10 May 2008

Ministry in Context: Church, Faith and Culture

Michelangelo’s Pieta in Saint Peter’s Basilica a meeting point of the Church, Faith and Culture

Patrick Comerford

A good starting point for talking about the links between your Ministry, the Church and Faith and Culture is to ask the question: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness [or mercy], and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6: 8).

How society sees the church

A major crisis in recent years that has shaped the ways in which society sees and responds to the Church has been the recent crisis within the Roman Catholic Church arising from the cases of clerical child abuse.

The portrayals of the Church in the media are often sound cultural reflections of how people see the Church at a particular time.

These portrayals can be negative. Examples are provided by the news coverage of the recent cases of clerical sex abuse, when the Church is blamed for its own perceived inaction or for the actions of those in ministry.

They can be negative when it comes to reporting on the reaction of Christians to events such as the staging of Jerry Springer the Opera, and the Church is seen as being easily offended when its cherish beliefs are ridiculed, but when Christians are perceived to be inactive about issues of war and peace or social injustice. In other words, the church is often portrayed not so much as getting it wrong, but getting its priorities wrong.

They can be negative when we are seen as being obsessed with a morality that emphasise sexual mechanics and engineering at a cost of ignoring the causes and effects of sexual oppression, or not being equally concerned with socially demanding issues such as immigration, debt, poverty, bad housing.

They can be negative when the Church is portrayed in the media as a closed shop that is not prepared to open its school doors to all and demands that a child should be baptised or the parents are church-goers before offering a place in a Church-run school.

They can be negative when phone-in shows spend time discussing how a couple have been told they cannot have their wedding the way they want it, or that a family has been told they cannot have the songs they want at granddad’s funeral.

I’m not saying the Church, as such, is right or wrong in these situations. I am saying that these are typical of the situations that give rise to the Church being seen as distancing itself from its context and the surrounding culture, and that lead to negative portrayals in the media.

On the other hand, positive images can be sanitised and – in a hidden way – offer an equally dangerous portrayal of the Church.

How many of you enjoy Songs of Praise? I know some people see it as too sanitised and squeaky clean. At times, I have been moved by the beauty of the music or the buildings, and even more by the personal stories of people’s lives and faith. But it can be too sweet, and it never gives the impression that the worship of the Church is first of all, and in its fullest sense, worship that is focussed on Word, Sacrament and Service, not on some sweet version of an old Cliff Richard number.

Even more insidious is the portrayal of the clergy on popular soap operas. I am a keen fan of EastEnders. But I find the vicars on EastEnders or Emmerdale are invariably saccharine, too sweet and too distant from their context and from the surrounding culture. Nor would any of us want to hold up Dot Cotton’s use of Scripture as a model for Scripture being a lantern to our feet, let alone being hermeneutically sound.

On the other hand, the media and popular culture can portray the Church and Faith in ways that are often surprisingly constructive. Good examples are provided by the “Rite and Reason” column, commissioned and edited by Patsy McGarry in The Irish Times every Tuesday, and similar columns every Saturday in newspapers such as The Times and The Guardian. There are the great Would You Believe? series and similar television programmes on RTÉ. One of the best-selling books in popular bookshops in recent years was The Glenstal Book of Prayer.

Can you recall the coverage of John Paul II’s death and funeral?

There is a generally positive attitude towards the Church of Ireland in the Irish media. Both main newspapers gave coverage to the election of the new Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe this week, and the Irish newspapers have been far kinder and gentler towards the Church of Ireland than to our sister Church when it comes to court cases.

But consider some other representations of the Church in popular culture.

Is Father Ted positive, negative, constructive, realistic?

Does the Vicar of Dibley fairly portray models of ministry?

What do you think the coverage of the following indicate about what the media thinks of religion:

● The recent protests by Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist monks;
● The role of the Roman Catholic Church in schools and the crisis over school places for immigrants;
● The current crisis dividing the Anglican Communion;
● Islam after the bombings and attacks in recent years;
● The Danish cartoons and the response of Muslims;
● Pope Benedict’s comments on Islam;
● The comments on Islam and Hinduism by the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in a letter to The Irish Times last month.

Consider the portrayal of religion in general and the Church in particular in other areas of the media.


Think of the Reverend Lovejoy and how the clergy, churches and religious values are projected in The Simpsons. Who is most religious? Have you ever noticed how often Homer puts his questions to God? How often the family says grace before eating? How often there are references to, and images of, heaven and hell? How often the Simpson family and their neighbours go to Church?


