Thursday, September 30, 2010

Soaking up the beauty and mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau

A footnote to our recent French holiday.

On one of the hottest days - it was 35 degrees according to the car's thermometer (though I wasn't sure that could be accurate) - we walked up to the tiny hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. This unprepossessing, if moderately attractive village, was propelled to international stardom of a kind by the Da Vinci Code. What surprised me was that the village bore few marks of this international notoriety.

The reason for the interest of the conspiracy theorists in this little place is the extraordinary ministry of the priest Berenger Sauniere who arrived in 1885. Through his ministry he renovated the church, built a substantial villa and commissioned art to grace the grounds of these buildings.

The mystery is where the money came from to do all this. The myth makers think he found ancient cathar texts that led him to a treasure hoard or that he discovered the truth about Mary Magdalene and Jesus and was handsomely paid off by the Catholic hierarchy to keep quiet (he certainly never revealed his secret). Others suggest that his largess was the result of fraud on a significant scale.

What is undeniable is that the the building work he carried out magnificent (if occasionally bordering on folly). But his artistic taste suggests a fierce Catholic orthodoxy and not the work of a man who had discovered that Mary Magdalene pitched up in this village to preserve the bloodline of Jesus that led to the rise of the Merovingian kings.

The priest himself spoke modestly of his aims for the his work. He wanted to turn the hilltop fortified, though by the time he got there, significantly run-down town, into a place of peace, tranquility and spiritual enlightenment. 'The hordes of warriors have been replaced by peaceful warriors. They come here to admire, within this incomparable setting, the marvels of art...these works of art have taken the place of the murderous architecture of the past. The turrets and crenelations now serve for contemplating, close to heaven, the magnificent panorama strtching away on every side as far as the eye can see.'

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Swift to judge

It's interesting listening to the reaction to Ed Miliband's speech.

Every word is being seized on, every phrase chewed over for what it tells us about the man, his history, his thinking, his values.

Yeah, it was an important speech. But it's not the be-all and end-all of Ed Miliband; not the last word on what the opposition will stand for in the coming months.

His speech reads very well - and you can read it here. The advantage of reading a speech of this kind is that you look at and think about the words without the distractions of the audience response or the commentators opinions.

Part of it talks about the need for a new politics, a new way of talking about the issues we face. So let's begin to have that conversation and not write each other off on the basis of a sound bite or a speech. We need everyone joining the task of bringing ideas to make our big society a good, equal, fair and just society.

It seems it's not only the church that rushes to judgement, after all...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Building on the Big Welcome

We had a good morning yesterday. I had a very interesting and overwhelmingly positive reaction to my musings on Bowie and Nathanael (see my previous post) and the church had a large number of visitors. Intriguingly, many of those were visitors from overseas, including Lithuania and Holland. It says something significant about the way Bromley is changing.

It was, of course, the Big Welcome (or Back to Church Sunday as others call it), so it was great to have a number of visitors in our congregation (though I'm not sure many of them were there because of the efforts of the church inviting them!) I suspect the visitors pitched up because of our location - in the town centre, close to bus routes and recognisably ecclesiastical - and, I'd like to think, because of the welcome we offer once those people come close.

We've been having a conversation about welcome recently, pondering how we can capitalise on what we're already doing, how we make people feel at home among us.

A key part of this has been how we can help people to belong at the level they want to. We have tended to operate a 'one-size fits all' policy: everyone coming to church is looking to be actively involved in the church's programme, certainly wants to join a home group and is probably keen to volunteer in Sunday School, youth work or the women's meeting.

But recent experience suggests that this is not the case. we have a number of people who 'belong' to our church - in that they attend weekly without fail (often more regularly than long-standing committed members) but do not want to become members and certainly don't see volunteering in the church's programme as the path to fulfilment. They are even pretty iffy about the hone groups as they are currently constituted.

I suspect other churches are facing these issues. I'd be interested to know how others tackle it. Our conversations continue. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Finding God in the groove

I'm listening to David Bowie's seminal Station to Station. I'm doing this because it's fab and a new deluxe version is coming out next week with the much bootlegged Nassau gig all digitally tidied up and packaged along with it. I'm also doing it as a displacement activity from sermon preparation. But what do you know if God's not there in the groove saying 'how about reflecting on this...?'

