Promoting Religious Study (1) – The Sign of the Cross

Government has produced a new standard for the GCSE in religious studies. It’s intention is to improve understanding of other faiths in part as part of its drive towards combatting violent extremism – especially among disaffected young people on the fringes of Islam. The intention is that student should study at least two religions. I guess there is not requirement to show how some religions historically overlap and in some cases have common roots.

The religions to choose from are one of Christianity and Catholic Christianity, and one of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. There is, seemingly, no need to study the three Abrahamic religions as evolutionary strands of a common faith sharing a single Creator God. There is seemingly no need to question a not uncommon yet deep-seated and sometimes extremist Christian belief that Muslims worship a different God – despite Muslims believing that Jews and Christians as well as Muslims are “Peoples of the [one] Book”.

In my post-working life I have taken to studying the history of religious rituals and am following interfaith initiatives. The two elements go together. They complement one another. They provide a basis for interfaith discussion and a reason to discussion apparently odd religious practices with people from different religions. To be honest I have not associated with any Jews in my lifetime and only latterly in my working career associated with Muslims. I was raised in a Christian environment but have led a pretty secular life. I am prepared to describe myself as a Christian but I am not religious. The point is that I am not really bogged down with a great deal of religious baggage and critically I do not wear blinkers. My study is interesting – especially with the application of a little lateral thinking.

Prompting my study is a realisation that most, if not all, religious ritual must have a practical, dare I say profane, antecedent or origin. That origin may have been “lost” over time but it can be teased out.

Anyone who has read my earlier blogs may well have picked up my interest in non-slaughter – so-called “religious slaughter” or “ritual slaughter”. Both phrases are misnomers and I do not want to develop the concept of sacrifice here and now except to say that sacrifice seems to be associated with many religions and in turn we have cleansing rituals.

The statement “cleanliness is next to godliness” has its roots in sacrifice and a need for strict hygiene. That can be developed fully at another time but for now many people know that Muslims perform ritual ablutions before they pray. They literally wash the exposed parts of their body before they pray formally. Why?

Today the practice can only be symbolic. It has no practical value but has huge spiritual significance. Hindus have a cleansing ritual. And so do Christians but few, if any, will connect their rituals to Islamic ablutions. Few will connect their rituals to sacrifice and the need for hygiene. There is now a barrier between two related faiths because followers or practitioners have lost touch with their historical roots.

I want to try to repair some of this loss.

Baptismal fonts are traditionally placed within the main entrances of older churches. It wasn’t until very recently that I clocked this. Traditionally it is to remind you of your reception into Christianity – namely your baptism. Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches often have a stoup near the main entrance (I have seen them at all entrances). A stoup contains “holy water” and is provided to allow visitors to make the “sign of the cross” as a reminder of their baptism.

Stoups and baptismal fonts apparently have different functions. Really?

On one cathedral visit I made I learned that churches should only have one font. I was informed that that cathedral had two. It was the resting place for a ship’s bell, HMS Salisbury. Traditionally, it appears ships’ bell were used for baptisms but we will pass over this. More strikingly the font at Salisbury Cathedral is a huge running water feature. Although it’s in the centre of the nave, for me it had huge symbolic significance.

How then is it permissible to have a stoup and a font? I have no idea but it may just demonstrate how Christianity has lost touch with its roots.

A little over a year ago I followed a Muslim family out of Lichfield Cathedral. I had already made a link between the Christian Baptism and Islamic ablutions. Significantly, for practical reasons the font at Lichfield has been moved its north transept leaving the original spot marked by a circle of floor tiles that look odd and out of place.

I just had to engage the family and point out the link between the baptism and Islamic ablutions and why fonts are traditionally by the main entrance. Without prompting and no other obvious cue the father described the “four points of ablution”. These briefly are:

  1. The head;
  2. The feet;
  3. The left arm and hand; and
  4. The right arm and hand.

As he went through the motions, as it were, he mused “the sign of the cross”. This was a lightbulb moment.

I have stated my view that most, if not all, religious ritual has a practical origin and here we have the origin to the “sign of the cross”. What other reason can there be?

Baptism takes its roots from a need for priests literally to cleanse themselves before performing sacrificial duties. They like as not may have done so in a flowing stream close to its source and assuredly free from animal excrement. John baptised Jesus in the River Jordan. The Ganges is sacred to Hindus but is not now clean, at least not where modern ceremonies are held. Salisbury Cathedral has a running water feature for its font as does St Martin Church next to Birmingham’s Bullring. Even if it’s modest the St Martin’s font is the first thing you see on entry (or it would be were it not for a floral display). It is literally in front of you as you enter.

Christians mostly do not perform literal ablutions before prayer. Catholics, however, often make the sign of the cross. You often see footballers make the sign as the run onto the football pitch. Symbolically Christians are cleansing their minds of evil and untoward thoughts before entering a place of worship or, in the case of footballers, making a quick prayer asking for help in overcoming adversity and committing themselves to a clean and fair game.

In this blog I have pointed to rituals within religion that must have a common root or origin but over time have evolved to become distinct and apparently very different.

As I wrote, “cleanliness is next to godliness”. So it may well be and it may well explain a number of other peculiar attitudes and beliefs.

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