Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Orthodox | Post-Literate Church

We live in a post-literate society, by which I mean that the printed medium is no longer the dominant communication medium. Print has been displaced by the audio-visual world of television, and both now compete with an increasingly diverse range of media. Post-literate society is not the same as functionally illiterate society, by which I mean a society that is unable to access information in print or written form. There is a debate – being covered by the medium of television – in this country at the moment as to whether or not we are becoming functionally illiterate, and how to address this problem.

An immigrant community naturally faces the problem of functional illiteracy – in this case, how much Greek do the children of the Church, born and schooled in England, know; and to what extent will this – or any other immigrant community – teach them their ‘mother-tongue’? (Churches, mosques, temples often play a key role.)

But, is there anything to be learnt from the patterns of worship of the Greek Orthodox for the context of worship in a post-literate society?

There may be something significant to learn from the use of icons, and other ritual objects. Icons are more than symbolic: as I understand it, an icon is viewed as both a window, through which the worshipper looks onto a spiritual dimension (in this regard, similar to stained glass windows); and a door, through which grace is imparted from the spiritual dimension to the worshipper (in this regard, different to stained glass windows). So they are not merely an alternative way of representing something, or of telling a story. But they include that element. Icons carry the story of the community with a permanent accessibility that the weekly-changing sermon cannot.

Should we expect people to follow readings in the Bible – checking up on what is being read, what is being said? Or should we encourage people to listen to the spoken-aloud word (a very different experience from reading, even following along while listening)? Should we teach people to read non-literate codes, to interpret sensory information – an art arguably lost to the western Church since the Reformation? Should there be more art in worship? I’ll pin my colours to the mast on that last question, and respond with a resounding, yes!

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Orthodox | Church As Theatre

The experience of visiting the Greek Orthodox Church was one of pure theatre. Sitting in the front row of the balcony probably added to that; but so did the stage at the front, on which there was a tabernacle (stage set); the painted walls; the enormous gold candleholders hanging from the ceiling; the ornate pulpit; the costumed principal character; the chorus; the congregation participating with the main proceedings primarily as observers…

The theatre of the occasion was fascinating, and raises lots of questions:
What is the purpose of theatre?
Is theatre unreal, or reality seen through a particular lens? Distilled, focused?
What do we learn, about ourselves, about the world, from theatre?
Is the audience in a theatre passive? (I don’t think so.)
Or do they add something? With a play, is there a qualitative difference between the last rehearsal behind closed doors and the first performance in front of an audience? And is that difference only for the benefit of the players? Does it change with every audience?
Are writer and director and cast and crew and audience co-creators of meaning?
Are we changed by the experience of theatre? If so, in what ways?

What about church as theatre?

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Orthodox | Fluid Worship

We arrived at the Greek Orthodox Church at 11:45am, and went up to the balcony from where we would get the best view of all that was going on.

The service had, at its core, a very rigid structure: liturgy chanted by the deacon and choir; prayers and ritual actions by the priest; set elements to the service, in a set order, with set variations (as, indeed, is the case with Anglican liturgy).

In relation to this structure, the congregation had very little to do; other than stand up and sit down again at the right moments, and cross themselves, over and over.

But around this, a lot was going on. Children walked in and out of their own group in another part of the building. People kept arriving: when we arrived, the congregation was very small; it kept growing over the next hour and a half; filling up, filling up. People came in, in groups; each lighting a candle, kissing a series of icons, and a holy book (Gospels?). A widow brought food, a symbolic gift to her departed husband, and placed it on a table at the front; someone else brought a framed photo of the deceased, and placed it on the same table. People greeted one another, as and when. At one point, various men were invited to take part in a procession in preparation for the communion, which was taken by the children. After the communion, the family of the recently deceased man stood together while the priest prayed over them, a personal interruption to the flow of the whole…

It didn’t matter that people were engaging with things at different levels, at different moments. In fact, the service was structured with that expectation.

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Orthodox | Church As Ark

On Sunday I visited the Greek Orthodox Church here in Nottingham, a congregation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. It was unlike any Christian worship I have experienced before; fascinating, and well worth the visit. Go yourself, but be warned: set aside time – in its entirety, I think proceedings ran between 9:30am and 2:00pm.

Four things that struck me were ‘church as ark,’ ‘fluid worship,’ ‘church as theatre,’ and ‘post-literate church.’

