AT THE end of our Easter Day eucharist, I was chatting with another retired cleric about some of the potentially confusing lines in the hymns we had just sung. I was particularly bothered by “Now above the sky he’s King”.
That morning, the church was full of families, children, and young people. What did these inhabitants of a world of cosmic probes, flights to Mars, and constantly discovered new evidence of our astonishing and possibly infinite universe, make of it all?
They know that they do not live in a three-decker universe. Did they (as I feared) simply sing the hymns because the tunes are quite good, and secretly file away the whole idea of heaven and the resurrection of the dead in a mental cupboard labelled “Old-fashioned nonsense”?
Needed for the afterlife
I WAS reminded of the hilarious incident recorded by Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope (SPCK 2007), of a widow who secretly placed in her husband’s coffin two cans of the adhesive he used to affix his toupee.
The consequence was an explosion at his cremation which bent the furnace doors. Wright’s comment is pertinent: “What sort of belief, if any, does all this reflect?” I fear that, to some extent, it reflects a consequence of our failure to explain that resurrection, in Christian terms, is a spiritual rather than a physical event. Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3.18).
Our hymns and liturgy present poetry and vision as cherished aids to devotion, but the modern mindset is not very good at poetic vision and metaphor. We are a stubbornly literal generation. If our glorious Easter hymns create this problem, just wait for the Ascension!
The Church Times has done its bit with the recent series of articles on theology. Now those at the sharp end must distil this scholarly information in ways that speak convincingly to ordinary 21st-century people.
Otherwise, it is years more of what I call “up there” tributes at memorial services, and goodbye to the “sure and certain hope”.
Hats, trousers, kilts
GETTING on for 75 years ago, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement: “Questions are frequently asked in these days concerning the old customary rule that women should not enter a church building with their heads uncovered. The Scriptural authority behind this rule is St. Paul’s regulation, but this required that they should be veiled. That has long ago fallen out of use, and, after consultation with the Bishops generally, we wish it to be known that no woman or girl should hesitate to enter a church uncovered, nor should any objection to their doing so be raised.”
My grandmother declined to indulge in such frivolity, and wore a hat in church to her dying day. My mother, on the other hand, who was very proud of her auburn hair, abandoned her staid Sunday bonnet, and from then on displayed her glossy locks in church, weddings and funerals excepted.
Today — I checked last week — it would be a surprise if you saw more than a couple of hats on female heads in church, except for those maintaining the tradition of their homelands.
The other thing I checked was the number of women in church wearing trousers. I can confidently say that they were in a large majority. Yet Deuteronomy strictly forbids women to wear “men’s apparel”, a practice that is “abhorrent to the Lord” (22.5). The same applies to men’s wearing women’s clothes, but I could not find a single kilt.
It seems, then, that we have all decided — liberals and conservatives — that some clear commands that are undoubtedly “biblical” (”in the Bible”) are no longer obligatory for present-day Christians. One could add other less frivolous examples: stoning for those who gather sticks on the sabbath, or a mandatory death penalty for adulterers.
I constantly hear the word “biblical” used as a defining adjective, but clearly there is work to do in establishing what it actually means.
Looking like him
THE death of that brilliant comedian Ronnie Corbett will, I imagine, bring to an end one completely unintended influence he had on my own life. For 40 years, I have endured people constantly telling me “You look like Ronnie Corbett.”
Personally I’ve never seen it, but as, over the years, probably hundreds of people have said it, there must be a likeness somewhere. We were more or less the same age, we are both short (although I am three inches taller than he was, as I discovered when I met him). We both wear glasses, and people say there is some trick of the mouth that confirms the resemblance.
Be that as it may, the perceived similarity once gave rise to a strange encounter. My wife and I were at holy communion in the parish church of Lampeter, in Carmarthenshire. During the first hymn, I noticed that the woman on my left kept looking at me, which was unsettling. Seizing the opportunity of the Peace, she shook my hand and said: “You’re Ronnie Corbett, aren’t you?” I smiled and denied it, and we moved on to the offertory hymn.
When I returned to my seat, having received communion, my prayer was interrupted by a sharp tug on the sleeve. “Oh yes you are!” she said, and, in the interests of peace and propriety I said nothing.
Probably the next morning she was in the Co-op telling everyone that she had sat next to Ronnie Corbett in church the day before. I think he would have liked the story, and might have suggested that there were fork ’andles on the altar.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.