Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Time to take back our souls. With or without the Church

It’s a tough confession to make, but I may have been guilty in the past of lying in church.

This happened on occasions when I attended Christian services, usually because I knew that it would give pleasure, or at least comfort, to someone else if I was there.

In that spirit, I intoned with the others that I believed ‘in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church’. 

Now that wasn’t strictly a lie. After all, I certainly believe that such a Church exists. Several, in fact, and each convinced that theirs is the only one. Still, I’m not convinced that my belief really honours the spirit of the affirmation.

We laid claims to lots of other beliefs too. That Jesus Christ was the son of God, begotten not created, born of a virgin. That he was taken and crucified and on the third day rose again. The whole shooting match, basically.

Except that actually it wasn’t the whole shooting match. Not by a long stretch. That was made clear to me, in the kind of blinding flash someone really insightful provides when he explains something obvious that has previously escaped your attention.

It was a Guardian article that pointed out that the Nicene Creed we so glibly repeat, jumps directly from the conception and birth of Christ to his death and resurrection. All his life in between is just left out. Gone is the reference to its being easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Gone is the driving of the moneylenders from the Temple. Gone indeed is anything that might have made a structure of power and privilege at all uncomfortable.

As the writer of the article pointed out, the Nicene Creed expressed the views of the Roman Empire when it decided to adopt Christianity as a state religion, without being keen on giving up any of its prerogatives. It marked the transformation of Christianity from a religion of the poor and oppressed into a religion of the strong and wealthy.

Who wrote that article? Giles Fraser. And last week he resigned as Cannon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Why?

Now that’s a question worth asking. And answering.

As I mentioned in my last blog, we had visitors from France over the weekend. On Saturday, we popped by the tented demonstration outside the doors of St Paul’s Cathedral. The protest is directed against the ethical decline that allowed the wealthiest members of our societies to bankrupt us and then continue to subsidise their lifestyles at our expense. Where else in England would be more appropriate for such a protest than the City of London, home of our financial institutions, as well as of St Paul’s?

I have rarely seen so peaceful a demonstration. ‘Gentle’ is probably the right word for it. When we arrived a rabbi was preaching and occasionally chanting. Near him stood a Hindu holy man, and there were priests of various denominations of Christianity around too. The atmosphere was that of religiosity, of deeply but not violently held belief.

St Paul's protesters: in tents but without evil intent

And yet the Cathedral had shut its doors, on the pretext that the demonstration represented a health and safety threat. Next the authorities went to court to ask for the demonstrators to be moved on; police action was expected within a few days, with a possible descent into violence.

No wonder Fraser felt he had to resign. As he said himself, he could imagine Christ being born in one of those tents. So what we were seeing was the clearest illustration of one of the two sides of Christianity. The official Church had closed its doors on those who were appealing for justice and charity, and now it was planning to use state power against them. It was the Nicene Creed, Christianity with its compassionate heart torn out of it.

Since then, however, the other side of the faith has reasserted itself. Graeme Knowles, the Dean of St Paul’s who announced the closure of the doors, has also resigned. And now the Church has dropped its legal action and opened them again.

It seems that the tensions that the Council Nicaea tried to settle live on unresolved in the Church to this day.

To me, though, what matters in all this is what it says of attitudes in society.

Those people in front of the Cathedral represented no threat. They were not aggressive. But they were different from the image that our leaders want to project for us all. And in today’s atmosphere of stultifying conformity, such difference is not to be tolerated.

Well, the Church’s change of heart means it will tolerated a little longer. And perhaps on the shoulders of the protest will come a more general awakening that says ‘I too have no wish to be the same as those who claim to lead us. Why model ourselves on them? They destroy and then conspicuously fail to make any contribution to rebuilding.’

If enough people pick up the challenge, then maybe we can put the soul back into a belief system hollowed out in the Nicene Creed. And give all of us, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Moslems, Christians and others better values to believe in than those of the City of London.

Even the non-believers.

Even the ones who haven’t always been strictly truthful in Church.


Mark Reynolds said...

Locking the denizens of a tent city out from St Paul's is particularly unfortunate optics for the church: from the Wikipedia article on Saint Paul: "His family worked as tent-makers, a trade that Paul plied to support himself throughout his ministry."

You'd think, at some point when the church hierarchy are making decisions such as this, that it would occur to one of them to check to see if their founding documents had any insight on the matter they're confronting. Things like this make me think that they don't see themselves as Christians so much as curators - the principles are meant to be preserved and admired, but kept under lock and key and certainly not exposed to the real world where they might do some damage.

David Beeson said...

Absolutely right - though they may be curators not even of principles, merely of buildings, which I suppose makes them churchmen rather than men of the Church. Indeed, from defenders of Church property, I think they find it far to easy to slip into defending property more generally - itself difficult to reconcile with the founding concerns of the Church.