This week’s blog focuses on the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.1-21, the fundamental lectionary reading for Pentecost each year. It is one of those (fairly few) occasions where I feel the need to include a disclaimer, making it clear that what I say, particularly near the end of the piece, is not necessarily the official policy of the Diocese in Europe.
Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship,; Diocese in Europe. Clare.Amos@europe.anglican.org
Lord, this is your world,
North and South, East and West.
Beautiful, varied, complete, interdependent, whole.
Humans having seen it from afar,
Turning, hanging in space, a miracle.
Give us a new vision.
Forgive us our pride, our blindness,
Lord, we are unfaithful stewards.
Open our eyes.
Give us a new will, a new vision.
Prayer written by an ecumenical group in Strasbourg)
I have always been fascinated by old or illustrated maps. Perhaps it is an enthusiasm that runs in the family, as an older relative of mine (she was my first cousin twice removed) was Marian Fielding Peck, who, using her initials (partly I think to conceal the fact that she was a woman), so named publicly as M.F. Peck, created a much cherished series of map postcards illustrating many of the counties of the United Kingdom Marian Fielding Peck (1897-1974) | Flickr. I am not biased of course (!), but I think that the M.F. Peck map postcards are in a league of their own in this genre. I believe that I was actually named after her (my middle name is Marian), though sadly I have not inherited an iota of her artistic talent.
One of the best known traditions in medieval illustrated maps of the then ‘known’ world was to place Jerusalem at its centre. A famous example of this is the Mappa Mundi which you can still (thankfully) find at Hereford Cathedral. Locating Jerusalem in this position was a mark of its fundamental importance in the story of our faith. In one sense this tradition feels a quaint relic – although sadly current news from the Holy Land is certainly a salutary reminder of the way peace and conflict in that Land affects the health and wellbeing of the whole world.
The biblical account of Ascension and Pentecost however draws a new map. It both builds on – yet ultimately challenges – the vision of a world centred upon one particular place, however holy and beloved that place may be. One of the most powerful insights that Pentecost offers us is the affirmation that from its very beginning the church has always been global. This theme draws together both Ascension and Pentecost. It is just before his Ascension that Jesus speaks to his disciples of their being witnesses to him, ‘in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1.8). Indeed as William Temple put it because, as a result of his Ascension, Jesus is in heaven, he is also ‘everywhere on earth’ (see previous blog by William Gulliford, ‘Risen, Ascended, Glorified’).
As regards the story of Pentecost itself, one of its remarkable features is the emphasis given to the wide variety of geographical locations which those who experienced the events of that day came from. As the biblical text puts it they came from ‘every nation under heaven’. It is interesting and may be significant that the countries listed include not only lands that formed part of the Roman Empire – but also a number of places – Parthia, Media, Elam that were seen as particularly alien because they were part of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s inveterate enemy. Given the fact that, because of their common interest in the motif of language, we are intended to ‘read’ the New Testament account of Pentecost alongside the Old Testament account of the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-19), it is significant that the story of Babel is clearly set just after a list (Genesis 10.1-32) of all the nations of the then known earth.
Similarly the list of places mentioned in Acts in turn becomes a signal for the fact that Pentecost will shortly be the starting-point for the wind of God’s Spirit to blow Jesus’ disciples from Jerusalem to Judaea, Samaria, Antioch, Europe and eventually ‘to the ends of the earth.’
For a number of years I worked both for USPG and the Anglican Communion Office based at Partnership House, Waterloo, London. The building, which then housed a number of Anglican mission agencies, had engraved over its entrance a quotation from Mark 16.15 that begins with the words ’Go forth to every part of the world…’ Now I have to confess to having problems with that inscription – and it wasn’t only due to that particular verse most likely being a secondary addition to the original Gospel text of Mark. It was also the fact that, perhaps unintentionally, the inscription managed to convey the impression that England, and London, was somehow the real centre of the world – from which the Gospel would travel to reach its farthest extremities. In truth that was part of the ethos of the British Protestant 19th century missionary movement, a movement which needs to be both celebrated but also challenged.
Back to the topic of maps. Many of the Mercator’s projection maps created in the 19th and early 20th century hey-day of the missionary era precisely seem to suggest that ‘Europe’ or ‘Britain’ are to be seen as the ‘centre’ of the world, at least in terms of everything that mattered! However you will also be aware of the ‘Peters Projection’ maps which developed in the early 1970s and aimed to try and correct the distortion of size presented by the Mercator’s maps, which oversized the temperate regions and undersized the equator. But even those early Peters Projection examples still tended to ‘centre’ the world on Europe. More recently efforts have been made to ‘centre’ the world on other regions – one of my own favourite examples places the Pacific Ocean at the centre of a world map. All of this can and should help us to look at our world with different eyes, in ways that most Europeans have not been used to.
Of course the basic problem with all flat maps is that they are seeking to convey, in a two-dimensional form, our ‘globe’ which is a three dimensional body. What does it mean to think of our world as a globe, and what is the connection between that and the birthday of the church at Pentecost? One question that it is salutary to ponder is which point, if any, on the surface of a globe can be seen as its centre? I think the genuine answer must be ‘nowhere’.
We are, or perhaps should be, more conscious these days of the nature of our world as a ‘globe’, because human beings have been granted the privilege, unknown before the 1960s, of seeing the world in all its beauty and fragility from outer space. The prayer quoted above, composed by an ecumenical group in Strasbourg, reflects this.
I want to suggest therefore that our ‘Pentecost Projection’ map of the world, needs to honour its truly global nature. And it seems to me that our Diocese in Europe has an interesting and important role to play in this. Somehow our very existence can and should help to ‘de-centre’ the rest of the Church of England, from looking at the world through a totally English lens. It is perhaps significant that a few months ago we in this Diocese responded to the imperative that the church should work for racial justice even more quickly than the rest of the Church of England to produce our report ‘Breathing Life’ Racial-Justice-Breathing-Life-April2021.pdf (anglican.org). What are the other ways in which we can offer a ‘global’ challenge to the life of our Church?
Of course, in turn, the challenge for those of us who are associated with the Diocese and its life is to ask ourselves some searching questions about what and where we consider OUR own spiritual centre to be, and what we can discover by mapping our world through the ‘Pentecost Projection’? Perhaps the prayer composed by Revd Heather Pencavel, a retired minister of the United Reformed Church, can offer us some inspiration:
You have always seen planet earth as a globe.
You made it that way,
Spherical, on purpose, to dance and spin
To the rhythm of the universe.
It is we who have been flat-earthers
Afraid of falling off the edge,
Afraid to venture far outside
The walls we build
Of colour, race and culture
Help us, God of wisdom and mercy,
To trust your wisdom and believe your Word,
Who made the heavens and the earth to be one universe
Beautiful beyond imagination
Founded on covenant love and justice.
Show us how to build a global community
Redeemed and restored by that same love
Expressed in justice
In fair working practice and just trade
In peaceful government and mutual care.
Through Jesus Christ, whose arms spread wide at Calvary
To express the global nature of unending love.