The Road To Emmaus: Church And State

St. Paul's Cathedral, London

St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Linda and I recently returned from a trip to England where we enjoyed 10 days, far too few, of seeing sights and visiting famous places. Among the many incredible things we saw were Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our guide and traveling companion was a friend of mine named Kevin and while we were touring these amazing places with their breathtaking high ceilings and stained glass windows Kevin kept saying things like “A little different from Transfiguration eh?” I was too caught up in the moment to ask him what he meant by that but my sense was that after these places he saw Transfiguration (my home church) as small potatoes. This created a conflict within. While I was impressed with the architecture, the ages of these places, the weight and significance of their histories (not to mention the historic people entombed there) as a Christian something was niggling at the back of my mind.

I realized that as a Christian in the 21st century these churches of the 13th and 17th centuries bothered me. Westminster in particular with it’s screened alter and gated ‘Quire’ and commoners relegated to the outermost part of the building like beggars at a banquet. St. Paul’s was less so but still the alter is kept well out of the worship space proper and has a giant ornate canopy. Don’t get me wrong they are both strikingly beautiful, St. Paul’s in particular but they seemed to belong to a faith that is foreign to me.

I continued to think about this even after I got home and I realized in many ways they really are part of a foreign faith (no, not because they are in England). They are, or were, part of Christendom, when the faith was a the centre of politics and the lives of everyone revolved around the church. Also, people then thought about God and Christianity as a reflection of their culture. The world they were used to was rigidly stratified with a set class structure, gender roles and economic status. Everyone had a place in society that they were born into and there was little or no change in that throughout one’s life.Thus the faith reflected that stratification, and is expressed in the layout of the church. The priestly class had their area, the royalty and nobility had theirs, the ‘Quire’ had theirs and the rest of society had theirs. The idea of God as a remote, all-powerful, male being who dealt with sinners harshly was a direct product of that society.

Westminster Abbey, (behind the clock tower) as seen from the London Eye

Westminster Abbey, (behind the clock tower) as seen from the London Eye

The flip-side of this is that our community of Transfiguration and our expression of the Christian faith are also a reflection of the culture and times we live in. We live in a classless society, theoretically and even one born into humble circumstances can, again theoretically, become wealthy and powerful. Christianity in our age is no longer at the centre of politics and is only one among many faiths practiced by Canadians who profess any faith at all. Our community isn’t huge but is made up of people who have made a conscious decision to be part of it. Our worship space reflects the lack of stratification as well. We have a choir and not a Quire, the worship space is open, differentiations between the parts of the church still exist but they are largely symbolic. We even convert our worship space for dinners and special events such as the recent masquerade dinner. This too reflects our community and that we value our togetherness rather than separation.

This doesn’t mean that one is right and the other wrong. They both prove that the Christian faith is alive and is able to adapt to meet the needs of its people in what ever age they live in. So I can enjoy and be in awe of places like St. Paul’s I still seem them as places of beauty and high art. They are also an important part of our history, especially our Anglican history as St. Paul’s was built after the establishment of the Church of England. It is always good, though, to come home to Transfiguration.

cj

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