Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Beauty will Save the World

The title of this post is a quotation from the great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and it expresses an idea that challenges so much of what our modern western society holds dear.
Normally we’re encouraged to think that ambition or love, wealth or strength, self-belief or achieving your dreams will be the ultimate saving quality that we need to make everything right. Dostoevsky didn’t see it like that at all. Rather, the ability to appreciate beauty can not only bestow upon us moments of supreme joy and peace, not only open up a world of delights to entrance both eye and ear, but it does something much more important.
In some way or other, a thing of beauty -whether it be a painting, a piece of jewellery or a sculpture, a passage of Beethoven or a folk ballad, a glorious vista across mountains or the sight of a kingfisher on a riverbank – all these have not only aesthetic charm but also a certain moral quality that enlightens every generation. St.Paul in his epistle to the Philippians urges us to consider whatever things are true, noble, just, pure and lovely, and to ‘think on these things’ (Phil 4:8). One can reasonably ask ‘why’?
To what purpose should we dwell on such things? There is little enough time in our hectic lives as it is; surely the spare time we have should be put to some better purpose than simply staring at pretty views/pictures/works of art or listening to uplifting music. How about engaging in all the good works that need doing – volunteering with some local charity or helping an elderly neighbour with their shopping or gardening?
Clearly the apostle is not suggesting the one thing to the exclusion of the other. But good works will spring from hearts and minds that are directed aright and Paul wants us to understand that such thinking or meditating on the true, noble, just, pure and lovely is transformative for us – in other words, to reflect on such things in this way will work a change in us. Perhaps equip us or fit us better to do those other things.
Whatever is able to change us or make us better people can be part of the world’s salvation. We can be changed and inspired just as much by our encounters with beauty as by a political speech, a philosophical system, a mathematical equation, or a scientific discovery and indeed perhaps more so in that the latter are not accessible to us all but beauty can be sensed and experienced by every human.
Would that our schools today could inculcate a sense of the value and power of beauty in our young people, confronted as they are on all sides by a world that is too often vulgar, utilitarian, disposable, ugly and brutalising.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Ivor Gurney/Anthony Rolfe Johnson

Every now and then the world throws a serendipitous combination of talents, personalities or events that leave us with something very special to inspire us and be treasured. Since I came across this beautiful song by Ivor Gurney the other day it has completely filled my mind and my inner ear to the point of distraction. I cannot escape its achingly lovely and poignant melody and the way it so perfectly expresses W.B.Yeats's words.

But almost more wonderful still is the stupendously sensitive and sublime singing of Anthony Rolfe Johnson. What a voice! What breath control! It takes a good man to be able to sing like this, not only a master of his craft but truly good of heart. A simple son of the soil, and a farmer before he was a professional singer, it should not surprise us that he can 'get inside' Gurney whose love of the natural world was so profound.

Although his sad loss to the musical world last year has robbed us of a voice that I believe is the finest England produced in the last 40 years, we have recordings like this to remind of his musicianship and his deep humanity. God keep you, Tony.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Church - relevant or approachable?

So the Church of England in its wisdom has decided that baptism services are too long and use language that is outmoded and complex, essentially that it is time for a change.

Once more the focus of the church authorities (I do not accuse the clergy and laity at the parish coal face) is not on the renewal of its life, not on the preaching of the gospel, not on the regular and faithful celebration of its sacramental life but on how relevant it is to the outside world.

A glance around should give it the answer. It has become worryingly irrelevant. The 21st century world of Pop Idol, Strictly Come Dancing, Facebook, Twitter, X Factor, and all the other expressions of popular 'culture' has no place for the enduring truths offered by the church. People are so swept up in the daily round of work (if they're lucky enough to have some) and truly trivial entertainments that they do not hear the voice of God calling them to His peace and love.

Does it matter? Most certainly it does! The God-given task of the Body of Christ is to bring good news to 'people who walk in darkness'. God forgive any Church that thinks it can pass by on the other side and not seek to bind up the wounds that our modern way of life is inflicting on people all around it in our communities.

