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I am right now reading in Swedish a small book entitled Frälsarkransen, which translates into English as lifebuoy. It is by an older bishop of the Church of Sweden, Martin Lönnebro, who has devised a set of prayer/meditation beads, a bit on the line of a rosary/prayer rope, though in the hand more like Moslem worry beads, and explains how to use them.

What am I doing anywhere near the Church of Sweden? some will ask. The CoS, with gay marriage and a coupled lesbian bishop (of Stockholm), is not exactly flavour of the month in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet there is something in the book, written extremely simply, which attracts me. I can best describe the approach as giving people space and time to find their own way to God, with a strong emphasis on silence, and with reference to the European mystic tradition. It is an approach in which, if I have understood it right, morality and ethics come out of this silence and the relationship with the Trinity which it leads into. This silence is something I miss in the Orthodox tradition, which quickly becomes a barrage of words, with no space for silence (if there is a gap of more than 3 seconds in a 2-hour Orthodox liturgy, someone has made a mistake) and where morality is imposed and policed heavy-handedly. The Swedish approach restores a balance... 

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Let me comment on some earlier journal entries which have been heavily critical of post-war Christian architecture. I can understand this from a Russian standpoint, but let me suggest a western European slant on this.

Dare I suggest that in much of European Christianity there is a sense that tradition – predanya – has got so lost, confused or compromised, that one has to venture out afresh. And to do so by a radical going back to roots, as far back as Genesis 1 when 'the earth was without form and void', very literally. To a situation in which, in Gospel language,  'rebirth' or ‘new creation’ becomes possible.

Many post-war churches literally reflect this 'without form and void'. It strikes horror into many Orthodox souls, but it is perhaps a salutary passage, at least in the western situation, and at least for some. It may indeed be that an entire culture has to be rebuilt. And expressed in the church in terms of a whole rethinking, reassembling of liturgy:  language, vestment, iconography, vestments, music everything. Not everything will be new (the Christian rebirth itself is basically a re-directing of existing material), but it must come together into a consistent whole.

In any event there are three caveats:

a) This does not have to be a mono-culture situation. The ideal for the moment may be to keep the very new and the quite traditional running side by side. The worst situation is the neither-nor solution (I'm thinking here of Würzburg and Munich cathedrals).  

b) This reworking is going to take time. Two, three, four generations. Don’t try and ‘cast in stone' after 10 years. Indeed try to cast it in stone as little as possible. Roger Schutz of Taizé used to speak of the ‘dynamique du provisoire’.  

c) On a similar line: it is going to take an incredible deep level of religious experience to get right and anchor any new culture. I am not sure whether there is enough of this experience around – in particular in the areas of art, architecture and liturgy. Much of the new architecture and most of the new art bespeaks a lack of depth. Curiously enough, one man who may have got it more right than most is the Spanish mystic-architect Gaudí. Looking at the towers of the Sagrada Familia, I feel he might have been on the right track.

The inevitable result is that outwardly a lot of this look - at least for the time being, very bleak, ‘Zen’ – bare, almost bleak, naked. But it may be that it is a necessary nakedness. What also strikes me is that this 'Zen nakedness' works quite well against a background of Cistercian and early Dominican architecture. Which is perhaps where we in the west have to go back to in order to get back to solid roots and perhaps reconnect with some sort of tradition.


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October 2015

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