Sunday, November 27, 2011

Barking at Angels II

[from Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding]

Our God, heav'n cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heav'n and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign.
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

By contrast, it is a curiously contemporary phenomenon that the public rhetoric of religion employs words such as freedom and liberty even while it is taking away our sense of wonder, crowding our minds with insistent demands and obviating the possibility of any space for contemplation. Thus we are invited to think about our selves and our discontents, especially our fear, which locks us in time instead of gesturing towards eternity.

By associating God with fear, political and religious institutions encourage us to calibrate certainty by establishing rigid conceptual grids. We then try to force our selves and our world to conform to these templates, an exercise that ends in an illusory sense of control. This tragic search for security in exterior validation makes us hostage to what other people think, especially the opinions of those who seek to define the boundaries and content of our lives. Our anxiety is so great that even the fickle wind of chance cannot break our death grip on the wildly vacillating weathervane of others' opinions. This desperate clinging to convention can extend to being afraid to talk about God—or even to pray—outside of carefully scripted parameters, in spite of the fact that such denatured language can twist the thoughts, words, and intentions of our hearts.

Christianity stands in opposition to such closed systems. Its essential message is this: to 'free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death' (Hebrews 2:15). The fear of death can take many forms, most of which have little to do with what might happen after our bodies die. Rather, fear of death is a matter of the mind. It has everything to do with how we perceive and interpret our experience. Our self-consciousness generates anxieties that make us vulnerable to manipulation and coercion in every sphere of our lives, from the most trivial preoccupation with fashion to the fate of our planet. It is our consent to the exploitation of fear and uncertainty that makes us complicit in inflicting physical or spiritual death on our selves or others. Our fretful search or certainty becomes a search for numb complacency.

But faith challenges this complacency. Faith is not about suspending critique but exercising it as it issues from a silent space of love, a reality yet unseen (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is about finding security in insecurity, the realisation that unless we work hard to maintain a hole in the heavens by which the closed universe of anxiety is breached, the fate of everything in our created world will be determined by the human fear of 'death'.

The Christian antidote to the fear of death is summed up in Philippians 2:5-11, often known as the 'kenotic hymn'. Paul's preface is succinct: our problems originate in our anxieties. Their resolution, says Paul, is to 'Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . .' (Philippians 2:5, my emphasis).

Christ takes on the burden of our human self-consciousness but is never trapped by its anxieties. He never loses the clarity of his gaze on the Father, the secret exchange of love in faith. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament gather this gaze and all that it implies into the single word behold. Sadly this word has vanished from modern translations of the Bible and the liturgy, and with it has vanished the most important message that Christianity or any other religion has to offer.

Behold is the marker word throughout the Bible. It signals shifting perspective, the holding together or even the conflating of radically different points of view. It indicates the moment when the language of belief is silenced by the exaltation of faith as these paradoxical perspectives are brought together and generate, as it were, an explosion of silence and light. This silence holds us in thrall, in complete self-forgetfulness. Our settled accounting of ordinary matters is shattered and falls into nothing as light breaks upon us. Beholding is not confined to monastic cells; it is the wellspring of ordinary life transfigured.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Tree of Meaning

I am reading a fascinating book by a polymath named Robert Bringhurst, whose expertise includes astrophysics, Native American languages, typography and other disciplines too numerous to mention. He might say they are a single discipline, and I would agree with him. His book is The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology. Here are some quotes from one of his brilliant passages; the last four paragraphs are particularly relevant to recent posts on this blog about the work of silence:

This detour into terminology is all in aid of making a simple point. A story—whether it's myth or fiction or history—typically has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We may not start at the beginning and may never get to the end, but we expect them to exist, like head and foot. This is a sign that stories, like sentences, are individual organisms more than they are communities. An ecosystem is different. A forest has an edge, it has a boundary, and it may, vaguely speaking, have a middle, but it has no beginning and no end, because it isn't a linear structure. It simply starts wherever you enter it and ends wherever you come out. The same is true of a mythology. History may or may not be linear, like a river, as many people claim. Mythology, like the forest, clearly is not.

p. 172 Trees grow in and on the earth. Where do stories grow? They grow in and on storytelling creatures Stories are epiphytes: organisms that grow on other organisms, in much the same way staghorn ferns and tree-dwelling lichens ... grow on trees.