The question is how it can be done. I believe that part of the problem lies in the Church of England's misreading of the yearnings that exist in the hearts of many. Do they cry out for a church that is relevant and modern? Do they long for services that are more like cabaret acts or nightclub experiences? Is their search for spiritual meaning and purpose a sign that the church's teachings are somehow being masked by its life and not presented aright?

Surely it goes much deeper than this. Secular society as found expressed and lived by millions in modern Britain is so soulless and unfulfilling, so vacuous and ephemeral, that what people long to discover is a way of being connected to that which is eternal, that which lasts and provides true stability amidst the shifting sands of daily existence; in other words, that which speaks of God.

The desire to make the baptism service yet more relevant, easily digested and 'accessible'(dreadful word)is born of a desperation that does a terrible disservice to the truth and hope to be found in the gospel. Relevant to what, one might well ask? Relevant to that lifeless world from which they are seeking some release? How counter-cultural can the Church of England be if it is always seeking to mimic the language of that world in its own liturgical and sacramental life in a tragic attempt to seem relevant?

Approachable and welcoming the church must always be. But surely it must also be a place that gives food for thought, that challenges and disturbs, not somewhere that feels like a trip to movies or your local pub.

Changing the words of the baptismal liturgy or shortener will do precisely nothing for the church's relevance. The sad need to be relevant is what brings howls of derision from those outside its walls. What they wish for is a church that stands up for what it believes in and is not 'blown hither and thither by every wind of change'.

Let it proclaim the eternal truths eternally.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Glory be to God for Dappled Things

These words came to mind as I captured this picture the other week. Thought the complexity and richness of the colours said something about the notion of the created order as a glorious blend and mix.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Ordinariate.........thoughts.

So on Sat 15th January the world stood still and held its breath as the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham was established with the ordination to the Catholic priesthood of 3 former Church of England bishops. Bishops Newton, Burnham and Broadhurst became Frs Newton, Burnham and Broadhurst.

I have friends for whom this moment is hugely significant and the fulfilling of a long-desired dream - those for whom the constant struggle to remain faithful Anglicans within a communion that sometimes appears bent on self-destruction has been draining emotionally and dis-spiriting in every sense.

For them the founding of the OOLW is a legitimate way to leave the dear old CofE with a clear conscience. The issue of women bishops, and the Church's apparent unwillingness to make any statutory provision for them in the future, has pushed them beyond the boundary and what the Ordinariate offers is a way to go on being 'church'.

But what kind of Church? What is the purpose or benefit of belonging to this semi-detached way of being Roman Catholic? There are some who insist that it allows them to preserve their present worshipping life, yet this has been a form of Catholicism vehemently derided and demeaned by the Roman Church for decades as an eccentric English imitation - Anglo-Catholics were merely playing with forms but lacking the substance of the faith. Has this all changed? Do the heirarchy in Rome now believe that what these priests and the congregations that follow them into the ordinariate are doing is truly and fully of the faith?

And what can it be in their former Anglican life that these parishes are so desperate to cling to, having pleaded for so long that their lot was to be a persecuted and rejected minority?

Surely, the greatest point of departure theologically for them from the Church of England came back in the early 1990s with the ordination of women to the priesthood - bishops were bound to follow. Or is it really the loss of their semi-detached status within the Church of England? It could look like a move from one semi to another.

Don't misunderstand, I bear them absolutely no malice and wish them well in their spiritual journey, one and all, but...........please could they explain to me why they don't simply all become Roman Catholics en masse. What does having an Ordinariate (whatever that is!) do for the kingdom of God, how does it add to the life of the universal church, apart from one more sect?

The English Catholic heirarchy have made a great effort to be welcoming, accommodating and flexible. I only hope that cradle Catholics up and down the land will feel equally generous towards their new half-brothers and sisters in the faith. If that is what they are..........