Got to keep searching and searching

Oh, what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?
Wonder who, wonder who, wonder when

Bowie sings on the title track - having mentioned Hebrew symbols that he's pictured drawing on the CD sleeve, in passing. Then on Word on a Wing, he sings
Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
It's safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don't stand in my own light
Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?

suggesting that maybe the person who's walked into his life out of his dreams in the verse isn't a lover but a divine presence. Of course, Bowie's praying in the midst of his cocaine addiction and living the fast life, his gaunt frame draped in a white suit and swirl of cigarette smoke.

Bowie knows everything he's achieved - and he's at the height of his fame and creativity in 1976 when this record is almost thrown together in LA - is a puff of smoke, 'an age of grand illusion'; the golden years cannot last and even in the midst of them 'there's my baby, lost that's all/once I'm begging you save her little soul...i believe, O Lord, I believe all the way.' The glare of the neon and celebrity makes him long to 'run for the shadows in these golden years'

In short, this is an album of spiritual longing set to some of the greatest tunes ever committed to vinyl.

And suddenly, my half-formed reflections on Nathanael begin to take shape. As Jesus collects disciples, he invites people to come and see what's going on around him; Philip fetches his mate Nathanael. It's possible that the way Jesus refers to him indicates that he's a bit of a zealot, an Israelite who's looking for a better world which certainly isn't going to be found anywhere in Galilee where he grew up. Bowie sings what Nathanael might have been thinking: 'Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well'.

But Jesus invites him to see if that new world might be found in him.

The great thing about this story in John 1 is that Jesus isn't inviting any of these folk to join an institution or come to a meeting. Andrew and John(?) ask where Jesus is going and he says 'come and see'. He's on a journey and he invites people to walk with him and discover stuff along the way. This is the essence of mission - inviting people to come and see.

Have we found anything worth inviting our mates to look at?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lessons in the stunning beauty of Monsegur

Coming down the steep path from the stunningly beautiful ruined castle at Monsegur, one passes a stone memorial to the 220 cathars who, following the overthrow of this seemingly impenetrable fortress, chose not to submit to the power of Rome. They were burned at the stake in the field at the foot of the hill. It's hard to square such horror with the staggering beauty of the surroundings.

Monsegur was the last stronghold of the Cathars overthrown in 1244. It was the end of a fifty year crusade against the heretical movement that had cost thousands of lives and extended the writ of the French king southwards to the Languedoc and Carcasonne (the key city of the region).

The cathars were a heretical sect, a dualistic blend of gnosticism and Christianity, which was embraced by the leading families of the region probably because it set them apart from growing French state to the north. It is undoubtedly the case that the crusade launched against the movement in the late twelfth century was as much about that state extending its powers over the fertile areas around Toulouse and Carcasonne.

The early leader of the crusade was Simon De Montfort. Growing up in Leicester, I had known De Montfort as a pioneer of democracy, one of the barons that forced King John to Runnymede to sign Magna Carta. Streets and halls, even a university are named after him in my home city. It was only when I when I first went to southern France about 15 years ago that a different picture of De Montfort emerged, a man who cut a bloody swathe through the region, a crusader of stupendous brutality.

As I stood on the low rising hill before the steep climb to Monsegur, I reflected on the fact that people should be allowed to be wrong. No one should die just because they choose to worship in a different way from their neighbours. Perhaps a key aspect of being a follower of Jesus is that we accept that some will get what he's about and others won't. One of the great insights of the Baptist pioneer, Thomas Helwys, was that everyone had the right to be wrong, that everyone had the right to choose what religion or philosophy they would follow and the state had no right to enforce one option over another.

Monsegur is testimony to what happens when that insight gets forgotten as it has so frequently through our bloody history

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Back from a great holiday

Well, we're back from a great holiday in Mirepoix in a part of France we've not visited before.

Mirepoix is a great bastide town with a fabulously preserved central square and a cathedral with the widest nave of any church in France. It's a wonderful place. We spent mornings sitting in the square drinking coffee and watching people come and go.

Afternoons were spent touring great historical sites - the area is dripping with history as it was the centre of Catharism in the twelfth century (more on that later) - or swimming in the local lake.

Evenings were spent eating either in our gite or in one of the numerous local restaurants.

All-in-all it was everything a French holiday should be.

We stayed in a place called l'ancienne pharmacie. It's the first year that the owners have been letting it out, I gather, and it's a great three-storey town house just off Mirepoix's main square. It's very well equipped and decorated and even has a small roof terrace. You can check out the website here.

