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Archive for the ‘Sacred spaces’ Category

For the believer, worship in the formal religious setting is not unlike going to the gym.  In both cases, the building is fit for purpose.  Arriving there, you’re welcomed by expert staff.  The place is filled with an atmosphere of common determination towards achieving a greater good.  One is surrounded by people who want to enhance their quality of life and are prepared to put in some time and effort with which to do so.

There are various routines to be gone through, familiar to regular participants, with or without specialised equipment or tools;  some are benign and enjoyable; many are less so.  Personal trainers are on hand to help those who need incentives to work at the discipline as well as lose the baggage they came in with. There are fees to be paid (gyms expect to be paid; churches, synagogues and mosques are always looking for money).

There are downsides, of course. Worship precludes, as get-fit does not, watching Sky News as you work out. Listening to your own stuff through headphones is no problem in the gym, whilst in church taking phone calls – and making them – on your mobile phone is definitely frowned upon.  And, unlike possible behaviour in gyms, flirting with other participants in worship situations, whilst not unknown, is absolutely forbidden.

But there is at least one major thing in common between the settings.  It’s why you’re there.  In church as in the gym, you are committed to the deal on offer.  Work with us, goes the message, and your life will improve. Failure to turn up regularly loses you points. Stopping is not an option. After a while – some weeks, perhaps – you see how this could be so and you relax into the discipline.  You get fit.

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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.

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StonhengeUnlike each other as we are, in so many ways, my brother and I nevertheless have some interests in common: books; genealogy; maps; sightseeing; good food; all things French.  One such focus of our mutual attention is Stonehenge, the world heritage site which, helpfully for us, lies midway along the route of the three-hour drive between our respective homes.  We’re always alert for new information and theories about the obvious questions.  Who built it?  When?  Why?

I’ve recently been reviewing all the latest theories to answer the principal question: what was Stonehenge for?  Ideas about its function range from seeing it as an observatory, categorising it as a place of healing or culture-reinforcing processions, through to imagining it as a necropolis, a city of the dead.  Simply to list these alternative roles, however, is to raise an objection immediately.

Only we, in our fact-driven, post-Enlightenment, reification-prone perspective, seem to demand that Stonehenge have one or other of these functions.   The people who built it five thousand years ago probably had no such desire to stipulate that the building be exclusively this or that.  More likely, it was all of these things, mixed up together and mutually reinforcing each other in ways in which they saw this fully evidenced and life-enhancing but which we cannot any longer imagine.

If the builders designed the monument to be aligned with the winter solstice, for example, for therapeutic reasons, who are we to condemn the mindset that saw life as inextricably intertwined with the changing positions of the stars and sun?  What do we believe that will seem risible to generations yet to come?

Thinking about this, I recall Philip Larkin’s poem Church going on this very theme (listen to the poet himself reading it).  In its final verses, he imagines how it will be when churches have lost their meaning and fallen into ruin. Enough will remain, he writes, to show that the purpose of such places is always to remind us, with all our impulses and fears, that we are human and what that means; and that such a presence in our scheme of things is still more than a good enough response to our permanent human need to be connected with our own and others’ mysteries: connected for reassurance, explanation, forgiveness, love.

All these things in us are interwoven.  So let it be for Stonehenge, too:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

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Hanslope Church

Hanslope Church

Every year at about this time, Easter, the media strike up the band with some old favourites:  the church is dying, it’s irrelevant to people’s lives and concerns, churches are empty, clergy mouth platitudes or are too wet.  It’s a seductive old tune.  But is it true?

Casting my mind back 20 – 30 years, I recall a time when the following things were true for the church in England: cold and empty churches; the services still held in 1662 language, with silly Victorian hymns; Anglican participants in an ecumenical gathering being told that they could not share in the Catholic’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer; all priests were male and the idea of there ever being a non-white  bishop, let alone archbishop, preposterous; the Dean of Winchester – one of the last to be seen dressed in gaiters – saying that there was a Christian case for nuclear weapons; narrow-minded interpretations of salvation and threats of damnation; an air of hopelessness and decay.

