There are times, I must confess, that the thought of driving golf balls through the picture windows of theological tradition is really quite appealing, not least because of the effect it might have on all those nice people drinking Earl Grey in the living room.
You may ask, what has prompted this outburst?
Icons. That’s what. Along with all the other flummery and wonk that passes for real spirituality. The Church which I attend – I really can’t bring myself to use the word ‘my’ – has gone through a small paradigm shift due in part to the presence of a new locum priest who is undoubtedly comfortable operating in the rarefied and lofty heights of a more Anglo-Catholic tradition and perhaps also to the unspoken needs of a preponderance of worshippers. Smoking handbags, chalices, chasubles and claustrophobia about tidies it in my undoubtedly low and beetle-browed understanding. Which brings me to icons. On sale everywhere, from anything from a few euros to put on the dashboard to millions of dollars. Pictures of Slavic saints or Russian Maries holding improbably angelic offspring to which veneration is frequently offered. I am reliably informed that the Orthodox make quite a big deal about bowing and other forms of veneration. I was once in the impressive St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg and attempted to calculate how many people had kissed the feet of a saintly statue on display there by how worn away its foot had become.
Is it OK not to bow? I received a degree once from a member of the Royal Family. Could I bow? Young Conservatives did, their Tory noses scraping the carpet. Could I? Not a bit of it. A courtly inclination of the head and eye contact. I genuinely understood the meaning of ‘stiffnecked’. Comparatively little work revealed the following:
Usually, the word ‘bowing’ references the bowing of the head, sometimes the bowing of the body and, like Baskin Robbins, there do seem to be a number of different preferred flavours, dependent on circumstances. It is almost always done in the context of worshipping God (Gen 24:26, 48, 52; Ex 4:31; 34:8; 1 Chr 29:20; 2 Chr 20:18; 29:30; Neh 8:6) and is frequently combined with a word translated as “worship” so that often you find the phrase “bowed their heads and worshipped.” There is only one time where it is questionable, in Num 22:31 it is used in reference to bowing to an angel of the Lord. The angel seemed to see the funny side and does not rebuke Balaam, who fell flat on his face. Apparently, there was some aspect of “worship” in this, but is not stated as such, the poor man was scared witless, in all probability. But, bowing to altars, kissing saints, I’m puzzled by the relevance. When I look at a stained glass window or a Renaissance painting with a scriptural theme, it seems easy to me to resist the temptation to bow to it, or even attempt to kiss it, however glorious the interpretation. My Bible is of value to me, but I draw the line at slobbering over it. Kissing this icon of St Xenia of Petersburg, or indeed gazing at it for any length of time, a modern rendition being pictured, seems a bit more than flesh and blood can stand. She was, it has to be said, widowed at 26 and, grief-stricken, gave everything she owned away, hence the somewhat lugubrious face. An Orthodox homily on icons invited me to consider replacing the bumper sticker ‘have you hugged your kid today?’ with the equally pithy ‘have you kissed a saint today?’ Er, no.
It would, I suppose not be unreasonable to simply say to me ‘why not just leave it out? Clearly, you’re unmoved by liturgical beauty, so leave it to those who are.’ Ah. Because it’s replacement theology, that’s why. Not in Vicar school terms, but because it replaces a dynamic, living vibrant faith relationship with God, often difficult to pursue and maintain with a convenient cardboard cutout. At best it’s laziness, at worst, idolatry.