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Telling an old story in new language

21 April 2017

A visit to Iona alerts Paul Vallely to fresh ways to communicate faith



Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

JOHN BELL, of the Iona Community, always prided himself on talking of God “in the language of the living room”. The great hymn-writer and preacher was not on Iona in person this Easter, but the influence of the notion of telling the old story in new language is deeply rooted on an island which, as long ago as the sixth century, was a centre of innovation.

Not that it is restricted to the Iona Com­munity. We arrived on the remote Hebridean island for Holy Week late on Wednesday, and awoke on Maundy Thursday to a penetrating Thought for the Day from the Revd Lucy Winkett, a cleric blessed with the gift of fresh eyes. More than that, she has the application to use them to think through the gospel in language that con­nects with non-Christians in our secularised society.

The phrase “On the night before he died, Jesus. . .” trips easily from Christian tongues as a short preamble to the eucharist. But think, Ms Winkett suggested: all of us must live through a night before we die. For those of us who are aware of the imminence of death, it will be a time of acutely heightened experience. It will crystallise in our consciousness a realisation of what is most important in our lives.

What Jesus chose to do on the night before he died was to spend time with his friends. There was food and wine and music and heady discus­sion. Then, as Jesus realised that he could not sufficiently communicate his final message through words, he turned to action, washing feet and breaking bread. We have turned it into theology, but Jesus was instituting symbols of shocking potency.

On Good Friday morning, residents at the Iona Community presented Stations of the Cross, which began in Martyrs’ Bay, and progressed through the ruins of the 13th-century nunnery, via the parish church, up the hill to the rebuilt abbey. But, throughout that journey, the people at its centre were individuals who lived lives as complex and messy as our own today.

Particularly vibrant was a dramatic monologue from Barabbas, unreformed, unrepentant, and unapologetic, contemptuously misunderstanding what Christ had done for him and for many. Then came a piece of vivid reportage from the centurion at the crucifixion who was imagined to be the same Roman officer whose servant Jesus had healed two years before.

These were not sideline ciphers in a traditional morality play: they were flesh-and-blood individuals with ven­alities and vulnerabilities that we all can share.

At the Easter Day liturgy, the presiding min­ister, Rosie Magee, continued this powerful demotic. Her invitation to the altar table was conversational, but charged with a contemporary poetry. So, too, was her build-up to the words with which Jesus instituted our eucharist. She was open, inclusive, and utterly comprehensible to anyone who might have arrived a tourist and been drawn into something deeper.

Holy Week on Iona was an admonition against theological jargon. We in the Church all too often speak only to ourselves, it gently chided. There are other ways, Iona reminded us. The challenge is to take them out to the wider world.

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