Monday, January 14, 2008

St Stephen the Great

I have been a sporadic customer of SPCK over the past ten years, so it registered slightly on my consciousness when my daughter informed me that their shops were to close. I soon forgot about that and it was only recently that I really noticed that the shops seemed to be stocking many more icons than they have done in the past. Now, I LOVE icons (I know that that is a phrase that irks the Orthodox believer, but I do). I love their still prayerfulness, their link to eternity, their history and their beauty. I have an icon of Christ the Teacher on my desk that has stood there since the birth of my third daughter ten years ago, the contemplation of which I am firmly convinced prevented a descent into pretty severe post-natal depression. The feeling of peace that it imparts is beyond price. I still go into the local SPCK shop fairly regularly, especially around Christmas, and felt vaguely cheered by their campaign to save and restore redundant churches. However the number of icons in the shop now seem to overwhelm the rest of the displays and I noted a large number of Eastern Rite prayer books prominently displayed. Somewhat intrigued by this turn towards the eastern tradition, I did an internet search and hit upon a video that describes the mission statement of the Trust of St Stephen the Great , who have taken over SPCK's shops in the UK.
All very laudable - saving Britain's Christian heritage etc. by reconverting derelict places of worship into Orthodox churches.
But hold on a minute.....since when was Orthodoxy part of the religious heritage of Britain? Does it not make more sense to revitalise the Catholic or Anglican communities? Surely there are more Western Rite Christians who might appreciate seeing a renewed church in their area? Who are the target congregations? Does St Stephen the Great advocate conversion to Orthodoxy?
The clue is in the name: St Stephen the Great fought against Islam, and when he was triumphant in battle he established a church at the site of his victory, on Muslim land. It is less surprising, then, that one of the rejuvenated churches funded by this charitable organisation is no great distance away from the second largest mosque in Britain; in Bradford, which has a population of 16,000 Muslims. Get it?
That Britain is becoming an inceasingly secular and morally floundering country is beyond doubt and any increase in moral and spiritual direction is to be welcomed wholeheartedly, but I am extremely dubious whether this neo-crusader mentality is either helpful or healthy. The leaders of this country's religions must work harder at establishing inter-faith dialogue in order to halt the descent into multi-cultural isolationism and insidious recruitment to mutually hostile cells.

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