I have a hunch that from a lichen's point of view, the basic function of a tree is to provide a habitat for lichens. I have a hunch that from a story's point of view the function of storytelling creatures—humans for example—is to provide a habitat for stories. I think the stories might be right. That's what you and I are really for: to make it possible for certain kinds of stories to exist.

We don't know very much, strange to say about the biology of stories...
Propp and Hymes discovered ...that whatever the language they're told in, stories tend to have branching, fractal structures, very much like trees.

Those trees, the trees of meaning we call stories, grow in your brain and the rest of your body. And there seems to be a symbiotic relation between those trees of meaning and ourselves. What the stories get out of it is that they get to exist. What we get out of it is guidance. Stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we understand the world. They are probably our best maps and models of the world—and we may yet come to learn that the reason for this is that stories are some of the basic constituents of the world...

p. 173 Thirty years ago, in a lecture in honor of Korzybski ['map is not territory'], Gregory Bateson proposed an idea that startled and frightened his audience. The idea was simple enough. It as that the units of biological evolution and the units of mind are one and the same. This thesis owes something to Darwin, of course, and something to Lamark—an often vilified biologist for whom Bateson had a refreshing degree of respect.. and it owes something to Parmenides, the Presocratic poet who said, among other things το γαρ αυτο νοειν εοτιν τε και ειϖαι. This is a short, sweet, simple Greek sentence which no equally sweet and short and simple English sentence matches. It takes more than one English map, in other words, to portray this little parcel of Greek territory. Here are two approximate translations: (1) To be and to think are the same; (2) to be and to have meaning are the same. The implication of the Greek verb νοειν [noein] is that thought and meaning form a unity which ought not to be dissolved.

The English words noesis, knowledge, and narration all stem from the same root. Thought and meaning are connected not just to each other but to storytelling too. What Parmenides is saying extends to what he's doing. To be and to tell a story are the same. Or: To be is to be a story. Or: I am, therefore I think—and not the arrogant other way around.

Put the Greek philosopher-poet Parmenides and the English biologist Charles Darwin n the same room for a moment and you have the makings of Batson's thesis, positing the unity of biological evolution and mind. Put Parmenides and the Haida philosopher-poet Skaay together for a moment in the same [p. 174] canoe and you have the implicit beginnings of what I like to call ecological linguistics.

I have a hunch that fields of learning worth their salt grow up from their own subject matter. I don't imagine they can be generated by lightning bolts of theory hurled from above. But lightning storms are welcome now and then, if only for the glory of the show, and Bateson's thesis looks to me like an illuminating flash, giving an instantaneous glimpse of what ecological linguistics ought to be ...

[from Bateson's lecture]: If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks, or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relations to nature AND YOU HAVE AN ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic byproducts of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing.

The idea, as Bateson says, is a difference that makes a difference. A meaningful difference, in other words. A thought worth thinking is meaning. A tree of meaning is a story. A forest of such stories is a mind. So is a tree with birds in its branches. So is a human with ideas (plural) perching in its brain.

... p 175 Oral culture also means much more than telling stories. It means learning how to hear them, how to nourish them, and how to let them live. It means learning to let stories swim down into yourself, grow large there, and rise back up again. It does not—repeat, does not mean memorizing the lines so you can act the script you've written or recite the book you've read. Oral culture—and any culture at all—involves, as nature does, a lot of repetition. But rote memorization and oral culture are two very different things.

If you embody an oral culture, you are a working part of a place, a part of the soil in which stories live their lives. There will in that event be stories you know by heart—but when the stories come out of your mouth, as when the trees come out of the ground, no two performances will ever be the same. Each incarnation of a story is itself. What rests in the mythteller's heart are the seeds of the tree of meaning. All you can tape or transcribe is a kind of photograph or fossil of the leaves: the frozen forms of spoken words....

p. 176 ... You find the words by walking through the vision, which may be in the heart that is there inside your body, or it may be in the heart that is out there in the land. You learn the trail if you walk it many times, but every time you walk it, you reinvent the steps. There may, of course, be steep and narrow stretches where you memorize the moves—those places in the story often crystallize as songs—but they are subject, even then, to variation and erosion and other form s of change. And they connect you to yourself and to the world.

In an oral culture stories are given voice. They are also given the silence in which to breathe. Vary rarely in oral cultures do you meet people who talk all the time. in literate societies, I meet them rather often....