Now we have increasing numbers: standing room only in Catholic churches in West London as Polish residents flock to mass; a galaxy of Afro-Caribbean churches seemingly in every town; the present Archbishop of York from Uganda; the next Archbishop of Canterbury being chosen by the church, not the government; a canon of St Pauls Cathedral warning the police not to break up the protestors camping on its steps; the other archbishop cutting up his dog-collar on TV;  church schools oversubscribed; services in contemporary language; women priests, though not yet bishops; Thought for the Day regularly explaining Hinduism; the spread of purpose-built mosques; the television series Rev; the crucifixion re-enacted in cities in the UK; to my certain knowledge, at least one gay bishop in England and a gay Dean (what of it?); the New Atheism failing to find traction in our community so far.

Tonight we go and share the Easter Mass with our fellow congregants in a country church (pictured), and see that there are more of them than 20 years ago, and of all ages.  Our mass will be participatory, and moving.

No, I don’t think the church is fading.  It’s actually being reborn.  That’s a good feeling to have at Easter, when we celebrate renewal and resurrection into new life.  God bless us all.

Happy Easter

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God prevents a church from falling down.  This little anecdote, collected and retold by Marco Polo, is of Samarkand the ancient city on the Silk Route to Cathay.  It can be heard in various ways including benign – one can imagine it in the mouth and gestures of a storyteller in the market place – or malign, as a relic of intercommunal strife in 13th century Central Asia: (more…)

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As a Christmas gift to myself I’ve bought the Essential Carols from King’s from iTunes and listen to it while at work.  They’re all there, from Once in Royal David’s City – I always get teary at the line,”Not in that poor, lowly stable…” – right through all the goodies to Hark the Herald Angels Sing which satisfyingly brings Midnight Mass to a rejoicing close.  Christmas is music, emerging from the darkness and holding it at bay.

Many years ago it was possible to sit in the row immediately behind the Decani choral scholars of an evening, simply by having an academic gown on (no-one in King’s ever seemed to notice that I was an undergraduate at St John’s and was wearing its distinctive gown).  So I heard the whole repertoire from one of the three or four best choirs in the world over three years, when Sir David Willcocks was the choirmaster, and still found time to go to evening service at John’s as well.

But it’s not until now that, listening to what are surprisingly old recordings, I fully realise how softly the choir has always sung.  Albeit with clear, superb diction, they sometimes seem merely to murmur the words and still sound so wonderful.  It’s the chapel, of course.  Its enormous acoustic takes and lifts the sound the choir and organ produce and makes it special.  To hear the echoes is to experience that shiver up the spine we yearn for.

For generations, the King’s choir has known about that acoustic and balanced themselves firmly but sweetly with it, and every year we are granted the pure pleasure of it.  Here, less is indeed more.

So to Stephen Cleobury, for whom I turned the pages all those years ago, and to all at King’s, Happy Christmas, and thank you again.

King's College Cambridge

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A cynical, talented English aristocrat touring Italy in 1830 manages to get into the Sistine Chapel and reports on everything he sees:

Creville portrait

Charles Greville

April 4th, 1830

To the Sistine Chapel for the ceremonies of Palm Sunday; we got into the body of the chapel, not without difficulty; but we saw M. de la Ferronays in his box, and he let us in (Morier and me). It was only on a third attempt I could get there, for twice the Papal halberdiers thrust me back, and I find since it is lucky they did not do worse; for upon some occasion one of them knocked a cardinal’s eye out, and when he found who he was, begged his pardon, and said he had taken him for a bishop. Here I had a fine opportunity of seeing the frescoes, but they are covered with dirt, the ‘Last Judgment’ neither distinguishable nor intelligible to me. The figures on the ceiling and walls are very grand even to my ignorance. The music (all vocal) beautiful, the service harmoniously chanted, and the responsive bursts of the chorus sublime. The cardinals appeared a wretched set of old twaddlers, all but about three in extreme decrepitude—Odescalchi, who is young and a good preacher, Gregorio, Capellari [afterwards Pope Gregory XVI.].

Pope Gregory

Gregory XVI

On seeing them, and knowing that the sovereign is elected by and from them, nobody can wonder that the country is so miserably governed. These old creatures, on the demise of a Pope, are as full of ambition and intrigue as in the high and palmy days of the Papal power. Rome and its territory are certainly worth possessing, though the Pontifical authority is so shorn of its beams; but the fact is that the man who is elected does not always govern the country, and he is condemned to a life of privation and seclusion. An able or influential cardinal is seldom elected.”

From Charles Greville’s Journals vol 1 ch8 p310.  As usual, I am indebted to that wonderful treasury, Project Gutenberg for making it possible to read this ouotstanding volume of memoirs online.

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