Beauty and Belief

by Jim Cotter

from Signs of the Times, No. 20 - Jan 2006

In the newsletter for October 2005 Merryn Hellier made this comment on the MCU conference at St Deiniol's in September: 'It seemed extraordinary that... the MCU still chose to use standard forms and theologies in the only worship of the conference.' She also notes the questionable practice of affirming every reading from the Scriptures as 'This is the Word of the Lord,' and alludes to the many texts of violation and to the grip of 'proof-texting millennialism' in the USA.

I am intrigued by that first sentence and I applaud the second. I am not aware of any serious public discussion, at least at the level of national or local liturgical commissions, in any of the churches, of the well-nigh universal practice in public worship of reading 'neat' passages from the Bible. Sometimes there is a one or two sentence introduction to place the reading in context, but that is about all. The book itself is either read from on high or is processed held aloft. Congregations are under the Book but not thereby automatically engaged with it. What kind of God is being exalted by these spatial customs? And what is being said about our understanding of Scripture?

A personal interlude, partly because editor Jonathan has seized on my being booked for the North-West regional gathering in early February, and thought that something from me for the newsletter might persuade lots of people to book. That of course remains to be seen. So this contribution is a combination of trailer and sales pitch. Anyway, here is one version of a CV:

Imbibed Bible stories as a child, soon realizing that they were in a different league from The Beano, and not usually to be greeted either with humour or questions. Learned a bit of theology as a teenage hymn-singing Methodist of the Wesleyan though still teetotal variety. (It was the 1950s.) Began to hear whisperings that 'context' might be important in understanding particular passages. Became Anglican at university, probably out of a love of Cranmerian prose as well as a certain snob appeal about the C of E. How times have changed. Mind trained by university theology, self supposedly formed by ministerial training, sustained soul-deep by the likes of John Robinson and Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Harry Williams. Part of ecclesiastical system for eighteen years, gradually realizing that I was more nomad than settler, more at home on the edge than at the centre, and not 'straight' in either of the commonest meanings of the word. For the last twenty years ministering as in introductory blurb above. Continuing to explore the two questions at the end of the second paragraph above. Not quite sure if I'm 'modern' or 'post-modern', and the nearest I can get to 'churchpeople' and 'union' is 'content to be a cell in an organism; grumbly about the institution, while trying not to project my shadow on to it; not sure that claiming my baptism right as a Christian is any different from claiming my birthright as a human being; in solidarity with everyone and everything because I believe that to be true and so I can't opt out into individualism.

For six years at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties I kept the question, What kind of God do I really believe in?, at the back of my mind while I worked on a new unfolding of the Psalms. I suspect it was 'modern churchpeople' that were among those who put square brackets round some of the verses of some psalms, indicating that they were not suitable for Christian worship. I notice that it was the angry bits that went rather than the equally problematic self-righteous bits. As a way of being honest about my feelings I have no problem with either, though I do want to take the psalm further in pondering how to take the energy of anger and use it in the pursuit of justice and I do want to explore that tension between 'chosen for privilege, and feeling superior' and 'chosen for service, and not relying on titles'. Above all, I want to ask, Has anger any part in my understanding of the character of God? What of all the passages in both testaments that portray a violent and destructive God? What of the assumption of more than nineteen hundred years that only a small minority of the human race were likely to get to heaven? Slowly the conviction grew that God never lets go of anything that matters, that power is to be thought of in terms of love not of force, and that love endures and triumphs through and beyond the worst of evil, pain, and death.

By the time I began this work on the Psalms I had recited the Coverdale translation, and the Grail translation, many times, but, realistically, prayer and belief came together only in about a fifth of the hundred and fifty. The beauty of the language, the rhythm and the music, whether of plain or anglican chant, kept me going at one level, and I half went along with the monastic argument that the words occupy only the surface of the mind, while the real praying goes on at a deeper level. After all, to repeat words is gradually to form one's spiritual mind, and not all of these particular words seemed to me to help form the mind of Christ in me. Yes, I wanted to soar beyond the words at times, or delve deeper than the words into a marvellous silence, but I wanted the words to express what I believed rather than being in conflict.

As I write, Radio 3 is about to embark on ten days of continuous Bach. It's made me ask which of his compositions nourish me. Well, the cello sonatas get me away from words altogether. The Mass in B minor still gets to me, the combination of music and those ancient words that I can hold in my heart as poetry and as an act of solidarity with my ancestors of faith, though if I think about them too much, I find I'm wanting to rewrite this and that. And I respond to only a few items from either the Cantatas or the Passions. Here my basic questions get in the way. I agree with John Butt in The Guardian that the 'almost pornographically penitential nature of (the Cantatas') texts has often worked as a disincentive against their revival.' And the Passion stories in the Gospels, with their mixture of lament and propaganda, militate against the words working truthfully as well as seamlessly with the music. A sub question to the one about God is, What kind of God did the Jesus of history embody?

That will have to serve for now: questions that may or may not be yours, that may or may not encourage you to sign up for February, and that may or may not make you think that you have just read a sales pitch. Ah yes, I haven't said that those psalm unfoldings have been revised and, together with canticles and prayers are being published as a daily prayer book with the title Out of the Silence...Into the Silence. It's due out by the end of January, and you could be one of the first to see it and maybe even try it out. The structure may be as formal as that of the worship at the September conference, but the content tries to nudge modern churchpeople forward - though I haven't a clue whether or not it will help to unite them...

Jim Cotter is an ordained but free range Anglican, writer and publisher (as Cairns Publications), and roving speaker, exploring into God, and trying to bring the sexual and the spiritual together. He is a founder member of LGCM.