Throughout the history of Christianity, a particularly holy place has served as a material focus for faith. Paul Griffin asks where the focus of our worship is located now
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soot…. Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.’ It is typically Chaucer that he attributes to the season and weather the human longing for a material focus of faith. This longing is well satisfied by the Islamic Hajj. Every faithful Muslim is urged to go at least once in his life to a large stone in Saudi Arabia, after which he may dye his hair ginger and call himself ‘Hajji’.
It is not so easy for us, after two hectic millennia. Nor was it for the ancient Jews, who being placeless in the wilderness conceived the idea of carrying their material focus with them, in the form of the Ark. This was a box containing mementoes of the wanderings. On the lid were two cherubim whose wings met above the seat on which God was supposed to sit.
When David captured Jerusalem, the Ark was taken there, beginning a place focus still very important to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Jews were making Jerusalem their capital. Solomon, not yet born, had not built his temple, so the Ark seems to have been put in a sort of marquee. It disappeared at the fall of Jerusalem, and the Ethiopian Church thinks it has it somewhere in Ethiopia.
Did the Jews really believe that God sat between the cherubim? Do we believe that Jesus is present in bread and wine? We do; and so did they.
A shifting centre
Some time after the coming of our Lord, it must have become clear that the Temple was not the place for Christians. There may then have been a period when the only material focus was Christ himself in the person of his bishops; until Paul and Peter made it inevitable that Rome was to be the eventual centre. Then Byzantium became a rival. Succeeding centuries fragmented the Church further, until the Reformation concentrated attention more nationally and locally. Places of pilgrimage would have been suspect, although, bishops still being allowed, there were still cathedrals.
Meanwhile, the rise of Mohammed and the excesses of the Crusades had resulted in Jerusalem being as much a shared tourist curiosity as an HQ, a fate into which our cathedrals, in a mixture of devout alarm and financial relief, are perhaps drifting.
Where then is our Forward in Faith Ark, our focus of worship? Where is our holiest place or object, to compare with Mecca? Not Canterbury, surely; nor our local cathedral. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham? Certainly, but not perhaps to all our members. When we look at our own special situation, we realize that our true remaining holy place is our local church. The different views accommodated in the present Church of England have concentrated our attention on the altar of the local congregation, near which the Commandments from the original Ark were often written. This was recognized at the time of women’s ordination by the ultimate classification of parishes, not dioceses, into alphabetically identified units. Of course we have bishops, but they have no cathedrals; and with the enormous distances involved I suppose three holy centres for the whole of England would be more confusing than otherwise – halfway between the all-embracing Muslim model to be visited once in a lifetime, and the more accessible but now sadly rather suspect cathedral.
Source of unity
Of course we still have specially holy places besides Walsingham: Jerusalem, Canterbury and Rome, for example. They may be the object of holy tourism, or of more genuine pilgrimage, but the ultimate material centre of faith for each of us can only be the place where we daily, weekly, meet our Lord in his Sacrament.
This concept is a long way from that of Mecca, and it can seem rather shut in, or even a sort of ultra-Protestant fragmentation. Even so, few parishes, whether or not they are unanimous about their doctrinal allegiance, will fail to be united about the validity of their regular Sacrament. For us, I suggest then, it is there, on our own altar, that God sits for ever between the cherubim.