The flight from Dunedin left early so I was up at 5 and driving to the airport in the dark and wet. Wellington was cloudy and Auckland, when I arrived slightly misty and, by Dunedin standards, warm, but that doesn't seem to stop the wimpy locals banging on about how chilly it is. I picked up my bargain basement rental car- an aging Nissan Sunny with the performance and handling of a slug negotiating a plate of porridge- and navigated my way across the city with surprisingly little bother. With an hour to kill before the powhiriri I found a cafe near the Orakei basin and bought a large and good and inexpensive latte. I sat and looked out at the streets around which, 35 years ago, I had jogged with a pair of adidas on my feet and a pained but determined expression on my face. This was a neighbourhood near which I had lived during that period in my life when I had first been truly happy, and now it was at once familiar to me and as foreign as Honolulu or Beirut.
Through long remembered streets I drove to St John's College, where the theological hui is being held, parked the glutinous Nissan and entered the Wesley building. There are heat pumps and a data projector now, but otherwise, it was wall to wall Deja vu: same carpet, same curtains, same tutkutuku panels, and even some of the same people, although, poor old dears, they have aged so much they found it hard to recognize me.
This college is where so much began for me: theology, the Biblical languages, liturgy, more friendships than I can now recall, preaching, contemplation, snooker, a collection of books, diaconate and priesthood and even, in a way, episcopacy. After lunch I walked the kilometre or so down to Abraham Place and past the tiny flat where my marriage began and also my son Nicholas. I walked back up the hill over which I used to run and thus over the ground where my knee problems started. And I sat and listened to Andrew McGowan, who is one of the best lecturers I have heard in many a long year, speaking about Perpetua and the start of Christianity as we know it.
As Andrew pointed out, the 2nd 3rd and 4th centuries were when much of Christianity had its beginnings. The New Testament found its shape then as did the creeds, baptism as we understand it, and the eucharist and the form of ministry into which I was shaped, in this building, 35 years ago. He reminded me of the surprising relevance of the development of Christendom to us who are witnessing its unravelling.
Perpetua was a catechumen, that is, an apprentice Christian, who was martyred in 203 AD for her refusal to sacrifice and acknowledge the genius of the Emperor. It seems that the Romans were quite tolerant when it came to religion. You could believe in what you jolly well pleased and participate in any act of worship that took your fancy as long as you still paid homage to the official state cult. That is, you were fine as long as your faith was a private affair and didn't interfere in your duties as a citizen which included a public affirmation of the deity - that is the ultimate importance and authority - of the Emperor. Perpetua refused. For her, faith encompassed all her actions. For her, allegiance to Christ took precedence over all other allegiances. She was a citizen of the kingdom, and could not therefore pledge undying loyalty to something as limited and flawed as a mere earthly nation. For this conviction she was prepared to risk all, even her own life. "Jesus is Lord" was the first Christian creed: an allegiance so total and so exclusive that it crowded out all others.
Lately I have been reading Marilynne Robinson and Terry Eagleton and David Bentley Hart on the nature of modernity and of modernity's virtual deification of tolerance: of the tendency for contemporary people to regard the very act of acceptance as of supreme importance without giving more than passing thought to the content of that which they are tolerating. Modernity tends, by affirming everything, to affirm nothing, except the desirability of affirmation. Accordingly, who amongst us moderns has anything to which we hold so dearly that we would face the wild beasts rather than forsake it? Perpetua's defiant conviction at the start of Christendom raises an uncomfortable questions for us at its end: can we still proclaim "Jesus is Lord"? And if we can, what on earth do we mean by it?
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