiastical drama.

More generally, I fear that we consistently underestimate our own parochiality: we surround ourselves with people who think like we do, who share our attitudes and outlook; and are lulled into thinking that the opinions we share with them are what normal, rational people everywhere think.  A lot of people in the Church, particularly those see themselves as politically and socially aware, have at least some sympathy with the OLSX protest.  There is a clear resonance with the Gospel message in standing up for the poor and weak against the rich and powerful, and some properly serious questions about how the Church should position itself to be faithful to that.  This way of thinking also, for obvious reasons, appeals to those on the political left.  Yet, it's instructive how quickly that mindset evaporates when you step outside the liberal bubble and into the wider environment.  A question was asked in the Lords yesterday about the St Paul's situation, and I was struck by the lack of sympathy for the protestors from any part of the House (which contains a good number of old lefties).

It's really good that the Bishop of London and the Dean of St Paul's are prepared seriously to engage with OLSX.  Who is going to engage with that part of the population which has no sympathy for them, and - just possibly - no interest in the issues raised?

Monday, 24 October 2011

For All the Saints

Although I'm a soi-disant pretty orthodox Christian, I've got a bit of a soft spot for what some call folk religion.  By which I mean what Wikipedia describes as "those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion".  Before anyone starts looking in Google for the web-address of the present-day Inquisition, let me say that although my youth was decidedly Steeleye Spanny, I'm not tempted to dance between bonfires or around maypoles, to find myself in a stone circle at dawn on the summer solstice, or wear willow around my hat. What I mean by folk religion is the way in which the practice of the Christian faith has become interwoven with local custom, culture and life experience, and particularly with the natural world and the seasons of the year.

Next Tuesday 1 November is All Saints' Day; Wednesday is All Souls' Day.  On Sunday, I and many others will be singing "For all the saints who from their labours rest" to Vaughan Williams's stirring Sine Nomine.  We will give thanks for the lives of those men and women who, throughout Christian history, have dared to risk everything for love of their Lord, and who we believe now rejoice in His closer presence.  We will recall their examples of courage, steadfastness and faith and pray that we might "win with them the victor's crown of gold".  On All Souls' Day we remember before God all the faithful departed (including those who weren't saints - or perhaps were, but have never been acknowledged as such) and commend them to God's safe keeping.  On the 11th, we remember those who have died in conflict.  It's easy to see why November is sometimes called the Month of Remembrance.  There is a mild, and ever-so-slightly melancholy, sense of foreboding abroad at this time of year: the clocks go back, night falls early and suddenly, and we become more particularly conscious of the cycle of the seasons and the approaching darkness.  We remember those who have gone before; we call to that part of the Church which worships with us, but invisibly, above; and we draw our metaphorical coats more tightly about us, and prepare for the cold.

31 October was the beginning of the Celtic festival of Samhain, or New Year, which marked the end of the harvest and the lighter half of the year, and which was celebrated with bonfires and celebrations of the dead.  The Christian festival of All Saints may have been fixed on 1 November as early as the 8th century, perhaps partly to ingest and appropriate extant pagan practices; and it's not too difficult to see how we have ended up celebrating the Communion of Saints at the same time as others are indulging in the silly, if harmless, nonsense of modern Hallowe'en.  It may be that it is natural for our thoughts to tend in this way around now.  Indeed, perhaps this coming weekend is a natural turning-point in the progress of the year; a point at which, subconsciously and reluctantly, we turn away from summer and towards winter.  Perhaps, in atavistic empathy with our ancestors, we become more aware of our need of God's grace to see us through the leaner, hungrier part of the year.  

We Christians have to face what lies ahead with hope.  The winter may not hold the dangers which it did for our forebears: most of us in the West know we will be tolerably warm and well-fed; we do not, on the whole, fear deadly infection like those of only a few generations ago.  But we are fearful of the darkness of a world order which, rather suddenly, seems out of kilter and somehow more than usually provisional.  We need to remind ourselves, at All Saints' Tide especially, that, in due course, the spring will return, and all manner of things shall be well.

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Book of Common Prayer: Collect for All Saints' Day)

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