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Intense Activity Elsewhere: Good Friday Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4

Sunday 16th April 2006

The Archbishop's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4, Good Friday 2006, deals with themes of contemplation and "worship worth the name, a space for the heart to grow into."

A novelist, some years back, put it very well when he described what it was like to arrive in the empty hallway of a monastery in Yorkshire for the first time; 'There is an impression of intense activity elsewhere'. That's a phrase that comes to my mind, sometimes, when I'm in a church towards the end of the Good Friday services. We've had all the readings, we've sung the hymns, we've tried to summon up the appropriate emotions for this overwhelming day, the day on which the whole history of the world depends.

And now the services are nearly over, there are no flowers or decorations, the church has been stripped of everything that might make it look attractive. An empty hall. We've run out of things to say and do. Yet it often feels just like the empty hallway of the monastery: intense activity elsewhere.

At the end of a Good Friday service, we get to the point where nothing we do will be or feel adequate to what's being remembered. And that's completely right, because what matters on this day is what's done elsewhere, done by God, somehow using the stark injustice and horror of the execution of Jesus to turn around the way the world works. Intense activity elsewhere; as if you could hear faintly a workman hammering steadily away at the blank surface of human self-satisfaction and self-deception, and an irregular sound of plaster dropping to a distant floor.

And it's not an intimidating feeling. It's not that we've got an appointment we mustn't miss and we don't know which door to walk through or which staircase to go up. In this empty hallway, there's nothing expected of us at this moment. The work is out of our hands, and all we can do is wait, breathe, look around. People sometimes feel like this when they've been up all night with someone who's seriously ill or dying, or when they've been through a non-stop series of enormously demanding tasks. A sort of peace, but more a sort of 'limbo', an in-between moment. For now, nothing more to do; tired, empty, slightly numbed, we rest for a bit, knowing that what matters is now happening somewhere else.

The pity is that so much of the atmosphere in churches these days, during services and between services, never really gives people that sense of being able to rest because the work's being done elsewhere. Instead it feels, to regular worshippers, let alone anyone dropping in, busy and anxious, as if the worst thing that could ever happen would be for silence to fall and for people to have to face the fact that they weren't in the driving seat any longer.

So it becomes more and more important to get at least one day right, to allow Good Friday to announce its own particular message, as we strip the church of
decoration and forget the ceremonies and formalities, and end up in a bare hallway, just looking around and settling in quiet for a moment.

It's a time when we who are Christians might well ask how we can rethink some of what we do the rest of the time to stop what happens in church being just a frantic assertion of ourselves and our religious busyness. Because it isn't us as Christians, as religious human beings, who are in the lead, heroically making the world a better place. Humanly speaking, our record in this is patchy. It's good for us to shut up and sit down occasionally. Our task is both very simple and very hard: to create a kind of rest and quiet that begins to tune people's ears to the impression of intense activity elsewhere.

That would be worship worth the name, a space for the heart to grow into.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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