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christ the King

OK, folks, the feast is called Christ the King, not 'Jesus the King' for very good theological reasons.

Jesus was a person; Christ (en-Christing) is the process he taught; he wanted us to be as he is, with him, not seen as a remote 'been there, done that' figure who looks down on the rest of us, who did it so we don't have to. This latter view is a product of spiritual sloth, a refusal of the essential work of silence. The icon of the Transfiguration by Theophane the Greek, for example, shows a hierarchy as Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain (left vignette), and the disappearance of hierarchy as they come down (right vignette).

In one of the better translations of the usually obtuse NRSV, today's Epistle (Eph. 1:15-end) asks God to '... give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints ...' (itals. mine). The Gospel of John 14-17 is even more specific.

Jesus ascended for a very good reason: precisely to avoid the Jesus-idolatry that is so prevalent today. St Bernard of Clairvaux goes so far as to say that it's the most important doctrine in the Church.

The feast is about realised eschatology, apocatastasis realised in time, as well as the end of all things. Because that is the way it is even now, in the depths of each human heart, if only we will open to those depths, without needing to nail everything down, which removes all life and joy; which puts sound-proofing, as it were, in what is meant to be an echo chamber. Dear Clergy, you are meant to lead us into that echo chamber, disappear, and leave us there for the Holy Spirit to do her work.

To use hymns about 'Jesus' without the title 'Christ' today is a theological abberration: the name which is above every name is the en-Christed one.

Also an aberration is the contemporary church's tendency to regard congregations as idiots, to slice and dice, calling this the 'kingdom' season, for example, and (shudder) naming all the Sundays of Advent. These are classic examples of making linear and dead what should be left unsaid. The liturgy speaks for itself in all its multidimensional glory, and the congregations are generally better listeners than those who patronise them.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


The C word is suddenly upon us. Sunday is stir-up Sunday, and if the cakes aren't already soaking in their appointed liquor transfusions, this is about the last possible moment to make them.

For weeks it's been leaking sideways into our vision; the shops started early in hopes of mitigating the impact of a terrible economy. The passing of Remembrance Sunday seems to have opened the floodgates, just as Thanksgiving (next Thursday) does in the USA. The pace has quickened; the accoutrements of Yule are everywhere.

(I try to avoid the C word wherever possible, since it isn't any longer. Besides, Yule is such an ancient, warm and encompassing word for the midwinter feast, and it doesn't trivialize the secrets and the mystery of manger and star, which are quietly celebrated by the dwindling few in its midst.)

Yesterday I was in Thornton's, buying some dark chocolate covered gingers for my Devon friend; she hardly ever uses the internet so she won't know from this blog that she will receive them. The woman in front of me was buying three chocolate Advent calendars (perhaps better called pre-Yule-day calendars? postponed gratification calendars? advanced indigestion calendars?) and a whole slew of C. Pudding Truffles—look alikes, that is. A wise mother, get it done early.

That's also been my thinking. With La Niña burgeoning in the Pacific, and in spite of what looks to be the warmest November on record, I don't know if the UK weather will allow another trip to the muddy lanes of deepest, darkest Devon (my friend was snowed in for ten days last year); I've quietly been stocking up so that if I am stuck in Oxford there will be nothing remaining to purchase except the perishables. I loathe shopping at any time, but at Yuletide ....

The nights are drawing down .... we have but seven or so hours of daylight. Just a few days more than a month to the Solstice.


Barking at Angels

(Part One. This version from Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago

A few years ago the Bodleian Library published a Christmas card that showed the Annunciation to the Shepherds—or rather, to one shepherd, who is standing on a hillside shielding his eyes from the glory of the herald angel. Beside him, his cheeky dog is doing what good sheepdogs do: barking at the strange intruder. It is not hard to imagine the poor shepherd, in dread and awe of this staggering vision, trying to get the dog to shut up long enough to hear what the angelic messenger is saying.

I often wonder if all the fretful, frenetic activity in our lives isn't a human way of barking at angels, of driving away the signs that are everywhere around us; signs that are calling us to stop, to wake up to receive a new and larger perspective, to pay attention to what is most important in life, to behold the face of God in every ordinary moment. These signs press on us most insistently at the turning of the year, when earthly light drains from our lives and we are left wondering in the dark.

