Christopher Smith


Having been banned from having a social life for much of 2020 and 2021, I upped my rate of novel-reading, and at some point last year I read a book by an Australian author who is a very lapsed Greek Orthodox called Christos Tsiolkas. The novel is called Damascus, and I’m not recommending it to you. It is vulgar, profane and blasphemous, and its best feature is the choice of art for the cover: the Caravaggio painting of the Conversion of Saint Paul from the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, situated opposite his ‘Crucifixion of Saint Peter’.

But it was interesting to see how the author, who would call himself an atheist, wanted to explore not just Saint Paul, whom he tried to remake in his own image, but, more interestingly, the early Christian community. He was (inevitably) out to demythologise the miraculous, but he did paint a rather affectionate portrait of the behaviour of the early Christians, a community brought together by their worship of the God-Man Jesus Christ, who came not to be served but to serve. That community is portrayed as humble, generous, and utterly unconcerned with social status, to the genuine disgust of the wider community around them.

Saint Paul was prepared to die for a man he never met in the flesh, but whom he believed he had encountered in as vivid a way as if he had seen him face to face. And he felt confident enough in that encounter to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God, although the disciples, according to Acts 9, were afraid of him when he wanted to meet them in Jerusalem, and it was Saint Barnabas who took him in and allayed the disciples’ fear of the one who had been their great persecutor.

How different he must have seemed from Saint Peter the fisherman, and yet how unconcerned he was by those differences, because what they held in common was so much more important. And yet these two men, who seem to have spent relatively little time in each other’s company, and who had a stand-up row in Antioch, are regarded in the liturgy as well as in iconography, as friends and as the twin pillars of the early Church.

There is an interesting point to be drawn from that, which is that the scriptures do not tell us absolutely everything about the Christian Faith, and there is, as Dom Gregory Dix proposed many years ago, a liturgical strand of the Christian story which is just as venerable—in fact, more so—and which also guards some of the truths of our faith. As Dix put it, ‘The Church had its liturgical traditions antecedent to and alongside its literary traditions, and as the latter took shape they bore the clear imprint of the former’. The first thing that the Church did was worship. Then they began to write things down.

And it is in worship that this radical idea of the equal status of the participants, and so of the entire Christian community, took shape. It is the thing Tsiolkas gets right, as he imagines the genuine horror which it generated: the scandal of slaves and freemen worshipping together, decent people with whores and tax-collectors. And, as part of that worship, eating and drinking together, with their unshakable insistence that they are in the presence of their Lord and Master whenever they eat this Bread and drink this Cup. And, incidentally, he also gets right the scorn that the Christians receive because they will not expose their infants if they are unwanted or disabled or female. If you believe that your Lord is with you still, and that he is the Word made flesh, God-with-us, then humanity has become something of infinite value since it was taken by God himself.

So what might seem a significant difference between St Peter and St Paul—that one had known him in the flesh and the other only in a vision—melted away: they were convinced that they met with him every Sunday when they celebrated the rite which he had commanded them to do ‘as his recalling’.

How does that radical equality square with a Church which has, from the very beginning, set aside some of its number to perform the ‘apostolic’ functions of the liturgy? Here, we must get away from the modern obsession with ‘leadership’ and still more from ‘management’. I noticed last month that the Anglican Communion has created a post entitled ‘Bishop for Episcopal Ministry’ who will help the bishops in their ‘companionship, learning and interchange’. Another bit of top-down management. In fact, the priest has a role in the Christian community which places him in persona Christi not because he is nearer the top of some hierarchical greasy pole, but because Jesus came among us as one who serves. And what the priest does at the altar could not be further away from the idea of managing the local branch of a supermarket. In praying in the two-thousand-year-old tradition of the Church, in praying the prayer of thanksgiving which we call the Eucharistic Prayer, which, as Eric Mascall once said, ‘offers by consecrating and consecrates by offering and does both by giving thanks,’ the priest does the only thing he is good for: he feeds the Body of Christ with the Body of Christ.