Saturday 31 October 2015

The Resurrection

The significance of this icon - which western art sees as 'the harrowing of hell' (the Lord drawing out Adam and Eve while Satan lies bound beneath) but which the eastern church sees as the primary representation of the resurrection - has been explored in this Blog before, and some of its development in western art in Florence has been explored more recently.  So discovering this fourteenth century mosaic icon of it (roughly contemporary with the Florence art) at the church which is now called Chora Museum was worth coming to Istanbul for.

We were almost equally struck by this unusual representation of the entry of the saved into heaven close by.  On the left (in darkness) they come along, led by Peter who is putting his key into the door.  The door is guarded by a six winged seraph, just as the gate to the Garden of Eden was guarded by an angel.  On the right (in the light), the good thief (carrying his cross) has got there first and gestures them foward towards Mary - it looks as if she is enthroned between two angels almost as the Queen of the garden-like Heaven which they have reached.

Friday 30 October 2015

During our "Dark Ages"

I keep reminding myself that the sixth century is the gap in our own history - we have no monumental or written records between the departure of the Romans in the middle of the fifth century and the emergence of the first evidence of the earliest "English" culture in the middle of the seventh century.  Meanwhile, in the middle of exactly this period, here the Emperor Justinian was building what was then the largest church in the world and what is still one of the largest (albeit no longer used as a church) at the Hagia Sophia (pictured a few days ago) and other notable churches such as the next door Hagia Eirene (pictured above).

Thursday 29 October 2015

The Presentation

This appears to be the only pre-eighth century mosaic with a religious theme in Constantinople to have survived the iconoclasm (destruction of icons) period of eastern Christianity.  It was difficult to photograph at all, let alone head on, because of the glass in front of it.  It has continuity with many of the features of later painted icons of the Prensentation of Christ in the Temple combined with a natural flow and eagerness of old Simeon reaching out to hold the Christ child.  Iconocalsm means that we do not have much sense of the appearance of the fifth century churches here whose magnificent mosaic icons all date from several centuries after they were built.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Three inscriptions

In the space of about ten minutes, we found ourselves walking past three stones we already knew all about from our time in Jerusalem in 2013.  I had simply missed the fact that, since Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century so many of the things discovered then would have ended up in Istanbul - much as the British Museum is full of things looted from our own sphere of influence at about the same period.  This is one of the earliest examples of Hebrew writing, an exercise piece about the prgress of the agricultural year, a reproduction of which we saw at the place from which it comes at Tel Gezer.  It is much smaller than we imagined.

Here is one example of the much more famous warning signs from the Jerusalem Temple, alerting outsiders that they put their lives at risk by intruding beyond them.

And here is the record of the digging of Hezehiah's tunnel found on site there which we were told all about when we walked through it.  We remembered that the account told of those digging from either side hearing the sounds of axes and voices from the other side as they came to close to breaking through to each other.

The 'trade' worked the other way, from the treasures illustrated as now being in Venice as a result of the Crusaders passing through (systematically wrecking) to the sad sign at a tomb outside the Hagia Sophia giving the catalogue numbers in the Louvre for the tiles sent to Paris for restoration in the nineteenth century.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Thursday 22 October 2015

Saturday 17 October 2015

First to the Lord

The diocese of Lincoln would like our parish to be paying into the diocese’s Common Fund by 2018 at about 225% the rate it managed in 2014; an increase of about £5.80 each week from each ‘usual Sunday attender’.  Notwithstanding our low level of contribution when compared with what similar parishes in most other dioceses are managing, I’m not sure that is a realistic expectation, to put the point no more strongly.

There has been careful work to agree a new formula for Parish Share.  At earlier stages in ‘road testing’ this, I had heard it recognised that the formula (in common with any possible formula) would produce unrealistic or even rogue results for some 10% of parishes, and the refreshing suggestion that individual negotiations would take place with those parishes.

But in the end, the new calculation was simply presented to our parish with the suggestion that we could always appeal.  I’m sorry those involved didn’t recognise how different the dynamic is between ‘this looks odd to us, so let us talk about it’ and ‘here it is, but you could appeal’.

There is a suggestion that the diocese could offer ‘support’ to those parishes which are facing an up-hill struggle responding to the new levels of Parish Share assessement, and it is certainly true that we ought to reassess our approach to what has long been called our financial ‘stewardship’, but I am wary having heard one of the diocesan ‘Discipleship Development Advisers’ more than once commend a 10% tithe of income directed exclusively to the financing of the church.

Talking it all through, I know that my wariness dates back to being a member of the General Synod in about 1999/2000 when a ‘stewardship’ report called First to the Lord was debated.  The title was drawn from 2 Corinthians 8.5 where Paul was commending (and further encouraging) the spontaneous generosity of the Macedonian churches towards the extreme needs of Christians in Jerusalem.

