Cliches weren’t invented in a day either. Like the elephant in the room, they usually take some time before they become embarrassing and merit the epithet of ‘cliche’. That Rome wasn’t built in a day, however, is evident after only a few hours in the place.
I have never been to Rome before now. I am only here now because I am at a conference beginning on Sunday evening and thought it would be worth coming a couple of days early and doing some sightseeing before the work begins. And the conference will be work as it is focused on Continuing Professional Development for communications professionals in the church and involves a series of meetings which, in this heat, promise to be exhausting.
We met a friend yesterday evening and he took us for dinner in the Vatican behind St Peter’s. Everywhere you look history bears down on you. The Romans left their marks and every generation since them has made their presence known for future generations. It clearly never occurred to previous generations that something had value simply because it was ‘old’. The useless or the symbolically inappropriate simple made way for something more useful.
So, now you see modern apartment blocks nestling next to huge 500 year old churches. The impression of my first view of Rome is simply that you can trace history in everything your eyes light upon. And that massive and powerful symbol of continuity and spiritual power (for good and ill) sits looking down on a city of amazing vibrancy, diversity and history.
In England – and especially in our ‘old’ churches – history ended a hundred years ago. Try changing something in one of our churches in order to fit the building for worship and service in the modern world and the amenity societies come running out demanding that we retain them as museums. Surely a church ought to reflect in its physical changes the changes in the generations that have used it? But try telling that to some of the guardians of our ‘heritage’ who loathe any change and try to prevent anyone from interfering with their ‘wonderful example of such-and-such an Edwardian, Victorian/Georgian architect’s work’.
The parish where I was vicar for eight years had everything: Saxon foundations and a Saxon cross, mediaeval rood screen, Elizabethan monuments, a Victorian chancel, early 20th century pews, a late-20th century dais … and we drank out of an Elizabethan chalice. That sense of continuity with previous generations was really powerful.
I understand the need not to vandalise precious buildings, but sometimes it gets out of hand. Rome obviously wasn’t built in a day and nor were our own English churches. But Rome betrays the changes of the centuries and so should our English churches.