The church from ancient times recognised the spiritual value of this winter span of darkness and created in its liturgy what we might think of as a three-months-long Night Office, beginning with the Feast of All Saints on the first of November and ending with Candlemas on February second. This season is a vast parabola of prophecy and vision, a liturgical arcing of eternity through the world's midnight.

The readings—especially those from Isaiah and Revelation—do their best to subvert our perceptions of time and space in order to plunge us into the great stillness at the heart of things, the stillness necessary to make space for what is 'ever ancient and ever new' to break through the clamour of our minds, to open our hearts to the Beloved, to annunciation, and to fruition. Eternity is our dwelling place even in time if only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart to welcome. 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,' cry the seraphs, their voices shaking the foundations even as their ineffable wings fold us into the stillness of God (Isaiah 6:3).

Only in this stillness can we know that eyes are being open and ears unstopped; that the lame are leaping like deer and those once silenced singing for joy; that water is springing in the parched wilderness of our pain. Only as we are plunged into the depths of this obscure stillness can we know the wonderful and terrible openings of the seals and the book; the rain of the Just One; the heavens rent by angels ascending and descending; the opening of graves and gifts of hell and the side of Christ.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Eleventh Hour

Just back from a break in Devon with a dear friend who really knows how to celebrate in a deep way, with generosity of self in equal measure with books, good and simple food and drink in moderation, and walks. We began with a village bonfire on Guy Fawkes—a bonfire as big as a house! It was on top of a high hill and could be seen for miles, and was followed by fireworks. A great feeling of community, and a perfect night for such an event with a few stars poking through scraps of cloud hastening on their secret missions under a waxing moon.

We were in the part of Devon where the hills are giant green pillows cross-hatched with hedgerows and stone walls, where the coombes shelter fast-flowing streams and woodland. This time of year the hedges are being trimmed, and some of the lanes are bordered by clipped walls fifteen feet high. Mud everywhere, sometimes hubcap deep; mist; damp leaves under foot; the bracken on Exmoor wetly black, having been burned off earlier in the year; stubble fields; pheasant gaudy in the slanting light; end of the apple harvest, perfume of fermenting cider saturating the air.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

* * *

And today: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of—once in a century—the eleventh year.

I happened to be in town and ducked into a church for the two-minute silence. There were some oldies there, purposeful in their waiting. But the stillness was shattered by a cleric appearing at the lectern to announce with gentle officiousness, as if no one there could have had the slightest notion, that silence would be kept. When will these people learn to shut up???!!!

I left, and stood in the churchyard. Much better to be out in the hurly burly. It was deeply moving to see stillness take hold of the bustling shoppers, communicated without words, one by one, until everyone was motionless.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Now We Are Seventy

Portrait of an Old Woman by Quentin Massys (Matsys) 1466-1529

The Portrait of an Old Woman pictured above is also known as The Ugly Duchess, perhaps because Tenniel used this painting as a basis for his drawing of the Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. While it has been suggested that there is a connection with a real-life duchess of dubious character who lived in the 14th century, a more likely theory was proposed in 2008 suggesting that the painting depicts an actual woman who has Paget's disease.

Wikipedia describes this picture as '... a satirical portrait painted by the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys around 1513. It shows a grotesque old woman with wrinkled skin and withered breasts (partially visible from her low-cut dress). She wears the aristocratic horned headdress of her youth, by then out of fashion, and holds a red flower in her right hand, at the time a symbol of engagement, indicating that she is trying to attract a suitor. However, it has been described as a bud that will "likely never blossom"'. The entry quotes the In Praise of Folly of Erasmus (a noted misogynist) as a possible source, '...which satirises women who "still play the coquette", "cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors" and "do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts"'. Wikipedia's description is almost as misogynist as Erasmus'.

It is a shocking portrait, shocking in far more ways than we would like to admit. It is shocking that such fine painting should be used to depict so grotesque a subject. It is shocking in the reactions it evokes, from ribald laughter, to satire, to revulsion. People still make fun of this old woman, as they doubtless did in real life; they use her face for practical jokes. Doubtless, despite her apparent rank, she was subject to similar jokes when she was alive, some of them inevitably would have been extremely cruel. The person who views this painting is drawn into the cultural clichés of every age. If she had been a peasant instead of upper middle class, or an aristocrat, she might well have been taken for a witch.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, I have for decades looked at this picture casually and superficially with half-averted eyes, while doing my share of laughing—in fact, on a recent trip to the National Gallery to see the altarpieces exhibit, I bought a postcard as a kind of joke on myself to mark my three-score year and tenth anniversary.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the punch line. This portrait began to read me. And after several weeks of pondering, I now want to call into question the modern reading of this work that links it with Erasmus, along with many other contemporary interpretations of paintings and texts of this age. Even if the painter's intention was in fact satirical, he has ended by subverting his own work.

