Every Eucharistic service, in whatever Christian tradition, is a recreation of the Last Supper. I’m at a work conference in Birmingham at the moment, staying in a hotel bang opposite the Cathedral, so I joined the 8 a.m. congregation there today for the service that I was taught, unfairly, to call Muddled Matins and Holy Confusion.
We were 12 congregants, like the apostles, gathered around the altar where the priest played the role of Christ. In Christ, we are always being made new: the priest was a woman. For two millennia it would have been a vanishingly rare event, although not as unheard of as the sceptics admit. Now, at least in the churches which emerged from the Reformation, it is commonplace. That should not deflect us from how wonderful and glorious and new it all is. The Holy Spirit continues to renew His Church.
How could we have been so blind, for so long, to the truth expressed so plainly in Scripture by St. Paul barely two decades after the Resurrection? There is no longer male nor female, for we are all one in Christ. To say that a woman cannot represent Christ at the altar is, to my mind, dangerously close to saying that God did not so much become man in Christ, but male.
And we 12 whom the priest fed with Christ’s body and blood were a reflection in miniature of the final heavenly banquet, where people from every tribe and nation will gather. We were young and old; men and women; black, white and Asian. Some were in good suits on the way to an office job that doubtless paid for a comfortable bourgeois life; some were obviously very poor to the point were they could have been sleeping rough. All of us equal in God’s eyes, all of us citizens of the family of holy screw ups we call the Church.
The sun streamed through that magnificent east window depicting the Ascension, Christ triumphant over death and going ahead of His people to prepare a place for them in Heaven. In the glorious silence between the words, the sounds of a vibrant city waking up to glorious September sunshine percolated through the walls.
I’ve always liked Birmingham: a proper big city, incredibly cosmopolitan, full of high and low culture (the birthplace of heavy metal and home to Britain’s finest concert hall). Brummies are warm and friendly people: if the cultural and architectural offering doesn’t quite match London’s, England’s second city mercifully lacks the capital’s self-obsession, aggression and Mammon worship. On Tuesday evening, the city centre streets heaved with people until late into the evening. The physical environment of the city has been transformed over the past 20 years, concrete brutalism being replaced with daring contemporary architecture that complements a fine legacy of Victorian and Edwardian buildings.
Yet it remains fashionable to sneer at Birmingham. I don’t know why.
The legendary World War One chaplain, Woodbine Willie, once wrote “When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by. They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die”. I don’t know why Birmingham was singled out: it is a city with a fine Christian tradition, much of it immigrant, from the socially radical Irish Catholicism of the past to the vibrant Black Majority churches of the past few generations.
But the poor old bloody old C of E also has much to be proud of in the city: two of its bishops, Charles Gore and Leonard Wilson were among the finest saints produced by the 20th Century C of E. Pace Woodbine Wilie, as long as Brummies continue to meet together to pray and break bread with one another and with Christ, He will be alive and well in their great, but so often slighted, city.