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royal exchange, london
In Leaving Alexandria Richard Holloway recalls Virginia Woolf’s tract Three Guineas  (originally published in 1937) in which she contrasts the private house (woman’s sphere) with public life (man’s sphere):

Your world then, the world of professional, of public life, seen from this angle, undoubtedly looks queer.

At first sight it is enormously impressive. Within a small space are crowded together St Paul’s, the Bank of England, the Mansion House, the massive if funereal battlements of the Law Courts: and on the other side, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. There we say to ourselves, pausing, in this moment of transition on the bridge, our fathers and brothers have spent their lives. All these hundreds of years they have been mounting those steps, passing in and out of those doors, ascending those pulpits, preaching, money making, administering justice. It is from this world that the private house … has derived its creeds, its laws, its clothes and carpets, its beef and mutton. And then, as is now permissible, cautiously pushing aside the swing doors of one of these temples, we enter on tiptoe and survey the scene in greater detail.

The first sensation of colossal size, of majestic masonry is broken into a myriad points of amazement mixed with interrogation. Your clothes in the first place make us gape with astonishment. How many, how splendid, how extremely ornate they are – the clothes worn by the educated man in his public capacity! Now you dress in violet; a jewelled crucifix swings on your breast; now your shoulders are covered with lace; now furred with ermine; now slung with many linked chains set with precious stones. Now you wear wigs on your heads; rows of graduated curls descend your necks. Now your hats are boat-shaped, or cocked; now they mount in cones of black fur; now they are made of brass and scuttle-shaped; now plumes of red, now of blue hair surmount them. Sometimes gowns cover your legs; sometimes gaiters. Tabards embroidered with lions and unicorns swing from your shoulders; metal objects cut in star shapes or in circles glitter and twinkle upon your breasts. Ribbons of all colours – blue, purple, crimson – cross from shoulder to shoulder.

Even stranger, however, than the symbolic splendour of your clothes are the ceremonies that take place when you wear them. here you kneel; there you bow; here you advance in procession behind a man carrying a silver poker; here you mount a carved chair; here you appear to do homage to a piece of painted wood; here you abase yourselves before tables covered with richly worked tapestry. And whatever these ceremonies may mean you perform them always together, always in step, always in the uniform proper to the man and the occasion.

The photo is of the Royal Exchange in London by Synwell

About Grace

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?

It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness.

It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual . . . It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Paul Tillich.

quoted by Holloway, Richard (2012-03-01). Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Kindle Locations 1668-1674). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

Serious houses on serious earth

locked away
I am not one for visiting churches, but I do love to see a church that is open, rather than closed. There are various reasons why churches are closed (and communities deprived of what should be public spaces). Some are afraid of the security risks (even though, according to the Open Churches Trust churches that are open have a lower risk). Sometimes the gatekeepers are forbidding in their attitudes so people feel they have to be qualified to enter – the “good enough” test. At other times people have been priced out. I am delighted to see that the price barrier at Chester Cathedral has been dropped, and that the Cathedral is now open and free to enter.

In his book, Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of faith and doubt, Richard Holloway speaks of his love of Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh, particularly when it was empty. Old St Paul’s is a church that is kept open so that people can drift in. Holloway has this to say:

Churches that stay open unclose themselves to the sorrows of humanity and alchemise them into consolation. And not a cheap consolation. Just as artists reconcile us to our ills by the way they notice and record them, so open churches console us by the way they accept the unreconciled aspects of our natures.

They are a haven for the homeless woman whose destitution is obvious, muttering to herself over there in the back pew; but they also accept the moral destitution of the confident man sitting in the dark chapel, gazing at the white star of the sanctuary lamp, heavy with the knowledge of the compulsions that have dominated his life and refuse to leave him.

There is no reproach. Churches do not speak; they listen. Clergy speak, unstoppably. They are ‘randy’ to change, challenge or shame people into successful living. Church buildings that stay open to all know better. They understand helplessness and the weariness of failure, and have for centuries absorbed them into the mercy of their silence. This is grace.

I like the story told by Jesus from the open “church”. It is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector and their respective prayers in Luke 18:9-14. You’d expect the Pharisee to be “there”. He is the religious one, who spends his life “there” saying his prayers and paying his tithes. He would be an approved key-holder. It’s the other one, the “tax collector” who has stolen in because the place is open. His prayer is the prayer of the people, including the prayer of the destitute woman and morally destitute high achiever referred to by Holloway. The qualification for being a tax collector was to have money for bribes, and the willingness to bribe. These were the people prepared to do the dirty deeds of the day. The building hears his confession and the cornerstone reorders his life.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
Chester Cathedral, Chester
This photo, of Chester Cathedral, is by Xavier de Jauréguiberry.
The photo, “locked away” is by Kicki.

The title of this post is taken from the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin.