Why the church is beyond defending

By Giles Fraser
November 12, 2008

Every few years there's an almightily punch up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This year's scrap was a classic. On Monday 10 November 2008, monks from the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches were arrested by Israeli riot police for brawling in the very place where Christ was supposed to have been buried.

Apparently, there was some infringement of the intricate rules that govern the running of the place. For the denominations that share responsibility for the church this was obviously a weighty matter - though, to me, it seemed as inconsequential as the wrong monk being in the wrong procession. Whatever the explanation, the scenes of chaos were shaming to all.

So given the pugnacious reputation of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was with some trepidation that I agreed recently to give a talk to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Founded around 1099, at the conclusion of the incredibly bloody first crusade, the order was set up to be a military presence at Christ's tomb. However, back in the nineteenth century, Pope Pious 9th gave the order a new mission. No longer would its members be a religious army in the Holy Land. Instead, they would guard Christ's sepulchre by expressing their solidarity with indigenous Christians. Today, this means raising money to plant olive trees and supporting educational projects.

Pope Pious 9th was absolutely spot-on about how one defends the church. One defends it best by not defending it, by not being obsessed with it and instead by looking outward, looking towards the needs of the others.

Jesus said that only those who are prepared to loose their life will find it. The logic is counter intuitive. The more you give away the more you have. The more your focus in life is outside of yourself, the more your own soul will flourish. This is why the introverted piety of churchyness is, in the end, a complete betrayal of the message of the church - which is exactly what happened with those warring monks.

But surely also, there's a lesson here for a huge number of us. For many of us do spend a great deal of our time and energy, at work and at home, defending some pathetic little patch of turf which, in the great scheme of things, means precious little. If we're not careful we can easily find that we've invested our lives in battling for some shrinking space that is, ultimately, as inconsequential as the place of a monk in a procession.

How do we guard against becoming like this? The Christian answer is that that we find freedom from the ego's ever narrowing obsessions by placing our centre of interest outside of ourselves. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of freedom to which the monastic life is supposed to point - and, at its best, it still does.


(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney and a regular writer and broadcaster.

This article is adapted from a recent BBC Radio 4 'Thought for the Day' with grateful acknowledgments. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/

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