Weekly Reflection 20th – 26th September 2009

Posted on: Friday 2nd October 2009

From St Paul’s Second Missionary Journey

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE! Our delightful and tireless guide, Goscen, summons us as insistently as the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer (although we get an hour longer in bed). And we’re off, through the streets and courtyards and bazaars of Istanbul, a city so cosmpolitan it makes the Eurovision Song Contest look like a Gang Show. The birthplace of Byzantine Christianity is today a sort of picturesque collision  of Islamic, Orthodox and Jewish traditions, contained, just, by Ataturk’s secular state. The tensions are obvious in Agia Sofia. Once the greatest church in Christendom, it became a mosque under the Ottomans and a museum under Ataturk. If you look up into its gloomy domes you see Islamic calligraphy sitting alongside Byzantine mosaics, in competitio still for the attention, if not the devotion, of the crowds and crowds of tourists below. What was once the centre of the Christian world lies now beyond its horizon and the spirits of St John Chrysostom and Constantine seem pretty elusive. But, bizarrely, l was browsing in a second hand bookshop near the Pera Palace and found there the 1844 Pickering reprint of Edwards VI’s Prayer Book. Odd to find the first Book of Common Prayer in a city which fell to Sultan Mehmet II a century before Cranmer wrote his first Collect. It probably came from the Anglican church in Istanbul, Christchurch, recently reopened after a fifty-year furlough and thriving when we visited it on Sunday morning (we spotted the historian Norman Stone among the communicants). The sense of stepping into Christian history really began once we’d left the capital for the the towns around Izmir, on the south west coast, where St Paul spent twenty years founding the churches remembered in the New Testament – Smyrna, Ephesus, Laodicea, Pergamon, and so on – some of them today just a pile of rubble in a nondescript town centre, but some of them almost as spectaular in ruins as they were in their golden age. Pergamon, which has stood at the top of a mountain since long before the time of Christ is breathtaking, a city of streets and agoras and forums and theatres and citadels which emerged from the ground when an enterprising German archaeoloist arrived thousands of years after they were built. He sent the best bits to the Pergmaon Museum in Berlin (which does to the Turks what our acquisition of the Elgin Marbles does to the Greeks). Even stripped of so many of its assets, when you walk along its colonnaded street you walk where St Paul walked, and where the Constantine’s emissaries were later to arrive to buy the ‘parchment’ (derived from the city’s name) which was used to make the great 4th century bibles he commissined for the Empire. One of them, Codex Sinaiticus, can be seen today in the British Library, which means a little bit of Pergamon resides in the shadow of St Pancras Station. But I think my favourite place was Laodicea, a street of white marble going nowhere and some marble columns supporting nothing on top of a hill thronged by swallows. After you’ve read the guide and heard the commentary and checked the New Testament references you’re left with nothing but silence and the view and white marble glittering against the deep blue sky.

Fr Richard Coles, Curate

P.S. Any resentment felt by the Turkish nation for the looting of its treasures by western Europe should be assuaged by the amount spent by St Paul’s pilgrims in the leather shop outside Ephesus this afternoon (and Mrs Tytherleigh’s going to just love the bumbag).