No magic

Apr 10th, 2012 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

Growing up in post-war Britain, there was a belief in progress, that, year upon year, things would get better. In the long perspective, in secular life, things have improved immensely; in church life, the institution continues its downward spiral, no vision, no excitement, no magic.

Magical tales were common in childhood years; eight miles from Glastonbury, it was hard to avoid them. Glastonbury was the centre of the world when I was a child; the stories with which we grew up made it the most important place in Britain. It was a place that resonated with hope of a different and a better world.

The Arthurian stories promised heroes who would again ride forth and right all wrongs. Layamon’s Brut from c.1200, concludes with the death of Arthur and his being carried to Avalon – the isle of Avalon for anyone from Somerset could only be in one place, Glastonbury.

“And Arthur himself wounded with a broad slaughter-spear; fifteen dreadful wounds he had; in the least one might thrust two gloves! Then was there no more remained in the fight, of two hundred thousand men that there lay hewed in pieces, except Arthur the king alone, and two of his knights.

Arthur was wounded wondrously much. There came to him a lad, who was of his kindred; he was Cador’s son, the Earl of Cornwall; Constantine the lad hight, he was dear to the king. Arthur looked on him, where he lay on the ground, and said these words, with sorrowful heart: “Constantine, thou art welcome; thou wert Cador’s son. I give thee here my kingdom, and defend thou my Britons ever in thy life, and maintain them all the laws that have stood in my days, and all the good laws that in Uther’s days stood. And I will fare to Avalun, to the fairest of all maidens, to Argante the queen, an elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound; make me all whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom, and dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.

Even with the words there approached from the sea that was a short boat, floating with the waves; and two women therein, wondrously formed; and they took Arthur anon, and bare him quickly, and laid him softly down, and forth they gan depart.

Then was it accomplished that Merlin whilom said, that mickle care should be of Arthur’s departure. The Britons believe yet that he is alive, and dwelleth in Avalun with the fairest of all elves; and the Britons ever yet expect when Arthur shall return”.

Legendary history still has the power to fire the imagination; most Christian history lacks any sense of the heroic. The man from Nazareth has been so domesticated, so shaped by church councils, so obscured by ecclesiastical squabble and politics that the promises he made are taken by most people with no more seriousness than the tales of Arthur.

Listening to further tales of internecine conflict in a parish, it is hard to imagine that the Church of Ireland might ever have the power to fire the imagination.

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  1. Ian, your final comment is an indication of the syndrome which is evident in many parishes. Sometimes it surfaces and a lot of the time it is simmering just below. Is the Church of Ireland prepared to look at itself head on and, more importantly, is it prepared to listen to things it may not want to hear? I’m not sure it is.

  2. I’m certain that the CoI is, on the whole, not prepared to ask awkward questions of itself. It’s not so bad in places where there has been and is a steady drip of new arrivals to fertilize (as it were) the existing ethos, but in rural places there is, I venture to suggest, no hope until death provokes renewal. Abp Michael Ramsey, I think, said that maybe the church needs to die before it can be renewed. Looking at the photos of the installation of the grew Dean of St Patrick’s Dublin (on Facebook) it is clear that we might not have long to wait. If ever there were needed an image of a staid gerontocracy, this would be hard to beat. Coming back to Ireland from England, I had forgotten just how unpleasant members of the CoI can be to each other.

  3. We had an extraordinary moment up in Seir Kieran a couple of weeks ago. Our community there is tiny, nine families, but has a strength and a confidence to be open. We hosted one of the evenings of the parish mission being held by our Catholic neighbours, the church was full and Fr John Hanna of the Redemptorists spoke on prayer – his words are still fresh in the minds of many of those present.

    I think the possibility of the ‘magical’ is so often blocked by an insecurity manifested in an obsession with the machinery of the church rather than with the purpose of the church.

    (By the way, I was part of the gerontocracy at St Patrick’s!)

  4. I know you were. Don’t spoil my fun.

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