Friday, February 20, 2009

The Christian Church and The Titanic

This is going to take awhile: I suggest, if you are up to the task of reading this tome, that you pour yourself a triple dram of your favourite Friday night single malt first. I’ll take mine neat, thank you.

Given the recent round of discussion, for me, this must be how Sister Wendy would feel if she were handed the keys to the Louvre: what thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion! Thank you, fellow catacombites for an abundance of food for thought. My head is spinning with the stimulation:

Leader vs. intermediary;
altar of worship vs. common table;
God in our midst vs. God in the East ;
Jenny Geddes alleged cry;
and deck chairs on the Titanic with poetry by Yeats:
this is a feast of serious thinking!
There are enough separate discussion threads to keep us going for a year.

The ‘deck chairs on the Titanic’ metaphor is the one that keeps popping up the most in my head. Obviously, the Church as ship is an ancient symbol; the word nave points this out. The last twenty-five years in the Church has felt like we’ve missed the signal about the approaching iceberg. Moving around altars and renaming them does seem quite akin to the aforementioned metaphor. But when I think about it more, it is not just the last twenty-five that have triggered the impending doom: I vote for the last two thousand years.

For me, it is quite confusing and has had me questioning how we worship God (modern or traditional approach, you choose). The Christian liturgy is the public worship of God by the people that has emerged through two millennia of political, social and theological evolution. If I wait until Sunday to have the presence of God symbolically represented to me by an altar position or priest position, I fear that I have lost much in my daily struggle to have a relationship with God. My private worship and relationship with God is an everyday responsibility.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is not God-worship, but Jesus-remembrance for me. Jesus went into the garden to work on his relationship with God; he went into the synagogue to study, teach and worship God. Not for one minute or a great bottle of single malt could you convince me that the position of the altar or the like would matter to Jesus or God.

So, before I look for a life boat or ask for the last dance on the Titanic or the altar to be moved or renamed, this question keeps nagging away in my head: can we save the ship?

Put that question on hold for just a minute though; let me tell you about chapel this Wednesday.

At the heart of St. James’ is the Lady Chapel. It is for me a little and barely-noticed jewel through which life at St. James’ flows. Every Sunday, the community passes through it; rarely pausing to breathe in the special quality that pervades the room. During the week, it is used as the short-cut to sanctuary. People tramp through it; every so often, someone will make a quick nod at the altar as they scurry along. It is on Wednesday morning that this room glows. 10 a.m., to be exact.

The paint is peeling off the walls in certain areas; the carpet is worn. Usually, the chapel chairs are helter-skelter. Many times, tired floral arrangements from the previous Sunday service quietly count their days in the corners. The altar is planted against the north wall.

A small, fairly consistent group of us gather each Wednesday. We wait quietly for the officiant to arrive; rarely is there chatter of any sort. We always start at page 67 in the BCP. There is always the epistle and the gospel; there is never a homily. We always kneel at the same points in the service. Very rarely does the presiding priest stray from the course that is hundreds of years old. Each week, we are reminded of the essential elements of the Christian life.

Because the service is always the same, I don’t really use the book. For extended passages of recitation, it is open for reference. I can focus on the why’s instead of the how’s of worship. Stopping my mid-week life to do so is not very easy for me. It would be far simpler to recite a prayer at home at 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning and get on with the have-to’s. But having observed mid-week chapel now for two years, I find it disturbing to miss it. Rather, my soul finds it disturbing to miss it.

In its quiet, contemplative way, Wednesday chapel dusts of my worries, sets me up straight and sends me back out into the world with a gentle nudge, ready to start all over again.

This Wednesday, Malcolm Wilson presided. We weren’t sure who to expect as it was not printed in the bulletin. Malcolm opens the sacristry doors and enters the chapel. He stops and lovingly looks at each one of us and greets us with a warm “Good Morning, everyone”.

Malcolm does not really preside. He speaks for us, not at us. He kneels when we kneel, he faces the altar as we do. He offers the words of absolution to us as though they were being offered to him. He invites us to read passages along with him that normally we are excluded from. He is amongst us, not above us. He does so not from a physical position; he does it in spirit. Malcolm’s authenticity, reverence and humility elevates the service to the most meaningful level. When the service is finished, we all sit in silence. There is no urgency to speak, to move, to get on with life. It is as though we have had a small slice of the peace that passes understanding; we don’t really want it to end.

Not many Wednesday chapel services feel this powerful, but when it does happen it is the most amazing tonic for the spirit and soul. Back to my question: can we save the ship?

The Titanic metaphor comes back to mind. The Christian church is very comparable to this famous ship: a huge vessel that seems unsinkable, carrying confident but oblivious passengers. A vehicle so large that it cannot react quickly enough to change its course to avoid destruction. The comparisons seems to go on. Let us not forget E.J. Pratt’s poem Titanic and its epic portrayal of hubris. There was nothing structurally wrong with the Titanic. The hubris of the people sank it. In the Christian church’s case, it has been sinking for nearly 2000 years.

Got that bottle of exquisite single malt handy: I would wager that Jesus never intended that there be a Vatican or a Canterbury, a pope, an archbishop, a diocesan appropriation that is sinking small parishs, an altar of worship or a common table/altar. He pointed out the slavery of the 613 Mosaic laws; he came that we might have life more abundantly. And, we, his disciples, took the 613 Jewish laws (this spreadsheet is available online and is a helpful outline ) and created an equivalent number for Christian liturgy and denominational dogma. Jesus pointed the way to God; not to himself. He taught that life is about paradox: The Beatitudes; he taught that love had to be radical ; he lived with authenticity, reverence and humility.

It has taken 2000 years but I wonder if the ultimate Christian metaphor may be unfolding. The Church will have to die before it can live again. No amount of shuffling of furniture, or glitzy signage, or dumbing down of the language, or sparkles of vibrant liturgy is going to get this ship out of the way of the iceberg of reality.

I can’t save the ship alone. My generation could maybe save her; I'm not sure what it would take to light a fire under the adherents. It is mind-boggling to imagine what it would take to usurp the political armour that her leadership have built around them and their systems. Perhaps miraculous radical love and action? Reminds a bit of this ancient story of a young rabbi...
I'm ready for a refill; are you?
Nicola Adair

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