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Amsterdam and religious tolerance

If you know anything about the history of 16th century England, no doubt the subject of religion will feature prominently. The reigning monarch dictated which should be the established religion, and refusing to obey the wishes of the monarch could make life very uncomfortable. Indeed, many lost their lives because they refused to acquiesce and change sides.

In Amsterdam, on the other hand, the great change brought about by the Alteration in 1578 saw the city officially change its status from being Catholic to being Protestant. Unlike the ‘great alterations’ in England, this alteration did not cause a  huge social and political earthquake. The Amsterdamers took it in their stride, and weighed up the pros and cons of taking a severely hard line attitude to dissent, and eventually decided that the wealth and talent brought by members of other religions to the city were immensely more important than ostracising them, or even executing them.

So Amsterdam settled into a long period of quiet acceptance, so long as the dissenting places of worship were not visible to the rest of the community. So over succeeding years, several buildings and attics were adapted to meet the spiritual needs of the dissenters, the most notable (and probably the only surviving example) is the Catholic chapel known as ‘Our Lord in the Attic’. An ingenious attic conversion that can accommodate several dozen in the congregation, but remains invisible to passers-by.

Our Lord in the attic

Our Lord in the Attic

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Istanbul: day1

I stand corrected….having suggested in previous posts that Turkey is an Islamic state, Yunus (the Turkish Kurd I met in Bursa) put me right: Turkey is a secular state, and has been such for nearly 100 years, ever since Ataturk swept out the Ottoman dynasties, and ushered in a new period of Turkish history. This included separating church and state, adopting the Latin alphabet and converting to the Gregorian calendar. These changes were radical, almost seismic, but the country weathered the storm.
Symbolic of this radical shift is the once religious temple (but now museum) Hagia Sophia.

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Founded under Constantine the Great, for a thousand years it was the seat of eastern Christendom, but was converted into a mosque with the advent of the Ottomans in the 15th century. In recognition of its mixed history and dual ownership, Ataturk ordered it to be decommissioned as a religious building, and had it converted into a museum, thus restoring some of the ancient mosaics destroyed by the Ottomans.

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That restoration process will be ongoing for several more years, so the interior scaffolding looks set to stay for a while.
If you look at a plan of Istanbul, you will see there is a mosque on almost every street corner. They form part of the fabric of life in Turkey, and not just religious life. They are social meeting points and resting places

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and children play while their parents are attending to their prayer rituals. Today I sat on the comfortably carpeted floor of a mosque just to observe, and what I saw was a constant stream of men

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coming in to perform their own private prayer ritual, or joining up with others in a straight line to pray in unison, or sit quietly in a wing to read and study the Koran

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In other words, the serious business of prayer and study was woven into the very fabric of day to day living.

Although getting to Istanbul meant cycling across an entire continent and two time zones, today I simply hopped on a regular ferry, paid just over £1, and went to Asia…..and it only took 15 minutes!

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Of course, the Bosphorus is the dividing line between Europe and Asia, so not only is Turkey a country of two continents, so is Istanbul itself.
Does that happen with any other city/country in the world?
http://www.justgiving.com/Frank-Burns2

A speculative 17th century encounter………..

Edward María Wingfield

At a recent gathering at Little Gidding, we celebrated the memory of Nicholas Ferrar the man who, along with several members of his own family, established a Christian community at this remote spot in west Cambridgeshire. Amongst the many reflections and readings, I offered a highly speculative view of a possible chance encounter in the early 17th century. The story goes as follows:

During Tudor times, my home village of Kimbolton was dominated by the Wingfields, a family who had found favour with Henry VIII and were granted the estates of Kimbolton Castle and its surrounds. One of the Wingfield descendants, Edward María Wingfield, inherited the dissolved properties and estate of Stonely Priory nearby, and went on to distinguish himself by being elected as the first President of the Council of Jamestown, the first successful British colonial settlement in the US. Not only that, but he was also the only shareholder (and principal financial backer) of the newly founded London Virginia Company to accompany

Nicholas Ferrar

the colonists on their venture. The said company suffered major reversals in its short history, and many who had invested heavily in its fortunes paid a heavy price for their speculation. One such family was the Ferrar family. It is well documented that Nicholas Ferrar, politician and businessman, was so affected by the declining fortune of his family, that he gave up his life in London and retreated to the relative calm of the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he established a quietly retiring Christian community far removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

My speculation was this: had Nicholas Ferrar and Edward María Wingfield ever met each other? Were they even known to each other? If not, were they to have met, I wonder what they might have said to each other?