More when I've recovered!

Friday, September 03, 2010

Breaking the back of my dissertation

I've put the final full stop at the end of the final sentence of the third substantial chapter of my dissertation. So my supervisor now has 37,715 words to chew over (though the first chapter will need recasting and will probably come out a little longer).

All that remains is topping and tailing with an introduction and conclusion plus the slightly tedious compiling of the bibliography (hopefully in alphabetical order) and it's done.

And as if that's not good news enough ahead of a holiday... today I heard that John Drane has written a lovely endorsement of my forthcoming Lion book to join the one that Peter Oakes has already written.

I can lay back in the warm glow of achievement until work rears its ugly (or do I mean lovely?) head again in a fortnight...

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The slippery, scintilating sound of eels

Went to see Eels last night at my favourite rock venue, Brixton Academy. It was a cracking evening - though it started slightly bizarrely with a ventriloquist!

E's band, however, were tight and loud (much louder than I was expecting!). I gather E is not a big fan of live performance and it shows a little in his awkward manner when speaking to the audience and a lot in his tendency to play everything slightly faster than on record. But there were some great moments, terrific versions of tracks for the new record (which I think could be seen to be a classic Eels album), great selections from the back catalogue (one of the most impression in recent  rock) and a blinding cover of Summer in the City.

E writes beautifully, his lyrics are often simple but profound and suffused with a world-weary wit. Sometimes last night the subtlety was squashed by the speed of delivery but it was still possible to appreciate the light and shade in his songs. A great gig.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Lessons from the workshops of Corinth

So, I'm pondering the second half of my chapter on the social location of the Pauline communities (while listening to Chacago Transit Authority) and formulating a thesis (as you do when writing a dissertation - though some might think I should have formulated a thesis already, but let's not go there!) and it strikes me that it might have implications for how we understand church today.

The thesis is simple (and not very original - but I'm doing a review dissertation, so originality is not expected): Paul was a craft worker - a tentmaker, probably a worker in leather rather than a weaver of cloth - who worked from sunrise to sunset in a workshop with others in the same trade. He probably slept at the back of the workshop or on a mezzanine floor above his bench; maybe in a first floor room. He would have eaten there or in the popina (the Roman equivalent of a fast food outlet) on the corner of the street, where for a few pennies he'd have picked a chunck of bread and vegetable stew.

So, where did church and mission happen? In the workshop. As he worked, he talked; his audience was his fellow workers, customers, passers-by drawn by a vigorous conversation. Nearly everyone who heard him speak would have been craft workers or slaves from customers houses come to place or collect orders. This explains why the Pauline communities were dominated by artisans and why there's such a stress on working for a living and sharing what you've made with those who haven't had such a good day or week as you.

It possibly has implications for how we read 1 Corinthians 11-14. Scholars generally agree that this teaching refers to the gathering of believers around a meal for what we now call 'worship' (Paul wouldn't have called it that, however). The apostle envisages prayer and prophecy, teaching and learning all in the context of a meal, at the heart of which was a remembering of Jesus and the cross. Many reckon it was loosely based on the Graeco-Roman symposium (and they are probably right).

But what if, instead of taking place in a family home or appartment, Paul envisages the Corinthians gathered in a workshop, eating together at the end of the working day? In fact, it wouldn't have been like this for all the communities in Corinth because it's clear that one of the problems in some gatherings was that some started eating before others arrived. This implies that some didn't need to work until sunset, suggesting a degree of wealth (though not at all suggesting membership of the tiny social elite as some have argued). But it would almost certainly have been like this in Thessalonica where, from Paul's letters, we get the flavout of a small gathering that is very workshop-based.

It all leads me to the conclusion that Paul's communities were socially located in craft workers shops and appartments and therefore consisted overwhelmingly of poor to moderately ok working people. The typical member of a Pauline community was someone who had to work each day to ensure they got to eat, who worked long hours with their hands, who lived in a space not much bigger than a modern British garage and who were drawn to the faith of Paul by his stress on grace and forgiveness, sharing and economic mutuality.

And what does it tell us about church today? Possibly that it needs few of the trappings that we think are essential. Where a small group of people meet to eat, remember Jesus, pray for and support one another, there is church. So, why can't it be happening in pubs and restaurants, cafes and workplace meeting areas?

I've changed the music to Bowie's Station to Station as I return to dissertation writing wondering what this picture of the chruch says about the role of full-time paid ministers...