by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s
I saw a new member of staff at morning prayer in St Paul’s last week. He said that he’d felt drawn by the sense of something ancient and solid, something that he could connect with, and he was going to follow it up…
Cathedrals have that sense of solidity, of continuity with the past, which most ancient church buildings have, as they’ve been shaped and reshaped not only by the physical labour of many generations but also by ancient and modern belief and experience, art and music. Even new church buildings have an internal geography and practice that speaks of thousands of years of faith and our Christian story: font, altar, pulpit; scripture, song, prayer; liturgy, Eucharist; a home for a community that continues the story on. And even old churches, bar a very few, have within them evidence of the changing and current life of their communities: living churches and cathedrals change through time in order to be true to their identity as witnessing Christian communities. As the Sicilian author of The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, put it, ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’
Which is of course true for us as well. Each of us has to grapple with how our past beliefs and practices are going to interact with our present and its challenges. All of us face change, and wonder what we can (or should) preserve, and what we can let go of. Books, or electronic readers? Typewriters, or voice recognition software? Vinyl or Sonos? Local or internet shopping? We change as we go through life (even if we decide to be idiosyncratic by not changing at all). Punk rockers become pillars of the establishment; miniskirts become twin-sets; conservatives become revolutionaries and vice-versa. It’s not only our appearance and ideas that change: it’s what we believe about life too, about God and the world and our place in it, in sympathy with who we have been and in reaction to what we experience.
It’s a particular temptation for human beings to go back to the past when facing the stress of the present. But harking back to a golden age, of faith or politics or anything else, isn’t a Christian reaction. The past has always been ambiguous, containing as our age does both good and bad, including in matters of faith. The Scriptures are full of God, through the prophets and the ministry of Jesus, confronting the faithlessness and injustice of what was then the present day. Why would we expect the present now to be different from the present then? The mindset that the past is always better isn’t consistent with either experience or revelation: it’s as mistaken as thinking that the present is always better than the past. We should expect God to be revealing new truth today, truth consistent with the truth of the past; and we should expect God to be confronting our own present culture, identity and beliefs with the radical nature of the Christian gospel.
When Church of England clergy begin a new ministry, they use the words of the Declaration of Assent, affirming that they share the faith of the Church in Christ, uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures, set forth in the creeds and proclaimed afresh in each generation. The Declaration of Assent also asks them to ‘affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care.’
The revelation of God in the past, through scripture and the witness of God’s people, sets us on our way towards God, walking with Jesus through the changing present. It’s the inheritance which inspires us through the Holy Spirit to embrace how God is inspiring and guiding us into greater likeness to Christ. It should be the prophetic norm which enables us to confront where, throughout the ages, God’s people looked back to the past instead of encountering the living God in the present. Of course God calls the assumptions of our current culture into question: and God also calls into question the assumptions of Victorian evangelicalism, the Oxford movement, the Reformation churches and the Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultures of the early church, as Jesus shows us how to do. None of us has our culture right: all of us are under the judgement of God’s radical and demanding love.
The Christian faith isn’t a static edifice, but The Way; not a place to sit down in, but a pilgrimage to follow, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
One aspect of what’s drawn our new member of staff is a connection to the past, to his experience of church as a child. But this is way more than nostalgia: it’s about being drawn into that long story over the centuries through which Christ has been active, in which God is to be found, and a story which still continues. We can be a part of that story too – a story which, by being part of the telling, we make our own and help to shape in the present, to call us all into question and to bring the grace and truth of Christ to our present generation.