Recently I started noticing a new (to me) range of baking products in the supermarkets that sounds as if it ought to be a Baptist company... I am thinkinf of Fiddes Payne, a company evidently founded in 1993 and belonging to people called White (a few Baptist ones of those too). The image of Paul Fiddes and Ernest Payne in a kitchen sprinkling pink sugary bits onto cupcakes is too surreal for words!
Yes, I finally did some research work! I have two very fat, very worthy and, frankly, very dull, books that I need to read. They sit on my desk at church or on my settee at home and scowl at me menacingly. These intimidating tomes have the ability to paralyse my best endeavours simply by being there, so on Saturday I turned away from them and focused on a slim volume of short essays, with positive results. I only did a couple of hour's work, but I think it was a useful couple of hours, and may finally have broken the psychological stranglehold of worthy-but-dull-ness.
The essay I read was looking at the history of reading and seeking to try to answer some of the what, why, where, when, how questions that arose. It then noted that its findings needed to be brought into dialogue with those from literary theory to see what emerged. It sounded fascinating, relevant to my work, and some of it got my grey matter going, which must be a good thing.
Seemingly, as far back as the 17th century lots of fairly ordinary people did learn to read even if they did not learn to write. Focusing on life in France, the writer noted that people learned to read in Latin the few texts they needed for participation in church worship - so they may not have understood one word of what they read but they could make a stab at reading it and follow the mass on a Sunday. A bit like me trying to read Czech or Finnish I guess.
Reading was, it seems a very communal activity. We probably all know about monks having someone read sacred texts to them at meal times, but evidence seemingly suggests that even relatively lowly artisans would have someone to read to them as they worked (not unlike the radio in the background nowadays). The idea of the lone reader, silently imbibing a text in the privacy of a garret evidently did not exist until much later ... or if it did, was not the norm.
Books were expensive, but with printing and the emergence of non-religious publications, available and valued by any who access to them. A bit like toddlers with favourite bedtime stories, it seems that 17th, 18th and even 19th century Europeans read the same books over and over again, savouring the familiar and, perhaps, spotting new nuances over time. Books helped them make meaning of their own lives, but the 'how to' book (and its implications for the reading of sacred texts) was a long way off.
All of this seems interesting to my research for many reasons.
Firstly, from a methodological perspective it challenges, or at least critiques, the concept of a single implied reader; instead there is the possibility of a 'corporate reader.' That feels quite exciting from the point of view of thinking about Baptists reading history together to aid their theological reflection and how early (17th/18th century) sources might fit into that. It also impacts on my desire to develop a new approach to writing the history - which needs to take into account this intent.
Secondly, it intrigues me greatly when I think of the 17th century texts I've already read and how they are presented as conversations. If these books were read aloud to an 'audience' they become almost more like plays or drama than straight forward prose. Messrs Keach and Marlow each postulated unnamed characters to debate the topic of hymn-singing. How were these books read, I wonder? Was it two voices (I almost hope it was) and did they 'act' or simply read? And what did the audience do? Did they listen and then discuss or did they interrupt and join in? It's fascinating to wonder. Well it is for me.
What I am beginning to speculate is that, almost by chance, my decision to focus on this late pre-Modern/early-Modern period where books were read and discussed communally (so the contemporary reading group is demonstration of there being nothing new under the sun) is actually ideal for my work. By using sources and resources that may well suppose communal reading and corporate reflection, I may find styles and approaches that adapt for twenty-first century British Baptists. Whether that means books per se, or creative use of drama, poetry, film or whatever, I am far from clear. But it's kind of exciting, and makes me feel that just maybe I can look those big scary books in the knee-caps and give them a go after all!
Most ministers I know avoid Trinity Sunday like a plague of Egyptian locusts. A couple of years back I decided it was time to stop the avoidance and engage with the challenge; for the most part people seem to appreciated it. One of the challenges, irrespective of the age of your congregation, is finding suitable illustrations, well, assuming of course you want to go that way of course. Many of those I found on a quick web trawl are familiar - the shamrock leaf, the three states of water, the dreaded trifle (which I'd never heard of until I began training as a minister and its badness has stuck firmly in my brain) and this time I found eggs, apples and even jaffa cakes! The problem with these images is that they slip into modalism - three modes or functions of God - three people rather than the three personae. Trouble is, the more theologically orthodox concepts are utterly impossible to explain or illustrate, which is why I suspect we live with the modalism.
Evidently St Patrick held up his shamrock/clover leaf and said "is it three-in-one or one-in-three?" His hearers allegedly said 'both,' which is about as good, and non-modal, as you're going to get.
So, I'm back to mulling over what I'll do for the "all together" part of our service and thinking the shamrock is a pretty good contender, all things considered. Perhaps we over-rationalise mystery, perhaps we stetch metaphors to breaking point, and perhaps we're either too fearful or too ignorant of heresy to find creative means of exploring the wonder of a triune God?
What is the difference? Probably not a lot... it seems to be mainly a matter of nomenclature.
I think it is probably that gnats bite with an English accent, wheas as midges bite in Scots.
There are, now and then, moments when the church visible and invisible, militant and triumphant, now and not yet, are palpably one. It is one of those mysterion (sorry no Greek letters on this platform) that I find more as I get older and have been in more congregations in more roles; it probably has something to do with having done dozens of funerals and now and then singing hymns or songs that connect me with people, times and places (some of my friends find it rather wierd that I date pop songs by what I was doing and where; if there's no association I can't date them. Increasingly pop songs link me to certain crematoria!!).
Last evening was one of those moments, as we we sang the old redemption hymn It Is Well. I learned this hymn for a funeral because it was the favourite of the deceased, a lovely older man in my former congregation. Tom (not his real name) had served in WWII and was twice held as a POW in Japan. What he saw and experienced he never told, though in his final days, in our conversations, he was able to lay down some of it before he died. This song had sustained him through horrors I cannot begin to imagine.
I like to think that as we sang the hymn last evening somewhere, just out of reach, he was singing it too...
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well with my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin - O the bliss of this glorious thought! -
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more:
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live!
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But, Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming, we wait;
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord!
Blessèd hope! blessèd rest of my soul!
Horatio G Spafford (1828-1888)