I came upon a really good and thought provoking article today by Simon Brown, entitled:
Atheists: Separate Catholic Church's good works from religion, learn tolerance.
This was in the Pitt News, the daily newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh.
Brown was commenting on the new Pope's lifestyle choices and his calling to promote social justice that has earned him plenty of kudos from the religious and non-religious alike.
Brown writes: "We atheists, then, ought not become a missionary non-religion. We ought not resist the possibility that more will turn to the Catholic Mass — a trend deemed the “Pope Francis Effect” — when they do so out of a commendable concern for social justice. By accepting those actions of the church, we gain more credibility when we decry its contradictions, such as the forbiddance (sic) of the ordination of female priests."
This made me recall our own reflections on our Holy Land pilgrimage - about living out our faith in what we do - And it brought to my mind something else I experienced not long ago in my travels.
When I visit new places I love to nose around the local church to admire the architecture perhaps, or the location, or to simply see in my inquisitive way what they are up to as a congregation so that I may compare notes with our own thriving church!
So when I visited this ancient sea port, steeped in history, I made straight for its parish church.
Now I feel passionately about churches being open during the day, all day every day, for people to freely enter. A locked church is a dead church, I say. An open church is alive and thrives, and is better placed to fulfill its missions. An open church invites people to enter, to pray, to cry, to be quiet and still, to find help in all sorts of different ways. And in this day and age it is not difficult to install CCTV cameras and to put away the most valuable and portable artifacts, or wire them up to a security system of some sort.
And what is more important to our Christian lives - an accessible church or a "valuable" item.
Imagine therefore my first shock - that in this busy and central place the church was locked and I had to follow the instructions on the door to collect the key.
My next shock was how frightened the key holder seemed, as I was visibly vetted up and down for approval before allowing me to enter the portal. She told me why. Apparently there are "characters" around, there is a social problem in the vicinity with drugs and drink and homelessness, congregation have felt threatened, and the police have advised this somewhat draconian procedure which was my experience of gaining entry. And this poor lady seemed to work in a constant state of fear.
And it is certainly true that this "problem" as she called it, exists nearby - I saw it for myself - and felt slightly uncomfortable myself, yes, but also deeply sad.
And then I thought - wait a minute! Who is this church for? Is it just for the comfortable and safe and aging weekly congregation to offer their own worship? Or is it to follow the teachings of Jesus and offer help and support for those most in need in our society, the marginalized, the deprived, the sick? Because alcoholics and drug abusers are sick.
There was a food bank collection point at the back of the church. That's a start, certainly. But the whole episode made me ponder a little. Yes we're happy to help a little, but is this help to be offered only on our own sanitized terms? Is that a Christian response? Jesus never said our calling to follow him was going to be easy!
As the hymn goes: When I needed a neighbour were you there, were you there...?
My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.
"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden