On the one hand, the ‘Church urgently needs a grown-up debate about theology’, and on the other, ‘the afterlife is vital to the affirmation of a God of love’. Are these contradictory?
Is it reasonable to claim to be a Christian without believing in an afterlife? As it happens, I think it is, but for me, today, it doesn’t seem that important. Eternal life is not about life after death, in preparation for which we take out an insurance policy of pious beliefs and actions. Eternal life, ex-temporal, out of time, ex-stasis, in the timeless present—a quality of life, here and now, that we glimpse in the here and now as a result of ego-erasure. This is what death on the cross is partly about as limited self dies and unlimited cosmic reality rises.
Where does this leave what people call the afterlife? I don’t know. I rather think that when the time comes I shall look into the face of the Divine and see myself. I shall not be able to bear the sight, a bit like Gerontius. But I shall take what comes as a result of trying to live life. After all, sin is life unlived.
A great deal of doctrine and dogma that we’ve inherited was drawn up by people in a particular culture with a particular world-view in an attempt to express the inexpressible. SInce then, words and ideas have been translated and pummelled to the limits of elasticity—maybe beyond. Some of this doctrine and dogma has passed its sell-by date. But it doesn’t matter: it can be honoured for what it is—poetic imagery, much of very great beauty. I will not try to pin it down to twenty-first century interpretations in an ‘anxious desire for relevance’. To describe God is to limit God.
Which brings me on to two other issues from today’s Church Times. Angela Tilby says what I’ve felt for ages: the traditional Lord’s Prayer is easier to say and remember than the modern versions, largely because new versions were drawn up by people without appreciation of musical patterns of speech.
And lastly, vestments. There are moves afoot to do away with rules about what clergy are required to wear. Already bishops turn a blind* eye to widespread flouting of the rules. What is a uniform for? I was in a primary school yesterday where the male teachers (hurrah!) wore collars and ties (hurrah!). How can pupils respect what a teacher stands for if s/he is scruffy?
As I typed the first draft of this, the word bling* appeared instead of blind. So today we have a picture of thoroughly modern Bishop dressed in a newly commissioned cope that puts me in mind of Stonehenge and satanists. I’m not a great cope-wearer myself, though they lend a bit of dignity and respect at a funerals, weddings and of course at Benediction, but when I wear a cope it’ll be one that looks like a quality carpet wrapped round the shoulders and is decorated with traditional symbols. It will not be one that shouts ‘look at me, look at me, look at me’. Which takes me back to death on the cross as ego-denying behaviour.
Mission through tradition is the strapline for me.