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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

How one worn step changed a life

This Wednesday, while visiting Cambridge, we found ourselves virtually alone in the medieval splendour of King’s College chapel. So I was able to give a close inspection of this truly remarkable building, seeing things which would normally escape attention. One in particular, the entrance to one of the 18 side chapels – which I promptly photographed. Illuminated by the 16th century stained glass windows, the step of white Tadcaster limestone had been worn down, some four inches, through five centuries of use. Quite remarkable really. This took me back some twenty years to a conversation I had in Vancouver as I heard how one young Canadian while visiting Canterbury Cathedral on seeing a similarly worn step decided to turn to Christ. He was deeply moved, it seems, by the thought of so many pilgrims using the step over so many years – although he thought it was concrete and not natural stone! Sometimes it takes a visitor to see what we so take for granted that we barely give a glance, how the Christian faith has become an integral part of our culture, even over 1500 years. This was in total contrast with a conversation I had had the previous day on visiting our old vicar in Southwell. He considered that our culture has become hostile to religious faith, even more so since 911. Added to this, the recent revelations of historic sexual abuse which have brought shame on our church and discredited our discipleship. Clearly there is a real sense that Christian faith in our society has become entirely marginalised and the church an institution in decline. Mind you, that’s been the case for some time. So when Matthew Arnold wrote “Dover Beach’ in 1867 it seemed that the tide was finally running out for the church, even for religious faith under the assault of science and modernism. “But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” You may have read an interview with Archbishop Justin last week in which he admitted that the £240 million invested by the Church of England to arrest the decline in worshippers has “not so far” succeeded in turning the situation around. The archbishop was asked whether the church may have to resign itself to becoming a “faithful remnant” that keeps Christian worship alive for a smaller number of worshippers. “If that means we end up as a faithful remnant, so be it,” he said. “But my bet is, if we become a simpler, humbler church, if we do what God resources us to do, if we don’t exhaust ourselves, and if we get rid of guilt … the church of God will grow.” The Christian faith may be under assault – but not in the way we think, literally. At least that is the claim of Tom Holland, whose book Dominion I reviewed in July last year. As a historian – like my Vancouver convert – Holland takes the long view and he underscores the testimony of the step at King’s. He argues that the message of Jesus’ crucifixion is so deeply embedded in our communal mental operating system that even as any would challenge the Christian faith they do so – even without realising it - from Christian suppositions. The big thing at the moment is Inclusion – everyone is of value and to be welcomed, whoever they are, whatever their background. And often the church is attacked for not being inclusive and effectively excluding certain groups, particular types. Even Archbishop Justin accepts the sad fact that the CofE is institutionally racist. However, where does this value of inclusivity come from? Not from the Greek thought which gave us democracy – Aristotle, for one, did not merely condone slavery, he defended it. “That all men are created equal” is not a self-evident truth, it is simply the outcome of the cross of Jesus, who died for us all, “Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” (Colossians 3:11) And so over the centuries it is the church which has led the way on inclusion. Often reluctantly, frequently resisting the Holy Spirit (for we are all redeemed sinners) but the cross of Christ demands no less. Each of us, in the words of the apostle Paul, is someone “for whom Christ has died.” (1 Corinthians 8:11) To quote Holland: “In Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.” In any reckoning to build our lives on a crucified Christ seems utter foolishness, scandalous even. But yet this is our foundation – as it is of Henry VI’s chapel. And like all sure foundations it has stood the test of time. Goodness knows how many people have stepped on the stone to enter the side chapel – I would like to think, most in order to pray. But we dare not discount the accumulative effect over the centuries for so much intercession. The church may be going through a time of profound testing – that’s how God works but at the end of the day, even the end of the era, our foundation is secure. As the apostle Paul affirms: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

#foundation #testing #inclusion

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