The key, for me, is in her expression, especially that which radiates from her eyes. There is nothing of the coquette in this face. There is, rather, a calm determination touched with humour; she is ready to turn her mordant wit on herself. She a woman who has endured much, who has no illusions, who is comfortable in her own skin. This is the portrait of a woman who knows she is ugly and has suffered for it—as most of us have suffered who do not have ironed blonde hair, Barbie-doll features and a stick-like physique. She knows what it is to be written off by those who judge a book by its cover. While she may have failed to achieve the status of a married woman, her youthful dress and the unopened flower speak of someone who even at an advanced age still greets every day as a new beginning. She has come to wisdom born of a calm acceptance. Her eyes are clear and actively focused; they look to some greater, wider, more distant horizon—but her gaze is a far cry from the thousand yard stare that appears in other contemporary portraits of women, such as that of Ginevra da Benci by Massys' contemporary and colleague, Leonardo da Vinci, with whom he exchanged drawings.

One of the most intriguing questions that surrounds Massys' Portrait of an Old Woman is why it was painted. Who commissioned it?

The laughter in the old woman's eyes suggests that she sees the whole portrait painting enterprise as an enormous joke; perhaps it was she who insisted on the dated clothing, mutton dressing as lamb, simply to add to the fun; perhaps it was a way of saying what an elderly, wizened and disabled friend of mine, said to me years ago. She herself had been the ugly sister among three great beauties of the day—all of whom, it should be noted, died in bitterness and envy. My friend said that in spite of appearances she was still a young girl inside, dancing until dawn. If this picture was meant to be satirical, then the sitter was lending her irony. Was it a joke that she initiated? Was she trying to make a statement about how the world looks at ugly people and old people? Was she refusing to be dismissed, set aside, overlooked, ignored, despised, discarded? Or was this a portrait commissioned by family or friends who knew her well enough to look below the surface, who recognised something extraordinary in her?

We will never know the answers to these questions.

It is possible to see in this Portrait of an Old Woman an echo of Akibiades' remark about Socrates, '... whose outer aspect was that of a Silen, but whose features concealed a profound inner beauty'. (Umberto Eco, On Ugliness, p. 28). Ugly people have their own choices to make, but it is impossible not to wonder if, for some people, ugliness isn't a shortcut to inner beauty. If they are wise, those whom society regards as ugly don't waste a lot of time trying to disguise the fact. They are spared the vanity and anxieties of the superficially beautiful, though they have vanities and anxieties of their own. They learn early in childhood of the prejudice and discrimination against them: they have the choice to be embittered, to hate and to destroy, to become the skeleton at their own feast; or to accept the reality and aim for a different kind of beauty, a beauty that opens before them precisely because they are ugly, and which, with a kind of third eye, they find they can detect in the hearts of others, whatever their appearance.

It is this old woman in her weird beauty, not Ginevra da Benci, to whom I look as a companion as I cross the invisible chronological line between the sixties and the seventies. Her extraordinary face reminds me of one of Gary Snyder's remarks: 'But what emerges from the shock of the wild and the weird may surprise us with its beauty: "Culture is an orchard apple; Nature is a crab," a farmer friend told John Muir ... To go back into the wild is to become sour, astringent, crabbed. Unfertilized, unpruned, tough, resilient, and every spring shockingly beautiful in bloom'. (The Practice of the Wild, p. 179).

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) Old Man and Grandson

[NB I will be away from any internet connection from November 5-10; next post will be around November 12]

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Chickens at St Paul's

'The skies are dark with the wings of chickens coming home to roost.'

Alan Bennett's bon mot was never more aptly applied than to the debacle at St Paul's Cathedral. It links up nicely with the skewing of another catch-phrase, 'Those who live like toffs inevitably will act like toffs'—and that is precisely what the knee-jerk reaction has been at St Paul's—with the notable and laudable exception of Giles Fraser, who is a very rare bird indeed—to a group of people willing to lay their lives on the line to call attention to the flaunted greed of the few who create utter misery for the vast majority, the legacy of capitalism run amok.

