Weekly Reflection 13th – 19th September

Posted on: Friday 2nd October 2009

Thanne longen folk…

April is traditionally the time thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, or at least they did in Chaucer’s day. In this parish September is favoured (my dear, the discount) and this year, like last, a party from St Paul’s will be following the pilgrim trail not to Canterbury but to Asia Minor.  We will visit the Seven Churches of the Revelation, whose names you will instantly recall: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (I’m sure there’s a mnemonic, but I’ve forgotten it). Today these are, rather less romantically, Selçuk, Ýzmir, Akhisar, Sart, Alasehir, Bergama and Denizli; but perhaps this stretch of coast is nowadays best known for Bodrum, a sort of Turkish Blackpool.

In the First Century it was the scene of a very different kind of tourism, as St Paul and his companions pioneered the spread of Christianity around the Mediterranean. Part of the reason why we longen to goon on pilgrimages is indeed to follow in the footsteps of those pioneers; but how often, when we arrive at a site of great antiquity, we feel an obscure sense of anticlimax. This is not simply about finding a bus station occupying the site where Patriarch Anatolius convened the Council of Chalcedon in 459; I think it may also have something to do with the way we ‘do’ history.

I visited Shakespeare’s birthplace last year and would have been quite happy to make my own way round, but instead we were treated to an historical recreation of Stratford towards the end of the sixteenth century. A man, in improbable hose, announced himself as Shakespeare’s father, and delivered a folksy monologue on civics in Renaissance England. Alas, the spell he tried so artfully to weave was frayed somewhat by having The Archers on in the background. I suppose they were trying to make history come alive, but the point of history is that it is not ‘alive’, and while the illusion of escape into it may be diverting for a moment or two, its usefulness lies in its power to makes us think differently about the present.

That stretch of coast where Paul and his companions preached the Gospel is today dominated by a different issue, the tension between the secularism imposed by the Turkish Constitution, and Islam, which has experienced a great revival in those parts.  So maybe that’s where our pilgrimage will take us, into a consideration of the conflicting claims of religion and secularism? No less a personage than Tony Blair has described this as the defining issue of our time; the irony is that it was, in a different way, the defining issue of Paul’s time too.

Fr Richard Coles, Curate