A few weeks ago I was in a room in Westminster Abbey from which a previous Archbishop of Canterbury was arrested and taken to be executed. I was there, in the company of some rather eminent theologians, to listen to American theologian William Cavanaugh give a robust defence of religion against its secularist critics, particularly addressing the charge of religious violence, by highlighting the inherent violence of the nation-state. The irony of the context was noted at the time, but none of us could imagine how much that irony could have been intensified in a matter of weeks.
For Cavanaugh, alongside other such leading lights in the theological world as Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank and Sam Wells (now Vicar of St Martin's-in-the-Fields in London, and also in the room at the Abbey that day), the worship of the Church shapes its participants in a kind of politics that is quite different to the dominant politics of the world that we live in, the politics of neoliberal capitalism, of democratically-sanctioned state violence and the all-consuming power of global corporations. More than that, the Church's worship doesn't just shape worshippers for political engagement in the world - the Church enacts a different, resistant, even revolutionary kind of politics in its worship. For Cavanaugh, "the Eucharist" is "an alternative imagining of space and time which builds up a body of resistance to violence, the body of Christ. This is a body that is wounded, broken by the powers and principalities [of the world] and poured out in blood offering upon this stricken earth. But this is also a body crossed by the resurrection, a sign of the startling irruption of the Kingdom into historical time and the disruptive presence of Christ the King to the politics of the world." (William T Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imgination, p.7)
And then I saw photos yesterday of Westminster Abbey, surrounded by a ring of police, 'protected' by the power of the State against a crowd of disabled people, protesting against the government's removal of the Independent Living Fund. Church staff had, it seems, called in the police when the protesters started setting up tents and gazebos on the lawn outside the Abbey.
The scenes were reminiscent of those outside St Paul's Cathedral a couple of years ago, when the Occupy LSX encampment was evicted by the police, at the request of the Cathedral authorities. At that time I'd felt not only embarrassed by the Church's stance, but deeply sad at an opportunity so spectacularly missed, for the Church of England, for once, to place itself on the right side of history, receiving the gift that the occupiers were offering them; offering hospitality, sanctuary, even, in the midst of London's privatised 'public squares'; but more than that too, humbly 'venturing out' into the tented city, not as host but as participants among others, engaging together in the globalizing wave of questioning and re-imagining of which the Occupy movement had been an iconic part.
This time, at Westminster Abbey, was worse - not just because the Church showed it had learnt nothing from the Occupy/St Paul's encounter, but because those who were setting up tents on the Abbey lawn could not so easily be dismissed as 'middle-class hippies' (however inaccurate that might have been of Occupy LSX), but were, very visibly, physically vulnerable disabled people, many in wheelchairs, whose access the police were able to restrict, even before the ubiquitous 'kettling' manoeuvre, simply by removing various makeshift ramps from the site in question. That was some of why I tweeted last night: "Yet again CofE’s public face is that of the oppressive, defensive neoliberal state and not the vulnerable."
The particular irony, of course, is that Westminster Abbey, like St Paul's Cathedral, is a place where Christian worship has taken place for hundreds of years, where the Eucharist - which Cavanaugh holds up as the 'resistant politics' of the Church - has been celebrated daily, tens of thousands of times over its history. Surely - at least if the logic of Cavanaugh et al is correct - these should be the places par excellence which have formed Christians in the habits of resisting the violence of the State, and of a Christlike solidarity with the vulnerable and excluded? Surely these should be the places where there is not even an 'ethical dilemma' in situations like this, where the response is instinctive, shaped by years of repeating the 'political' liturgies of the anti-Empire Church?