Church as Ark:
While we were welcome to observe what was going on, it was clear that this was church for the Greek ex-pat community. There was no sense of seeking to reach out to include ‘the other,’ to grow through conversion, to assimilate and be assimilated. Rather, the intention seemed to have to do with keeping the integrity of what it means to be Greek – and Christian – in the midst of a non-Greek and highly irreligious culture. Church as ark. It is easy for evangelicals to disapprove of church as ark, but it is worth remembering that the Russian Orthodox Church more than conquered the Communist experiment; held imagination and communal identity in the face of an atheist alternative reality. And from the ark, the earth is repopulated.

It seemed to me that there were parallels with niche-culture emerging churches, such as Goth churches, which seek to create community that is authentically Christian and authentically their own culture, unwilling to compromise on either.

Should church call us out of our culture; or seek to transform it? Should our response to Christ’s reconciling previously hostile groups be to seek to hold those groups together in any local congregation; or to build partnerships between distinct local congregations?

It seems to me that the ‘calling out of culture’ and assimilating a new heterogeneous group instead approach is built on a theology where heaven is the goal. But as Bishop Tom Wright said to us in our college lecture last week, heaven is not the goal, not the final destination: the final destination is a renewed heaven and earth, the cosmos with decay extracted. That, contra to Bono’s vision, all the colours will not bleed into one, but that something beautiful will be created from a broad palette.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Live Autopsy

I recall hearing recently a grim news report of a man who had awoken in agony as the pathologist performing his autopsy took a scalpel to his face.

I imagine not many people have a corporeal awareness of their autopsy. But it provides a certain analogy for the experience of being at college:

Of being laid out,
and that which is normally hidden –
that which is integral to who you are,
but not necessarily healthy;
not necessarily pleasant to observe –
being exposed,
on display to others;
and you yourself painfully aware
that they are aware –
adding further hurt to
the rawness of the wound itself.

Here are two examples of what has already been exposed:

a) I know that I am almost certainly dyslexic and dyspraxic. For whatever reasons, my brain is not wired as it should be. I fall short, only able to do with great struggle what others do with ease. This is sin in my life, not in the sense of being a bad person (a very limited definition of sin, anyway), but in the sense of being held captive by the consequences of being a broken person in a broken world (the sort of sin Jesus’ disciples tried to pin down to something done wrong by an individual or their parents; but Jesus wouldn’t let them get away with that). And I have always refused to receive grace,* to accept help; but have built up compensating- and avoidance-mechanisms that have served me well (well enough to have a PhD in an Arts discipline). But it has taken college less than a fortnight to demolish those mechanisms, and leave me in no doubt that I must stop resisting grace, and acknowledge my brokenness. That hurt. So now I need to arrange professional assessments…

b) There are people I don’t like much, for all sorts of ignoble reasons, all kinds of petty prejudices. And with such people I tend not to make much effort, to love them, to serve them. That’s sin, in a more obvious (and no less real) sense. I’d rather not be hauled up over those prejudices by my neighbour, and my conscience, ganging-up on me; but that is what I need. That it should happen is grace. That it should happen in this safe environment is great grace.

Here is the key lesson of the forensic pathologist’s cold steel slab:

Only by thinking of ourselves as the greatest of sinners – and therefore as needful recipients of the greatest grace – can we avoid assuming that our sins are less horrid than those of our neighbour.

“Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together.” D Bonhoeffer

*sometimes diagnoses and labels are not grace, but that is not the case in this instance.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

What Is Worship?

Well, I’ve survived the first week of term. Just about…!

This first half-term, all the first years have to visit at least seven different churches, from various traditions and including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and a black majority Wesleyan. Part of the idea is to expose ourselves to different traditions, and reflect on them; and part of the idea, I suspect, is to be made uncomfortable by certain things, and to reflect on why we felt uncomfortable. Then, each week, we’ll attend a seminar, posing different questions. This week, the question was: what is worship?

Last Sunday night I went along to Trent Vineyard. As I have known many people who worship in Vineyard churches, and have worshipped in an Anglican church that has a close relationship with the Vineyard, I thought I would feel more or less at home. But as it turned out, I found it a very uncomfortable experience.

There were several things I felt uncomfortable with, which I won’t go into here. But one thing I felt uncomfortable with was the absence of a cross, or crucifix, and an altar as a focal point – or, indeed, anywhere at all in the purpose-built auditorium. (The focal point was the worship band, spread out across a stage at the front.)