I reckon there is a ‘talking heads’ dialogue somewhere in this.

Pilgrim: James Jackson

When I was an undergraduate student, I remember attending a seminar entitled “The value of 3rd rate fiction”. I wasn’t sure then how such classifications worked in the world of fiction, but there was a sense (almost a snobbish sense) that if a novel proved to be massively popular (what we now call a ‘blockbuster’ or ‘best seller’) there was something intrinsically flawed about it. Using the same arguments, if what you are reading now is a veritable ‘page-turner’ and you can’t put it down until you have finished it, the author must be appealing to the lowest common denominator amongst his/her readership. Now, I am not going to argue for or against this notion, but I do remember Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code preventing me from catching a few hours snooze on a trans-Atlantic flight a few years back.  I held him personally responsible for my extended jet-lag over several days!

I am not sure what historians, in general, think of historical fiction, a genre which has become extremely popular in recent years. From my limited experience, some of it is very good, and some…………well, very bad. The popularising of history can, when the writing is good, bring the past alive and give us a vivid insight into significant events, but when the writing is bad, mediocre or sensationalist, you wonder why a publisher ever entertained it for publication. I liken the reading of the latter to a very hungry man who hastily decides to buy himself fish and chips from a nearby van. The smell of the batter and vinegar lures him in, the golden brown of the fry-up makes him salivate, he eats the whole of his serving with relish………then, as he licks the grease from his fingers and wipes the vinegar stains from his chin, he really wishes he had opted for a salad for the sake of his health.

So, is this my verdict after reading Pilgrim by James Jackson? The year is 1212, and the Pope has called for another crusade and some 40,000 children pledged to win back Jerusalem and find the Christians’ most treasured relic, the True Cross, which was lost to the Muslims. The narrative follows the fortunes and misfortunes of this band of children as they make their way to the Holy Land. The narrative has you turning pages almost quicker than you can read them. To satisfy the hunger created by curiosity, you want to find out what happens on the next page, then the next page………..until at the end (as you lick the grease from your fingers and wipe the vinegar stains from your chin), you really feel as if you should have been reading something more challenging and instructive like War and Peace, or I, Claudius, or Don Quixote of la Mancha (the best unread seller in Spain, discounting the Bible). Maybe the fact you didn’t choose any of the latter says something about you or the intrinsic value of the former and, instead of relegating the former to the status of ‘3rd rate fiction’, it should be valued as exactly what it is…………….. an entertaining page-turner.

Ushaw College: a class reunites

Ushaw College

I have reported elsewhere on this blog (click here) about the closure of Ushaw College, for 203 years the principal Catholic Seminary in the north of England for the training of priests.  A general gathering for the final Grand Day last March (Old Boys Day) to mark the closure of the College ignited the idea of a first reunion of my own class in the College, which turned into a 50th anniversary celebration of the year many of us started our College careers (1961).

But these things do not happen without a prime mover, and our reunion would not have happened without the initiative and sterling efforts of Peter Forster, who dedicated many months and hundreds of hours in laying the foundations for what turned out to be a very happy and successful occasion in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Durham (only 3 miles from Ushaw). People were tentative and a little nervous about renewing contact with old school friends they hadn’t seen in over 43 years. Would

St Cuthbert´s Chapel

we all revert to our teenage personae, and use those dreaded nicknames we were glad to be rid of when we left the College? A master-stroke was to include partners and spouses. It must have been a daunting prospect for them, but they all settled happily to meeting a sea of new faces and learning some of the ‘truths’ about the lives of their men-folk which pre-dated their relationships.

A lively, convivial meal was happily interrupted by a Skyped video-conference with one of our class-mates living in Minnesota, also by the reading of a letter from another whose clerical duties prevented him from attending. And a couple of powerpoint slide-shows brought to life a host of faded black & white photos which happily showed all of us in our better-looking days, and

At table

brought to mind many anecdotal stories! For the Ushaw School 61-74 slide-show click here, and for the School 61-74 Portraits slide-show click here.

Although several at the reunion lived within a short radius of Durham, some had come considerable distances, including one from Rome, one from Normandy, and one might  have come from Dublin but for the sad news of his house being flooded by the recent rains.

For those who could stay the following day, we were treated to a final guided visit of the College before its definitive closure, and we now await news of how this remarkable property will be deployed in the future.

Gathering at Ushaw: back at the scene of our time

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