But of course, there are caveats from the theologians of 'liturgical politics': "All of this sounds wonderful," Cavanaugh admits, contrasting the liturgies of the Church with the blasphemous 'liturgies' of the State, "but we must confess that it is the shrivelling of this vision within the church that has allowed the flourishing of ersatz realities... [State] liturgies have succeeded in imagining communities because Christian liturgies have failed to do so in a fully public way. As the church expanded after Constantine, Christian worship was not centered on the parish but on the whole city... The church sought to replace the pagan cult of the city with the Christian liturgy. Therefore, Christian worship on the Lord's Day and other feasts generally took the form of a series of services in churches and public spaces, linked by public processions, totaling six to eight hours. Here was the church taking itself seriously as nothing less than 'the embodiment in the world of the World to come.' Much of this way of imagining the world has been lost as the liturgy has shrunken to a short semiprivate gathering." (Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, p.122)
When pressed, with concrete examples of liturgy's apparent failure to form counter-cultural Christians, Cavanaugh et al respond by telling us we're not doing the liturgy well enough, and if only we did it better, things would look very different. We're not taking it seriously enough. The church isn't taking itself seriously enough.
But yesterday's events at Westminster Abbey don't quite fit that script. If there's one thing Westminster Abbey does, it's take itself - and everything it does - seriously. It is, perhaps, the epitome of the Church of England taking itself seriously. And that, here, seems to be the problem, rather than the solution: here, cross and imperial crown nestle together, the liturgy of the Church and the liturgy of the State are indistinguishable, because they are one and the same. If there is revolutionary potential in Christian worship, it has been neutralised in Westminster Abbey.
Apart from, yet again, the pain and embarrassment of association, through the Church of England, with what 'we' did to a group of disabled protesters yesterday, what's disturbing for me, as Rector of Hodge Hill, is that since at least the 17th Century, the 'common prayer' or 'common worship' of the Church of England has decreed that what they do in Westminster Abbey, we do, in some kind of similar form, in our little Anglican church here. If Cavanaugh and friends are right, that there's something about our liturgies that profoundly shapes, if not actually constitutes, our 'political' habits and responses, then however much I might protest that here (in Hodge Hill) we're an inclusive church, here we're a politically radical church, here we're engaged in building new patterns of relationship and society as the neoliberal world crumbles around us - if we too are tied up in the 'common worship' of Church and State, then we're surely sunk.
But it's clearly not quite as simple as that. Hodge Hill Church is not Westminster Abbey (thank God!). We are not likely to host any coronations here in the near future. We are about as far from the 'centres of Empire' as you can get, demographically if not geographically. Our worship here looks, sounds, feels very different to what they do in Westminster Abbey (and, don't tell anyone, but we also sit rather loosely to the expectations of 'common worship', and that's not just because we're an Anglican-URC ecumenical partnership). But all of that is only half the story, I would suggest. Because I'm not convinced our worship is the only thing that shapes us, by any means. I think our engagements 'out there in the world' shape us just as much, if not more, than our worship in church does. And we have learnt - and are continuing to learn - here how to receive, with humility and expectation, the gifts offered to us in those encounters and engagements, even when those 'gifts' feel initially awkward, uncomfortable, or even hostile - from strangers, as well as friends.
And perhaps that's the most important difference between we Christians here in Hodge Hill and those who have been in charge of Westminster Abbey and St Paul's in their brushes with 'Occupiers' over the last few years. They, there, have had lots of practice at welcoming and honouring the rich and powerful (and, in a lesser way, anyone who is paying to come and look around their beautiful buildings). We've had lots of practice at being displaced, homeless, and dependent on the hospitality of our neighbours. And that, in turn, has shaped our worship, as much, if not more, than the other way round. Of course, we have much less 'symbolic capital' to play with in Hodge Hill - few people (even locally!) are going to notice, or care, if a few tents popped up on our church building's front lawn, and so any response we were to make, equally, would hardly make political waves. But we will, of course, continue our little, barely-noticed acts of hospitality and receptivity, solidarity and subversion, trusting in the power of tiny mustard seeds to grow, in the infectiousness of the microscopic germs of the kingdom of God. And, despite the shame of being Anglican on days like today, we will continue to hope and pray that our Christian sisters and brothers who find themselves in places of symbolic and political power, will rediscover in their own ways the subversive challenge of the gospel, and of the worship of the Christ who was crucified by the powers-that-be.
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