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On Sunday we attended the first communion mass for the daughter of a friend, in an RC church in one of Milton Keynes’ 77 neighbourhoods.  Like every other Roman Catholic mass we have attended recently, this one took place in a modern building designed in Brutalist style – plate glass everywhere, light-coloured conference centre-type wooden furnishings, exposed beams, painted concrete – lifting up a single enormous skylight bathing the whole interior in natural light.

All the usual depressing details of the decorative mis-en-scène of the church today are present: Stations of the Cross in sub-Gill semi-cartoon format, Sunday school murals and, suspended above the free-standing altar, a modernistic but faceless (!) depiction of the Risen Christ.  The music is all evangelical songbook ditties – folksy tunes you can’t get out of your head, banal words, guitar accompaniment.  The flow of the service, too, as I have seen elsewhere, seems all too provisional, improvisational, laid back: unexpectedly, disturbingly unserious.

It’s not helped by being subject to numerous sotto voce asides from the priest himself.  Their purpose seems to be to reassure all those present that what we are collectively involved with here is a temporary suspension of normal behaviour in order to accommodate the outlandish, scarcely credible demands of the eucharistic liturgy before we can return to normal daily life.  Its effect is that of a let’s-get-this-over-with lack of any profundity of thought or intensity of experience.

Except for the communion in both kinds (when did that happen?), the questionable aspects of modern Catholic worship – at least, from an Anglican perspective – are on full display.  Confusion in the sanctuary; gabbling of the text; the constant feeling of routine.

Queuing to receive communion, one after the other down the line, is oxymoronic; we should be in it all together, instead of participating in an individual, semi-automatic box-tick proceeding.  Where is the majesty, the quiet engagement, the sense of bringing the burden of our sins to rest upon the altar?  Where is the quality in this routine enactment?  Where is the mystery? Where is the feeling of God Shared?

What goes on in church, especially at the altar rail, is supposed to elevate us, or bring us up short.  If the Roman church itself fails in this duty, what is the point?

Moving on

As an institution, the Church of England can sometimes seem rather like retail banking: as soon as you get to cultivate a good relationship with the local rep, they get moved on.  No doubt it is all for the best.  There must be quite a few parish priests who would make good bishops. Better that the institution should benefit from their qualities across a slew of parishes than restricting them to just one or two.  So it is with distinctly mixed feelings that the congregation ‘losing’ a beloved pastor knows that the diocese to which he (or she) is being transferred is thereby receiving a singular stroke of fortune.

So it was in the 1990s, when the parish of St George’s Parktown, Johannesburg came to realise that their ‘man of God’, and the very model of a vicar,Gerard Sharp, was being considered for the succession to Duncan Buchanan, Bishop of Johannesburg.  In the event, it didn’t happen.  There came a Sunday when Gerard addressed us on the matter, disclosing the fact that he was against his name going forward; he would rather stay with us.  God, how we stood and clapped.  Tha applause went on and on, and he was clearly moved by it.

Now, some 20 years later, there is a rumour in Hanslope that our outstanding vicar, Fr Gary Ecclestone SSC, is ‘coming under pressure’ to accept some important benefice elsewhere.  He has said that he has no plans to move on; we know he loves the two parishes in his cure and we love him.  He wants to stay.

But I can’t help feeling that as soon as the idea is made known, it generates a momentum of its own.  It is a proposal which sotto voce  persists and is not going to go away soon.  It will happen.  The best get moved on so that others may be blessed as we have been blessed.  Please God, not yet.

And Gerard Sharp?  Well he’s now Dean of Johannesburg.  We miss him.

 

We watch a lot of TV series from the US, most of it very well written and illustrative of America today.  At least we assume so.  But one hole does appear in the fabric.  For a society supposed to be so religious, America on screen rarely seems to darken the doors of places of worship except to attend weddings and funerals or chase people.

Of course there are exceptions.  One episode of The West Wing shows the anguished president alone in the National Cathedral; another has Toby attending temple and talking with the rabbi afterwards.  In ER, a troubled Dr Susan Lewis is shown in one episode entering and leaving a church at Christmastide.  The NYC Police Commissioner in Blue Bloods visits his parish church for hard words with the priest, and I seem to remember Jack Killian doing the something of the same in an episode of Midnight Caller.  I can’t think of any others.  Brody worshipping on his prayer mat in Homeland is not quite the same thing.

God and humanity

Religion explains.  That is its function.  All the great belief systems have their own responses – explanations for the perplexed – to humanity’s great eternal questions, developed and embellished over centuries of exposition. Continue Reading »

Many people over a period of time compiled the New Testament.  This I knew, of course, but I have rarely seen it so clearly explained as it is by Diarmaid MacCulloch in his recent review of Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot, in the London Review of Books, 10 October 2013, pp9-10:

“Aslan says what all scholars not in thrall to blinkered religious conservatism say: when reading the New Testament, we have to fight through several filters of authorship to get any idea of how these sacred texts relate to a life lived in first-century Palestine.  All the works included in the New Testament canon were written in a language different from Jesus’ native tongue, and even the earliest among them were written by someone who never met him in his earthly life; the latest may postdate his death on the cross by about a century.  They are coloured by preoccupations which were not those of Jesus himself, and they fuelled the development of a church which became radically different from anything Jesus or the first generation of his followers could have envisaged.”

None of which invalidates the NT: it just means we have to be careful when reading it and quoting from it.

What God?

The hand of God

The hand of God

Exploring my freedom to visualise God in various ways, I come up against an obvious difficulty.  If we, in western Europe at least, have lost faith in the kind of personality-deity so masterfully portrayed in the Abrahamic tradition, so dominant in its religions, what is there left to interact with, let alone worship? Continue Reading »

Holy oil

Anointing DavidIn the BBC’s copious coverage of the 60th anniversary of the last coronation at Westminster, back in June, there was a note of special pleading.  I think that the issue it raises is an important and a contentious one which should be dealt with now, before the next coronation. Continue Reading »

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