Belfast Telegraph

Trip to States has underlined that Christianity is still a global Church

By Alf McCreary

It is quite a culture shock to return overnight from a wet and cold Chicago to a warm and sunny Northern Ireland, but that's what happened to me this week. During the previous fortnight I had been on a working visit to the United States where I delivered two lectures on 'St Patrick and identity in Ireland' at Principia College near St Louis in Illinois.

This also gave me an opportunity to catch up at first hand with the current mood in politics and religion in a country which has the message 'In God We Trust' on its currency.

Not surprisingly the presence of President Donald Trump dominated the media which he so hates.

The American jury is still out concerning Trump. Some think he is a disaster, others still back him, but most people are still bewildered and holding their breath.

The taxi driver on the way to Chicago airport told me that many Americans would welcome back the formerly scorned George W Bush with open arms.

My visit coincided with Trump's first 100 days as president and the political commentators were predictably divided on their opinions.

These were the only programmes worth watching on American television, which is woeful and totally dominated by advertisers.

The American newspapers were not much better, with only the Wall Street Journal, and to a lesser extent the Chicago Tribune, bearing any comparison to our own leading newspapers like The Times, The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.

Incidentally there was no mention in the media of the UK general election, and there was only one short story on Northern Ireland, which featured in the Wall Street Journal. We may think that Brexit and the RHI scandal are big news, but we are still small beer in the wider world.

On the religious front there was much more of a sense of continuity. Americans do nothing by halves and on the way in to St Louis I noticed a neon sign outside a church which assured the world that 'Jesus Completely Saves', as if it was not enough to simply state that 'Jesus Saves'.

There were lots of wacky church services and even more wacky preachers on US television. Some of these were entertaining and others off-putting.

However one of the best, and most radical, sermons I heard on television was that from Pastor Steven Thurston of the Salem Baptist Church in Chicago.

He preached on the two-word text 'Jesus Wept' and claimed that Jesus did so out of love for Lazarus, but also out of frustration at the lack of trust among His followers, and the fact that He had to perform another miracle to prove yet again his Messianic powers.

I'm not sure that all of the pastor's large flock fully understood the message, but he showed the seductive fluency of a great preacher in full flow.

As back home, there were the usual downbeat church stories, including a controversy about a young mother who created dissension over breast-feeding her child in a church, and also a ruling by the United Methodist Church that the consecration of an openly gay female bishop was against Church law.

In Chicago I visited the Fourth Presbyterian Church, situated at one end of the rich and fashionable Michigan Avenue, with its Magnificent Mile which is reminiscent of the Champs Elysees in Paris.

The congregation of this historic church was established in 1871, but the original church was destroyed on the night it was dedicated by a huge fire which also destroyed most of the city.

The current Gothic Revival building on Michigan Avenue dates from 1914, and it currently claims some 6,000 members, and each Sunday around 2,000 people come to its four services, including a Sunday afternoon 'jazz service'.

Clearly, Christianity is still a vibrant force in the USA and one of my abiding memories is that of attending an afternoon service in the beautiful old cathedral in St Louis which dates from the 18th century.

Their post-Easter service featured Psalm 118 and also the hymn Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.

This is exactly what I had experienced six days previously in St George's on High Street in Belfast some 5,000 miles away.

It reminded me yet again that Christianity remains truly a world church and that continues to be a source of comfort and inspiration.

Belfast Telegraph

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