My real problem was that this text isn’t actually about financing the institutional needs of the church at all, and eliding our giving of ourselves and our money ‘first to the Lord’ with meeting the needs of the church seemed to be a sleight of hand at the best.   I seem to remember something like ‘If we loved God as much as we do our grandchildren, the church would have no problem’ was one slightly creepy way this was expressed.

I remember that the problem was all the more acute because at the previous meeting we had debated a report Called to New Life which had explicitly warned against allowing only things done for the church to constitute our understanding of Christian discipleship – and that almost nobody I spoke to at the Synod recognised that there might be a contradiction here.

I need to practice and provoke sacrificial generosity much more than I do – and exploring a 10% tithe of income might well be the best way to reference this financially – but I remain convinced that this generosity is quite as much about those in extreme need and those closest to us as it is about the church - and that identifying giving to the last of these as being ‘first to the Lord’ or the appropriate destination for our whole tithe is a sect-like manipulation.

But at least I recognise what in my past makes my reaction so extreme before I begin to think how we might at least begin to see how we might respond better to the need of the diocese’s (our own) Common Fund.

Saturday 10 October 2015


Our economic well being is tied into the injustice of the world and there is even less we can do about it this autumn than before. 

The perfect illustration was the Archbishop of Canterbury being tripped up by Wonga.  He spoke out against its exploitation of those driven to depend on its loans and then had the embarrassment of the revelation that the Church of England owned a little bit of it via a small holding held by an investment fund.  Part of my pension was being secured by Wonga’s profiting from the vulnerable.

From the international level (the preservation of our nation’s share of global resources by the protection of our borders from mass migration) to the tiny details of my clothing (the slave-like conditions in which much cotton thread is produced), I keep getting reminded this month that my economic well being is tied into the injustice of the world.

Of course, at an individual level, there are ethical funds which try to help investors steer clear of whole areas of investment from pay-day lenders to the arms trade, and there are personal boycott and Fair Trade decisions which individuals can seek to make to avoid some of the most obvious compromises, but the net of Wonga-like ambiguities and complexities still manages to enmesh us all.

But at the local level, I am helpless in making some ethical choices if the local authority doesn’t make these particular ones for me.  So this month’s government adjustments to things like local authority’s discretion in procurement and investments (that is - the outlawing of local authority’s previous ability to chose to avoid contracts or investments on ethical grounds - those who are involved in anything from the arms trade to settlements in Palestine are the cited examples) is fundamentally disabling.  Reminding people about the impact of boycotts of South African goods in the past doesn’t make any difference.

And at the national level, I am helpless in making some ethical choices if the government doesn’t make these particular ones for me.   So this month’s admission to the Common’s Foreign Affairs Committee by the Foreign Office's Permanent Secretary that increasing exports (our economic well being) is now a greater priority and that protecting human rights (the tackling of global injustice) has less of the ‘profile it did in the past’ is equally  disabling.   Holding up a placard saying ‘Not in my name’ hardly makes a difference either.

Having a Conservative government for the first time in eighteen years was always going to make a legitimate difference to our political landscape, but I hadn’t expected it so quickly to make a difference to my ability to balance my economic self interest against my ethical choices.  And for it all to happen just as, in one of the cited areas, violence in Israel and Palestine opens up again self reinforcing each sides’ justification for its action is heart breaking.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Desire and caritas

Professor Mona Siddiqui will be giving the Gifford Lectures next year.  I know how dense this annual series of Lecture’s can be: I’ve read carefully at least the first third of Rowan Williams’ 2013 ones on the nature of language and got a huge amount out of the portion which I understood. 

Anyway, she came to the Lincoln Theological Society to give a taste of the theme she has in mind for the Lectures, although she says she has not yet written them.  It took some concentration keeping up with her.

Faith as ‘struggle’ is for her a positive and, importantly, hope-ful approach (in contrast to ‘suffering’ which appears to be more negative and often simply about enduring).  It is closely tied up with the implication of our desires – positive (this is where hope comes in), inevitable (unavoidably part of the human condition) and negative (able to skew our appetite, expectation and satisfaction).

It was sad that the questions which came after the lecture mainly asked her to comment on the presenting issues of Islam to casual western observers (the first question asked was why she had not tackled the theme of jihad and the last asked her why she didn’t wear a veil) and thus rarely engaged with her theme at all.

If I can get Rowan Williams’ ones on language read and understood by the end of 2016 it might be just in time to buy Mona Siddiqui’s on struggle and desire and start the round again.

It was my second trip to Lincoln in a week, and on the earlier occasion I had gone to see someone in the County Hospital where I took the two photographs of things preserved from an earlier building.

The statue is that of Caritas (the embodiment of the virtue of loving care).  The bed endowment plaque – one of a whole row – reminded me that the origins of First World War tanks lay in the development of more easily movable agricultural machinery in Lincoln.