I’m sure most organisations suffer from this syndrome, it’s something which seems to effect everyone from time to time, ‘nothing must change’, ‘it was far better before’, the so called ‘Back to Egypt Brigade’ have been in full force recently. I caught the beginning of John Bell speaking at Greenbelt and reminded me of this phenomenon, that when on the verge of entering the promised land the Israelites bottled it and complained that it wasn’t nice there, even though they had seen the plentiful food and lush lands. So God in his wisdom sent them out into the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day they had been whinging in the desert!
So what does ‘back to Egypt’ mean for us? How far back, back to the so called ‘Golden Age’ of the Victorians who built far too many churches for their own good, and then sometimes to quite a poor standard? The endless streetwalking and door knocking seemed to have had very little effect in getting people to go to church. There was a lot of activity, but in reality the legacy was of redundant buildings and overly organised groups of people.
Ok, then further back, perhaps to the medieval period, no heating, cloths on the windows, confession on saturday to receive communion on sunday??
Neither of these is particularly interesting or inviting. There is, however, a gleam of hope in this ‘back to Egypt’ malarky, it comes in the form of the style of churches and religious observance which was around in the middle-ages. Large monasteries were dotted around the country, some wealthy towns could afford to support a Priest, but not many. Religious observance was far less than it is today, but, when there were festivals on, most people turned out. They would travel to the large monasteries and cathedrals for whit, lamas, harvest, christmas, easter. These festivals were the people’s religion. The small communities of monks and religiously minded people would organise the festivals for the people, they would also in some cases be land owners and would provide employment and food for the people in their neighbourhood.
There are many things about the middle-ages that would not be welcome today, but the principle of a smallish community providing for the surrounding area, in both spiritual and edible food is worth returning to, at least to give it some thought. It would stop the constant bickering over bums on pews, and focus the attention on practical tasks. It would also draw a community together rather than dispersing it, I love the idea at the end of the morning service on Iona that there is no amen. Standing for the closing responses people are encouraged to go straight out into the common tasks for that day, to serve one another in all manner of community minded activity!
(this comes with a nod towards Graeme Smith and his book ‘A Short History of Secularism’)