NEWSLETTER – September 2008
return to work and
school is usually accompanied by the sharing of holiday stories and
photographs. I am not a photographer, but have two vivid images of
our week in Piedmont, in northern Italy, where Jan's sister and
family live, up in the little hills on her husband's farm. One is of
the 11th & 12th century Romanesque chapel of San Secondo, in
Cortazzone, standing alone on a hilltop outside a village. It is one
of the best-preserved of many isolated churches of the period which
are only now being restored and discovered, and is a real treasure.
It was built by passing craftsmen on the pilgrim route from the
mountains into central Italy. Each built a bit in his own style,
making an extraordinary hotch-potch of stone friezes, brick
dog-toothing, and carving – vegetation, animals in various
and, remarkably, several sets of female breasts (the Italian
the lips of our
enthusiastic guide, sounds more refined!) and male members. This is
not something that the Hawksmoor fans who descend on St George's
hoping to find pagan symbols are likely to find! In future I shall
refer them to northern Italy for such things, though of course they
are not 'pagan' at all, but simply what they enjoyed carving.
My second image is of Sacro Monte di Varallo. Started in 1491, in the wooded foothills of the Alps, it is the oldest of the various 'sacred mountains' which became – and remain – popular pilgrim sites across Catholic Europe. A trail of 45 separate chapels contain carved tableaux and frescoes of events from the life of Christ, beginning among hills and trees and moving into a 'city' courtyard for the Passion narratives. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the artwork is fascinating and worthy of the restoration it is receiving, but I found it much harder to connect devotionally with all of this than with the simplicity of the Romanesque churches 300 years earlier.
September sees the start of the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan, observed across the world. This year it falls as a difficult time for British Muslims, with relatively long hours of daylight when eating and drinking are forbidden. This can make doing business awkward. For example, evening meetings of Tower Hamlets Council will include a 45-minute interval at sundown for breaking the fast and for prayers. It is reported that non-Muslim councillors and staff have been asked not to eat or drink the normal refreshments before this point in the meeting (though they will, of course, be able to eat and drink earlier in the day). This is causing some controversy: is it right to press the requirements of one faith on those of other faiths and none?
The fast is strict and inflexible, for all who keep it (invalids, pregnant women and children are among those excused). That is its point – precisely because it is inconvenient, it is a powerful act of solidarity, demonstrating both a unity of faith and concern for the poor (almsgiving is another requirement of Ramadan). But it must not be used as a weapon, or an excuse for indolence or violence. The prophet Isaiah recognised these dangers long ago, when he said, to those who complained that God seemed to be ignoring their piety, Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such that fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58.4-6).
This is one of the Ash Wednesday readings, and Christians also have patterns of fasting (Lent) and abstinence (Fridays), less strict and more flexible than the requirements of Islam, and with a different, more voluntary, rationale. It is a pity that these days they are little observed, though there is a growing tradition of surrounding particular projects or causes with a time of fasting – either as a form of prayer for success, or to demonstrate solidarity with the poor (as Muslims do), or as a specific means of protest – see below.
There are several inter-faith events this month where we can join with our neighbours, standing alongside those who are observing Ramadan as well as those of other faiths. We are invited to an Iftar Gathering (a community meal to break the fast) at the London Muslim Centre on Thursday 11; Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum meets on Tuesday 16; the Rector is speaking at a London Week of Peace event on Wednesday 17. And Bishop Richard invites us to join with him in fasting on Wednesday 24 in preparation for the summit the following day summoned by the UN Secretary General to re-energise the push towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals – eight targets for eradicating world poverty by 2015. Gordon Brown will be attending this, and will be 'fortified' by a public message from church leaders. Our Area Dean has plans for Christians who opt to keep this fast day to join with local Muslims in the evening to break the fast together; more details in due course. (There is also a special Eucharist, A Time for God's Creation, at St Paul's Cathedral on Sunday 14 September at 6pm.)
Alongside all this, there is an opportunity to show concern in a more typically British fashion – with a cup of tea! Last year Christian Aid prompted the holding of over 2,000 tea parties, some in unusual locations such as up a church tower. Tea Time is being repeated on Friday 19 at 4pm, and you're invited to take tea with the Rector, not up the tower but in the Rectory garden (or indoors if wet), and make a contribution to Christian Aid funds.
September also sees four Christian festivals, two of which fall on Sundays. The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on Monday 8, is kept by St Mary Cable Street as their patronal festival, and we hope that, as in previous years, a good number of our congregation will be able to join them at 8pm.
We shall keep the following Sunday as Holy Cross Day. This is one of the commemorations that the Reformers removed from the calendar, despite its impeccably Protestant theme, since it was linked with the notion of relics – the alleged finding of the 'true cross' by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 325AD, and her building of the Holy Sepulchre Church as a result. But Lutherans, as well as Roman Catholics and Orthodox (who call this day the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross), observe it, and so now do Anglicans! It was not always so: in 1857 the dedication of the mission chapel in Wellclose Square (formerly the Danish Church, and now the site of our school) as 'St Saviour and St Cross' was regarded with great suspicion, and a few years later the Bishop of Manchester refused to consecrate Butterfield's church in Clayton because of its dedication to 'St Cross'.
No such problems attend the keeping of 21 September as St Matthew's Day! His former occupation as a tax-collector no doubt provoked lively debate among the Twelve, but his inclusion among their number makes it clear that Christians should talk honestly and openly about money – which is what we shall do on this day, with a presentation about our parish finances (matching the consultation about parish worship a fortnight earlier, about which I wrote last month). And St Michael and All Angels on 29 September reminds us that in all that we do, as a church and as individuals, we are under the personal protection of God.
JUMBLE SALE – Saturday 27 September, 2pm
The latest plans for the redevelopment of this site, by Examplar Development LLP, will be on display at the Davenant Centre, Whitechapel Road, on 4th (10am-2pm), 5th (2pm-6pm) and 6th (10am-2pm) September.
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