Poor Rowan Williams must be wincing, especially having just returned from Zimbabwe, where the church is flourishing in spite of the fact that it has had its buildings and resources confiscated by Mugabe's corrupt pseudo-bishop. What a depressing contrast the spectacle at St Paul's must be for him after experiencing the cries of joy of tens of thousands of impoverished and persecuted worshippers, which must still be ringing in his ear—the praises of people who have heard the gospel and know that it does not depend on status, power, and grand buildings.

On the other hand, why should anyone be surprised at the way St Paul's have acted? To paraphrase once again what Jesus says to his disciples in John 14: such hierarchical, self-regarding systems cannot behold, and therefore they cannot receive the spirit of truth.

How could clergy raised on a tradition of centuries of what I once called the seven devils of women's ordination*—which, of course, the women have absorbed from the men—that is, Power, Pretension, Presumption, Pomposity, Privilege, Preferment and Patronage—how could they be expected to know how to act otherwise? This is not to excuse them, but to point to the fact that the system is rotten to the core with these attitudes; they are inculcated during clergy training; indeed, there are those who become clergy precisely so they can exhibit these attitudes with what they mistakenly assume is impunity. Maybe they can get away with acting like this and even be rewarded for it among themselves, but they do not realise that they are the skeletons at their self-absorbed feast.

Far too many cathedrals and upmarket parishes are little more than concourses for the game of 'I spy the toff'. The denizens of certain churches (especially clerics) don't look at you when you introduce yourself. Even on the very rare occasion that they go through the motions of taking the initiative to speak to you, they merely pretend to engage, all the while looking over your shoulder, to see if there is someone they consider to be really important somewhere else in the room. Then they excuse themselves and sidle over to lionize him or her.

These are also the people who walk about, noses in the air, who wish to maintain their tidy order of persons and nonpersons by categorizing and dismissing the people who enter their buildings: 'Oh,' the cleric (or, often, the cleric's wife) might say, not really listening, '... you must be interested in spirituality. That's Mrs Bunfight's house on Wednesdays at 6 PM'—and ever after avoids you, if he or she catches sight of you, because you are now a nonentity and, worse, embarrassing because you seem to take the practice of Christianity seriously. Such people don't want to be seen talking with you: other people, people who count, might notice. You're not ordained so you're not worth listening or sharing ideas with (you're assumed to be too stupid to understand); you're not a famous face, publicly distinguished or, more important, rich; nor do you carry a title or a rank. It is hard to know if this atmosphere of fawning and social climbing and one-upping is hilarious or excruciating or simply not worth bothering with—probably all of the above.

St Paul's are an embarrassment to the gospels. I have nothing against cathedrals: they can be wonderful spaces for worship; they are living cultural treasures; they keep liturgy alive—I am aware of all the arguments. But aside from a beauty that gives the most determined philistine the opportunity to be taken out of him or her self in stupefaction, in beholding, most cathedrals come across as completely contrary to what the gospels are about; they are refuges for societies based on class and manners. There are exceptions here and there: one or two that make a gesture, even if they may be making that gesture for all the wrong reasons. St Mark's cathedral in Seattle, for example, along with several other large and wealthy parishes in the area, has for years provided space in their car park for the tent city of the homeless as a witness to the suffering of people who often are cast adrift through no fault of their own—not to mention those for whom support and care is not available because they live in a society indifferent to everything but power, money and the media. Such a witness, however, would surely be beneath the notice of snooty St Paul's—and besides, such a witness would be so very vulgarly American.

If St Paul's had chosen to support the protestors it might have finally, if only briefly, justified its existence; it could have set an example for courage and leadership to effect profound changes in society. What a tremendous opportunity has been irredeemably and irrevocably missed, botched, buried. The credibility of the C of E, already rock bottom, seems to have disappeared into the abyss. And after seeing Richard Chartres on television last night, it's completely unrealistic to hope that the C of E will understand that this situation is a catastrophic wake-up call—if not a death-knell.

On this, their feast, the Communion of Saints must be weeping.


* See this blog May 18, 2009. 'The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination or She Who Lie Down With Dogs Catch Fleas' was originally published as a chapter in Crossing the Boundary edited by Sue Waldrond-Skinner, London: Mowbrays, 1994, pp. 93-131.