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06 September 2013


Let's get physical

MORE than 20 years ago, during my stint as head of religious broadcasting at the BBC, I was invited to lunch by a senior executive of the Gallup polling organisation. I know there is no such thing as a free lunch, but there are some that you do not pay for; so I accepted, wondering what on earth he wanted to talk about.

In fact, it was a recent attempt by his researchers to establish what Anglican bishops believed about the resurrection of Jesus, which was currently in the news. They had put the same question to every bishop, and wanted a "Yes" or "No" answer: "Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus?" To their astonishment, virtually every one of them refused to answer the question as posed. The problem was the word "physical".

I enjoyed pointing out to him that, in doing so, they were simply being faithful to the teaching of the New Testament. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God," St Paul wrote. Jesus was "put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit", St Peter said. "Physical", I told him, was precisely the wrong word. If the researchers had asked: "Do you believe in the real (actual, visible, historical - choose your own word) resurrection of Jesus?" they would have got some positive answers.

I recalled that lunch long ago when I was filling in the Church Times questionnaire last month, and confronted exactly the same dilemma. In response to "Jesus rose physically from the dead" I - an orthodox Christian with a high view of the scriptures - felt compelled to respond "Disagree".

Physically? Spiritually, surely; and infinitely superior, better, more glorious and real for that. Or have I completely misunderstood 1 Corinthians 15? 

Music and movement

NEXT month, on 6 and 13 October, the BBC will be broadcasting in its Songs of Praise slot the finals of a nationwide competition for gospel choirs. A friend of mine is in one of the choirs in those finals, and I was invited to watch their dress rehearsal. The members are, on the whole, middle-aged, middle-class, and white. So it was reasonable of their conductor to point out that this was for television, and that how they looked and moved was almost as important as how they sang.

Their reaction took me back about 26 years, to a television series presented by Libby Purves. She did the job splendidly, we all felt, but to my astonishment (I am a radio man at heart) the entire discussion at the programme review board the next week was about whether she should wear her glasses.

"Man looks on the outward appearance," the prophet Samuel said. Nothing changes.

Movers and shakers

MY FRIEND's choir - made up of 80 per cent ladies - soon got into the serious issues that this raised. They were wearing fetching black dresses, with attractive blue scarves. Should they throw the long end of the scarves over their left shoulder, or the right? Or wear them, stole-like, draped down the front? Back and forth the issue went, cogent arguments being offered for each of the positions. An hour later they finally reached agreement, but I cannot remember what it was.

Then they started on movements - arms, hips, heads, open hands, closed hands - and finally practised doing them together. In their ranks, there were not, to be honest, a lot of natural movers and shakers, and those who were, felt that they had to make up for those who were not. Visually, it all fell a bit short of the London Community Gospel Choir, but I have to say they sang beautifully. May substance triumph over style.

Hellfire in Tuscany

THIS summer's holiday was a hot one, centred on Pisa in Tuscany. Next to the Duomo, and near the Leaning Tower, we found the Campo Santo - a burial place, since the 13th century, for the great and good of Pisa, or at any rate the rich and influential. Its most striking feature is the giant medieval murals.

They represent in rich and fearsome detail the most powerful incentive to piety that the Church has ever possessed. They depict the residents of Pisa going about their everyday lives, while around them lurk the demons of hell, and over them soars a witch-like figure wielding a scythe. The cavernous gates of hell are open, and the fires well stoked. Woe betide the reckless, the feckless, and the indifferent.

I could not help contrasting this unambiguous, if crude approach with the namby-pamby "Back to Church Sunday" soon to be upon us. "Back" to church? Most of them were never there to start with.

I accept that the fires of hell are out of date, and probably inappropriate; nowadays, we would rather attract people to Christ with the promise of salvation than terrify them into his arms with the threat of hellfire. Nevertheless, perhaps a contemporary version of the Pisan shock-tactics (something urgent, colourful, and disturbing, making the point that faith is not simply a lifestyle choice) might be an interesting change from coffee, lemon-drizzle cake, and Graham Kendrick.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.


Tue 16 Aug @ 09:51
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