Beyond suspicious minds: faith in the City
Arriving where Jesus’ body had lain, the disciple notices the grave-clothes rolled up in a corner of the tomb: ‘he saw and he believed’.
Such conviction does not come easily to the majority of Britons today, of whom many indeed are suspicious of what can seem blind faith. But could credulity prove an unexpected virtue in our societal context of general cynicism and disengagement?
On my way to church each morning I join a stream of young professionals leaving their gated Thames-side apartment blocks for Canary Wharf and the City. Amid the business suits and briefcases I stand out in cassock and clerical collar: I stand out also because, whereas my fellow pedestrians move in determined silence toward the Tube station, I during those fifteen minutes am waving good-morning to the parents and children making for the parish primary school, the men emptying the bins and sweeping the roads, and the pensioners standing at their front doors checking pockets for house-keys and the correct change for the paper.
It’s not uncommon that someone will look up from their iPad to stare in curious alarm as I come into view, but quickly the instincts of contemporary professionalism will kick in and they will avert their gaze, setting their features somewhat unconsciously into an expression of mild distaste and disapproval. These, although closest to me demographically, are the hardest of my parishioners to reach. Whereas once Rotherhithe Street was lined with goods warehouses and the infrastructure of the docklands, now there are warehouses of a different sort, whence emerge a human cargo, the raw material of the capital’s financial and IT industries.
It is for these people that I counsel a measure more naivety. The word need not be used pejoratively, but simply – as its origins suggest – as meaning native, natural and unaffected. One of the fruits of naivety is curiosity, but against it our culture dictates suspicion and hostility. Curiosity involves a certain vulnerable engagement with one’s surroundings, something anathema to prevailing trends toward hyper-individualism.
Here, I believe, the Church has her part to play, for she has within her gift a number of peculiarly efficacious tools for the work of modelling life in community. Locally to me the churches are unrivalled in bringing together people from across the social spectrum: each week in the pews I see sitting next to one another the second-generation Ghanaian-British teenager, the retired company director, the young mother and her children, and the London cabbie.
Together, over the past week we have with waving palm-branches processed with Christ into Jerusalem; watched with him in the garden at Gethsemane; sorrowed for him at the foot of the Cross, and rejoiced in his Resurrection. Imaginative participation in the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter (and, indeed, throughout the Church’s year) is one way in which the Church teaches and models community, whether through the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday or the congregation’s guilty cries of ‘Crucify him!’ in the corporate readings of the Passion. These moments of drama and ritual in turn achieve everyday application: an ecumenical outdoor Good Friday service led to tea and hot cross buns for all – those from the different congregations and those picked up on the way – in the local Catholic church. Pastoral visiting in Guy’s Hospital later that day, I was humbled by the extent to which the biblical narratives of the Crucifixion spoke to those suffering sickness or anxiety. On Holy Saturday, clergy and parishioners spent five hours in church cleaning and decorating in preparation for the Easter Vigil, during which time a stream of visitors, local and from further afield, were welcomed into St Mary’s and were wowed by the beauty of the building adorned for this great Solemnity. The liturgies of Easter Day (pleasingly, very well attended!) were for me then punctuated by times of fellowship and celebration in our pubs and in the homes of parishioners and colleagues.
An attitude of ‘naive’ reflection upon the themes and narratives of religion helps the flourishing of communities and individuals both. During his Easter Prayer Breakfast, Barack Obama spoke of religious faith providing ‘an eternal perspective for temporal challenges’. The Church provides the space to question and ponder the sorts of issues which today’s secularism dismisses as inexpedient speculations – questions about life and love and meaning. The resonance of such questions is near drowned out in the feverish cyber-chatter of contemporary existence, but these wonderings are in fact very true to our human nature. The mentality of hard secular atheism to my mind involves the falsification of that nature: credulity, in the sense of being sufficiently comfortable in an environment of myth, mystery and otherness (both the supernatural and the mundane) as not to reach for the reductionism panic-button, contributes to what Pope Benedict XVI has termed a human ‘ecology’, and thus to personal and corporate well-being.
Innate inclinations such as the religious instinct are not helpfully superseded by cold suspicion and arrogant solipsism. It is quite possible to encourage such inclinations – to a measure of credulity and naivety – at the same time preserving one’s critical faculties. Generously open-minded individuals make for warm and welcoming communities. Perhaps we might start by looking up on the walk to work, by smiling, and by waving back at that alarming young man in the black dress?
The Rev’d Richard Norman is assistant curate in the parish of St Mary with All Saints, Rotherhithe.