28 August 2019

Why priests should
talk more about God
and less about cricket

Enjoying the long stretch of gold sand on the beach at Agios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Part of the pleasure of a holiday like this is the opportunity to spend a few days by the beach, enjoying the uninterrupted sunshine – the temperatures here have been in the mid to high 30s each day – the clear blue skies, and the clean waters of the Ionian Sea, with the opportunity to go swimming each morning and each afternoon.

Holidays should be times to refresh and renew the mind, body and soul. Sunday’s visit to Meteora, with its rock-top monasteries, was certainly good for the soul. Daily swimming, long ewalks and Greek food, including fresh figs and new grapes for breakfast, are all good for the body. The mind is being refreshed and renewed with my daily reading on the beach.

I am trying to finish Rabbi David Aaron’s book, Inviting God In, which takes an inspiring look at the Jewish holidays and shows readers how each holy day empowers us to recognise God’s loving presence in our everyday lives.

The book is written for both practising Jews who want to reinvigorate their observance of the holidays and secular Jews searching for a meaningful way to reconnect with their Jewish roots. But Christians too will find his approach very helpful, including his tender description of Jeremiah’s Lamentations at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. I am finding it particularly interesting in the light of last Friday's visit to the synagogue in the old town of Corfu.

It is hard to come by English newspapers on sale in Agios Georgios, which is a small resort in south-west Corfu. I would find it easier, by all standards, to read any Italian newspaper than to try reading the Daily Mail. But I have managed to buy the London Times some mornings, and I am reading the online edition of the Guardian every day – there are good reasons to have good WiFi access on the beach.

I am also catching up on some back issues of the Economist and the New Statesman, which I have taken with me.

It may not be your cup of tea to read an analysis of the Saudi-backed Yemeni separatists who have seized control of Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, or how the figures for inflation, poverty and economic growth have been massaged by government statisticians in Rwanda. But this is the time and place to find these opportunities.
Fresh grapes at breakfast every morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The 16-22 August edition of the New Statesman a review by Archbishop Rowan Williams of Peter Gatrell’s book on migration in Europe since 1945; a feature by Deborah Levy on Barcelona and a book review by Jeffrey Wasserstrom look at the enduring relevance of George Orwell – this year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984; Peter Wilby pays a short tribute to Paul Barker, who edited New Society for 18 years, until it merged with New Statesman in 1988; and Richard J Evans asks what Eric Hobsbawm would have thought of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and rise of Boris Johnson.

Rowan Williams’s book reviews in New Statesman are among some of the finest theological writings today. But Lynn Barber makes a crunching theological argument at the end of ‘The Diary’:

‘A couple of weeks ago I went to a friend’s funeral in a beautiful country church. Everything was perfect – wicker coffin, familiar hymns, a brilliant eulogy by her elder son which exactly captured Jude’s mischievous wit. And then the vicar gave his sermon. He opted to talk at length about cricket. Apparently England had just won some major tournament, which he recounted in detail before urging us all to “Rejoice!” Jude’s passions were horses and dogs. I never once, in all the 50 years I knew her, never once heard her mention cricket. Obviously the vicar didn’t know Jude but surely he could have found something more appropriate to talk about. How about God?

‘But there seems to be a rule now that vicars are not allowed to talk about God. I hear vicars talking every day, because I listen to the Today programme, and invariably get trapped into hearing “Thought for the Day”. Vicars on that slot will talk about anything under the sun except God. They particularly like talking about sports fixtures or Strictly Come Dancing because they think it makes them seem like ordinary blokes. But they are not there to be ordinary blokes – they are there to be specialists and their speciality is meant to be God. We don’t expect weather presenters to talk about EastEnders, or sports presenters to talk about gardening, so why should vicars think they can talk about anything they fancy? Air time is precious. Stick to God.’

She could also recommend all of us to read Rowan Williams in the New Statesman.

Sun sparkling on the clear waters of the Ionian Sea at Agios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The theological nonsense
that is handed out as
fact to unwary tourists

A modern painting on a ceiling in the Monastery of Rousanou in Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Sometimes you find a guide who is so good that you not only come away deeply impressed, but you realise you have learned and that you have been taught.

As I left Meteora on Sunday afternoon to return to Corfu, I was pleased to have learned so much from the guide Nikki who took me around two of the monasteries, Varlaam and Roussanou.

She provided a detailed explanation of the monks and nuns who live in these monasteries, and give a concise and precise introduction to the differences between the Macedonian and Cretan schools of wall painting in the churches of the monasteries. Her command of theological language and concepts came alive as she explained the images of the Last Judgement on the Doom Walls and the differences between the Orthodox concept of the Dormition and the Western idea of the Assumption.

But sometimes, perhaps not often enough, I wonder what the average tourist thinks theologians and Christians actually teach and believe. To read some of the material handed out by tour operators, I wonder whether they ever ask someone knowledge to read over what is being handed out to people.

I have come across some real theological ‘howlers’ in the past week.

For example, one leaflet declares:

Basil for the Greek Orthodox is considered a religious plant, because according to our religion, Saint Helene found the body of Jesus Christ with the small of basil.

Finding the body of Jesus Christ, rather than the cross, must have been some feat. Undoubtedly, Saint Basil would not have been impressed.

Or how about this:

For us, the Orthodox, the centre of our religion is considered Constantinople, the city of Constantine, which belongs to Turkey today and which bears the name of Instanbul [sic]. Istanbul is a Greek word which means εις τιν πόλη, that means to the city of Constantine. Konstantinoupoli today for the Orthodox Church resembles Rome for Catholics. The differences between the Orthodox and Catholics are very important for the two churches. Every time we enter the church, we do the Orthodox cross. We put the 3 fingers together and cross ourselves from upwards, down, right to left, which goes against the Catholics who finish their cross right. We repeat this 3 times.

And you were wondering what the important differences were? Now you know.

As for the differences in ecclesiology between East and West, I came across this explanation:

Another difference is that we do not recognize the infallibility of the pope. We have a patriarch of the same position, but he lives in Konstantinoupoli (fanari).

Did you think the infallibility of the Pope was the dividing issue in the Great Schism in 1054?

And if you have tried to explain the differences created by the insertion of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and its implications for understanding of the Trinity and the Trinitarian procession, then you are likely to remain perplexed after reading this:

Number 3 is like a sacred symbol that we can find in many situations in our religion. It is also found at the bell tower outside the Greek Orthodox churches ... For the Orthodox, the Holy Spirit comes from Jesus Christ and not from God.

Even if this is a bad translation, it teaches that God the Father is God alone, the Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not part of the Holy Trinity, and what it tries to say about the procession of the Holy Spirit is precisely what the Orthodox Church does not teach, and not what the Western Church was trying to say in the filioque.

I may laugh. But if this is the theological nonsense handed out to tourists, how reliable and informative are the other details they are given on history, archaeology, architecture and the environment?

Did I tell you about the time, in another country, when I visited a synagogue with a tour guide who had a PhD in history … but admitted he could not read the inscriptions in Hebrew on the walls? He wondered what I meant when I asked had he tried to find out from a guide what they meant.