When I was working for mission agencies, I often held up the movie The Mission as a good portrayal in popular culture of the clash between different models of missions. Or Amadeus as a movie to discuss ambition and service. Or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to discuss healing and miracles. We even used My Big Fat Greek Wedding to discuss conversion, and to discuss the way cultural identity and denominational affiliation can be confused. Do you have other examples of movies that manage to debate great religious, moral, ethical and faith-relevant issues?

Do you think The Passion of the Christ was good or bad for the Church and for Christian faith? What about the Lord of the Rings movies, or the Chronicles of Narnia? Other films worth considering include Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Alien or Se7en.

What movies have been good for you as openers when discussing your faith and your core values?


We should never forget that Bach say himself primarily as one of God’s workmen. How many people are deeply moved by Mozart’s Requiem or enjoy his Coronation Mass without knowing who or what was being crowned? They don’t need to debate the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and Orthodox understandings of the procession of the Holy Spirit to be lifted up Rachmaninov’s Vespers.

But then music was always closely interwoven with expressions of faith. Without the development of polyphony in the monastic tradition, I cannot imagine how the Western musical tradition would have developed.

And so too, even with contemporary music: In their book Get Up Off Your Knees … Preaching the U2 catalog, Raewynne J. Whiteley and Beth Maynard have looked at how many of our core Christian values are made relevant to many people who would not otherwise pay attention to them. I was surprised last year with the response to the U2Charist I took part in at Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in inner city Dublin.

In literature, value and meaning are conveyed in fiction such as JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle, Colin Thurbon’s Falling, Hilary Mantel’s A Change of Climate, or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

There are the clerical novels of Susan Howatch, Catherine Fox’s two novels, Angels and Men and The Benefits of Passion, or Margaret Craven’s I heard the owl call my name.

In poetry I think of TS Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, or even secular poets such as Yiannis Ritsos.

In architecture, profound thoughts that could never be conveyed through the limitations of vocabulary and grammar are expressed in the triumphal statements that are Chartres Cathedral and Notre Dame in France, Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Saint Peter’s Basilica in London and Rome, challenged by Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or transcended in the frescoes and interior domes of simple white washed, blue domed churches in the Aegean.

What role do you think popular culture has played in conveying values – good or bad – to certain sectors of society in, for example, Northern Ireland?

The secular world and culture

In our ministry and mission, we need to be aware of how values are conveyed in modern culture; how the church responds to this way of imparting values; and these two points can impinge on, change and re-direct the life of the church.

Understanding post-modernism is central to understanding the search for meaning and values and the new questions that search raises about the place of faith in culture. Without the one overarching narrative of the Gospel to inform and guide society today, there are many ways in which values are conveyed and expressed in society today. Can we find meaningful ways of conveying core values today?

The role of religion in conflict, including the perceived rise in Islamic militancy, the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, and the continuing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, the place of religion in the Middle East conflicts, such as Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians, the clashes between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent, and the clash between Christians and Muslims in the Balkans or in Cyprus makes many people ask whether religion is a negative influence in the world’s conflicts and in the clashes of cultures.

The Double Arch of McDonald’s and the logos of Adidas and Nike are more widely recognised as brand marks or logos globally than the Cross is. Mass culture often deals more competently than we do in the Church with some of the major issues facing the Church as we engage with the world, society and culture.

This is not so shocking really. Values, religious and moral, have long been conveyed in culture through literature, poetry, movies and the arts. More people probably know the incarnation story through the words written as the libretto for Handel’s Messiah than though the Gospel narratives. Michelangelo’s Pieta is often a more moving account of the Passion for who people who see it that any sermon than may hear in Saint Peter’s. Our images of Jewish Patriarchs and Prophets are more likely to have been shaped by the Jews of Amsterdam who sat for Rembrandt than by any physical descriptions of them in the Old Testament. For many, their image of Christ may come from Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World or Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion.

Many people in their search for beauty, through their love of art, or in their journey towards meaning and truth, will come to our churches. Will you be equipped and resourced for that in our ministry after your time here?

Some Reading:

The Hard Gospel: Scoping study report to the Sectarianism Education Committee.
A. Falconer (ed.), Reconciling Memories (Dublin: Columba, 1988; new ed. 1998).
V. Griffin, Enough Religion to make us hate (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
B. McLaren: The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
I. Maher, Faith and Film (Nottingham: Grove Books, 2002).
E. Storey, Traditional Roots (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
S.R. White (ed.), A Time to Build (Dublin: APCK, 1999).
R.J. Whiteley and B. Maynard, Get Up Off Your Knees … Preaching the U2 catalog (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2003).
R. Williams, Writing in the Dust: reflections on 11th September and its aftermath (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2002).
A. Wright, Why Bother with Theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar with the Year I students on the NSM (Non-Stipendiary Ministry) course on Saturday 10 May 2008.

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