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Bethlehem'S Church Of The Punch-Up

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  • Bethlehem'S Church Of The Punch-Up

    Bethlehem'S Church Of The Punch-Up
    Giles Fraser
    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.

    From: A. Papazian