Bethlehem'S Church Of The Punch-Up
Giles Fraser

guardian.co.uk
Thursday 29 December 2011 16.00 GMT

The latest brawl between Armenian and Orthodox monks in Bethlehem is
a product of Christianity's romance with buildings

A Greek Orthodox priest wears a face mask as he cleans the Church of
the Nativity in Bethlehem as part of the preparations for the Orthodox
faith's Christmas celebrations. Photograph: Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA

It's become something of a Christmas tradition: the annual
ecclesiastical punch-up at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

This year the Palestinian riot police had to be called in after it
all kicked off again, with a hundred or so Armenian and Greek Orthodox
monks bashing seven bells out of each other with brooms. Apparently one
monk was provocatively brushing somewhere that was supposed to be the
responsibility of someone else. In this feverishly contested space, if
you clean it then you are maintaining it, and if you maintain it then
you are making a claim to owning it: that is the logic, such as it is.

Which is why the three church traditions that share the administration
of the Church of the Nativity still can't agree on who pays for urgent
repairs to the church roof, despite the fact that water is now coming
through and damaging the building. All sides want to pay, and refuse
to let the others put their hands in their pockets. To pay would be
to own.

Of course, it's been worse. In 1853, a similar jurisdictional squabble
saw several Orthodox monks murdered and provided the Russian tsar with
the excuse he needed to start the Crimean war. That time the row was
between the Catholics and the Orthodox about who had the key to the
main door and the hanging of a star over the manger.

In part, this nonsense originates in a longstanding romance between
Christianity and architecture - a romance that began with the building
of the Bethlehem church and its sister establishment, the Church of
the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, under the direction of the newly
converted Emperor Constantine in the late 320s. Since then the church
has been responsible for some of the world's finest architecture. Who
would have guessed the followers of an itinerant preacher, for whom
there was no room inside the building to be born in, would became
the managers of such a spectacular collection of buildings?

For some, church buildings ought to be treated as little more than
rain shelters. From this perspective, a church is first of all the
people. And the buildings - however beautiful and impressive - are a
distraction, transforming the clergy into caretakers and turning in on
itself the outward-looking mission of the church. This is how the monks
of Bethlehem end up being so petty and narrow-minded. Church buildings
have become a fetish, admired by secular aesthetes and those who want
an impressive stage set in which to celebrate life's big events, but
a drain on the resources and moral imagination of the church. What
we need is another dose of healthy iconoclasm to remind us that the
message of the gospel is not to be confused with bricks and mortar.

In my more puritan moments I have some sympathy with this line. You
cannot spend much time at St Paul's without noticing how much the needs
of the building can come to dominate, and how the worship of many
visitors is really that of Sir Christopher Wren. But the Christian
romance with buildings is still worth defending, not least because
the story of Christmas is that God comes alive in material reality.

Christianity is not some esoteric philosophy. It is rooted in
time and place. It begins on the streets before it points to the
stars. And church buildings are an expression of the rootedness of
the incarnation. Where it all goes wrong is when those who are so
caught up in the running of church buildings forget about the purpose
for which the place was built, and come to believe that the stones
matter in and of themselves. When that happens Christianity becomes
petty and narrow, all about who cleans a few metres of floor, rather
than a means of imagining human life from the context of all eternity.