Now, the absence of a fixed cross and altar would not have bothered me if we had been gathered in a cafĂ© (though in such a space I would expect a portable cross and a surface appropriated as a make-shift altar), but in a space purpose-built for Christian worship, it just didn’t feel right. Why not? That comes down to how I would answer that question, what is worship?

What is worship? By which I mean to ask, what lies at the heart of formal, corporate worship? (And yes, I believe that worship goes wider than formal, corporate worship; but that is the question, in this context.) Here’s my answer:

The heart of formal, corporate worship is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not only the point where we remember Jesus’ body broken 2,000 years ago; but the point where the Holy Spirit re-members Jesus’ broken body today. We are the Body of Christ, dispersed both by our geographical circumstances and by those things that come between us and each other and God, which we call sin. The movement of formal, corporate worship, the sequence of its elements, brings us to the point where the broken body is re-membered, in order to be sent out into the world again. It is a journey to the Eucharist; and then out from the Eucharist; with the Eurcharist being the focus, the heart, the pivotal moment. The symbols of Christ’s body and blood, on the altar, at the foot of the cross.

And because this is my answer to the question, what is worship? to be in a place of formal, corporate worship devoid of cross and altar felt profoundly disturbing.

What about you? How would you answer the question?
Would you need a cross and altar?
Or, are you equally comfortable with their presence or absence?
Or, do you find such physical symbols a distraction away from the spiritual truths they were designed to point to?

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Monday, October 01, 2007


We’ve had the stabilisers taken off Susannah’s bike. I’ve been going round the Square with her. We’ll wait for a park to let her try solo.
She’s doing an after-school art club on Mondays at the moment.

Noah has got a pretty good eye in with bat, and ball. It’s been fun playing with him in the garden. Susannah’s pretty good too.
Jo scalped him with trimmers last night.
He is loving his reading books from school.

They’re both making friends at school – there are other college kids in both their classes, which is great.

Elijah is into demolition – an aspiring South Sea Islander rugby forward.

Our lawn is full of shallow holes where the local squirrel has tried to bury nuts in too-hard ground.

Our washing machine is dead. By the time it gets fixed we’ll have been washing-machine-less for a fortnight. Fortunately we have some great new friends – thanks, guys!

Scrabulous is fun.

Jo is wonderful. But slightly mad – she’s taking NT Greek, for fun not credit…
Her parents came to visit on Saturday, which was great.
She’s making friends, and finding routines, and enjoying life on the whole.

I’ve played football every week since we’ve moved here, in goal, on the college field – or Field of Dreams, as it is also known. If goalkeeping was good enough for Pope John Paul II at seminary, it’s good enough for me!

College life is a whirl of people to get to know and timetables and routines and coursework to get to grips with – a major change in gear after working 12 hours a week…

Nottingham Castle is built on fibre-glass-enhanced rock!

Last week, someone added a comment on a post I’d written in April 2006. I’m astounded…

Of Godparents

Term began today. Last week was Induction. On Friday afternoon, I was standing outside the Dean of Studies’ office, waiting to discuss my timetable. On the walls in the hallway there are several boards listing the names of those who went out from St John’s to serve as missionaries in other parts of the world. And there, on the board outside the Dean’s door, towards the bottom of the last column:

LAVILLE, J. Philippines 1972

Jo Laville was a godfather of mine. He died, training church leaders in India, not very long back. He’d lived for most of my life in Asia, but, by chance of home-leaves falling at the right time, he happened to attend our wedding in 1996; our honeymoon in Switzerland in 1997 (yes, I know that sounds a little weird: we were married in October, but wanted to go skiing, and so waited until the spring, and went on a group package. We didn’t know Jo was booked on the same group – but he was a life-long skier, who had skied in the Alps long before that became popular); and to the christening of our daughter in 2001.

Just as I hadn’t expected to see him get on our coach somewhere in Switzerland over a decade ago, so I hadn’t expected to see his name on a board in the hall.

As it happens, another of my godfathers, Revd Canon Dr Michael Green, was the first Principal of St John’s, Nottingham (1969-75 – the college goes back to 1863, but was located at various sites in London prior to moving to its current home).

And my parents share a god-daughter with the current college Principal.

And one set of my youngest child’s godparents are the brother and sister-in-law of the wife of the Dean of Studies whose study I was waiting outside on Friday.

Surreal does not begin to describe it. But there is something else: something about continuity; and inheritance; something about standing in a god-parental genealogy; something about arriving somewhere I never knew and until just under a year ago was not heading towards, and finding myself coming home. Something that brings with it anticipation…