Monday, 30 November 2009

A History of Christianity

I've been fascinated by Diarmaid MacCulloch's majesterial TV series 'A History of Christianity'. It is very much his own 'take' on the historyof the faith and one that not all would agree with. Nevertheless, he has explored some areas that are usually overlooked in western Christianity, such as the expansion of the eastern church into China in the 7th century, long before Marco Polo and later Jesuit missionaries.

In the latest episode about the Reformation he made a very interesting point about the nature of protestantism being one which questions authority, and in that questioning are the seeds of protestantism's fracture into many different groups. It made me think about the way protestant Christians think about and debate contentious issues such as human sexuality. It is hardly surprising that, given protestantism's questioning character and background that there are many different views all claiming some authority - whether of the bible or modern reason.

Which is better - to be part of a monolithic church that stifles individual thought, or to be part of a church that is divided? It's not easy, but I suppose God has given us enough wisdom and the gift of his Holy Spirit to know when to agree and when to differ, and how to carry on together. I, for one, would rather live with a few grey areas than be in a church that tries to be so black-and-white that it becomes yet another protestant sect.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

1st World War heroes

Today I am remembering my grandmother's only brother, Horace Ingham MC, who was killed in 1918, in France. He was the only son of his father, and brother to four sisters. His father was a successful businessman in Manchester and I wonder how many hopes he had of Horace joining him in the business.

We have a tin box at home containing the original telegram from the War Office giving the news of Horace's death, and all the letters of condolence from friends and colleagues, many of whom had also lost sons and brothers. One can sense the real feelings of grief and despair behind the formal rather masculine words. We also have Horace's notebook from the trenches, with mud on it. Not very interesting reading in itself, but a personal link with such a terrible loss of life.

When my grandmother was ill in hospital in 1976 suffering from dementia she confused my father with her brother Horace. After nearly 50 years she still thought of her older brother and missed him. How many other women must have grieved for brothers, husbands and boyfriends for all those years.

Sadly there are many today going through the same painful bereavement. I hope that what our troops are doing in Afghanistan will not be in vain, and that their brave work will make the world safer for all of us.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Steve Reich in London

Last night I was at a concert in the Royal Festival Hall of music by the American composer Steve Reich. He's described by some as the most influential living composer. His music - at least the music of his that I know - replaces conventional melody with what I would call 'micro-melody', that's to say short melodic fragments that are part of a larger harmonic and rhythmic structure. His most famous work - Music for 18 Musicians - presents a kaleidescope of sound with its ever changing chords and patterns. Some call it boring (I had to go alone to this concert as no-one else from my household was keen)but I find it fascinating. When you see the musicians performing on stage you realise that although the music may sound automated, there is actually a large degree to which the musicians control the performance - for example by how long the clarinets can play a particular phrase before needing to breath. When they breath the pattern changes.

I could go on, but listen to a clip and I hope you'll see what I mean.

'For all the saints...'

Today we got to sing my favourite hymn: 'For all the saints, who from their labours rest' (Note to NOK: I'll have this at my funeral, please.)It captures the spirit of Hebrews 11 in which the writer rehearses a long list of godly people who kept the faith even at the expense of their own death. I am always humbled and moved by that passage and by the hymn as I consider how many faithful people have followed their Lord Jesus Christ all the way, from Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna who, when faced with the choice of recanting or death by burning, replied that he had faithfully served his Lord for 80 years and how could he desert him now. Or William Tyndale assassinated on the orders of Henry VIII because he wanted Englishmen to be able to read the bible in their own language, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Maximilian Kolbe killed by the Nazis, or Janani Luwum killed on Idi Amin's orders for defying that Uganda tyrant. The list goes on and on.

The hymn describes the fierce spiritual warfare God's people often face, but also sounds a note of hope of a better day.

But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array:
the King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia, alleluia!

This isn't a vain hope, but a strong hope in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the 'author and perfecter of our faith'. That's the hope that kept faithful persecuted Christians going in the past, and it's the same hope that keeps us and many persecuted Christians going today. Christians in Pakistan whose churches are burned down, or in Orissa in India set upon by militant Hindu mobs, or in Burma forced by state opposition to meet in seccret in the jungle, or in Egypt discriminated against by the state, or in North Korea imprisoned by a state that has tried to make the word 'God' illegal. I think of them when I sing

The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia, alleluia!