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.


Blogger Bo said...

Quite so. To think Chartres might be the next ABC. There is an excellent word for what I think he is, but I shall not deploy it here.

Three years in a Cambridge college, and exposure to a particularly rancid, self-regarding High Tory kind of Anglicanism, cured this cradle Catholic-turned-Buddhist of any romantic notions about the Church of England.

8:54 am, November 01, 2011  

Post a Comment

<< Home