Hidden in Plain Sight

Churches pepper the landscape of England, to such an extent that there are few places without some kind of ecclesiastical edifice. Now well into my fourth decade of ordained ministry, I would be able to retire comfortably if I had received a pound for every time someone has remarked that the church is the people, not the building. I do not doubt the statement, but Christians are physical beings who need physical places in which to meet and pray. Even transient settings are altered for a few moments when a sacrament is shared. Countless times at a hospital bedside, with curtains drawn at the patient’s request, the ancient prayers and ritual have evoked a fleeting stillness and sense of the sacred. On very rare occasions, having heard the liturgy being spoken, a nurse has ducked into the space to received Communion as well – something I doubt there would be time for in today’s overstretched NHS.

There was a notable minority thread of comments on Twitter over Christmas from clergy who were not tweeting about full churches at midnight; crib services that were overflowing with children; or carols sung robustly by the faithful gathering of older parishioners. Away from the cathedrals and civic churches many services took place with thin congregations and in the absence of children. These were no doubt meaningful and moving, but they are also a reminder that in many communities the ‘fringe’ of people who attended on high days and holidays has mostly evaporated.

It was encouraging recently to be sharing in worship at rural churches in East Yorkshire where, statistically, a significant minority of the population attends church. I can well imagine that this is the kind of place where occasional worshippers would also be present at Christmas and Easter. It was encouraging, in conversation, to hear about plans to improve the welcome for new residents in the parishes, and fresh thoughts about how to connect and involve people who might be feeling isolated. All this within an Anglican-Methodist ecumenical partnership which is currently advertising for a Minister/Vicar.

The church building is at the heart of these communities. While maintaining them is problematic and costly they offer a focal point that pose questions of faith and purpose every hour of every day. It is quite true that on their own this seldom achieves very much – or some of the churches I’ve mentioned would be full to the rafters. The buildings require an active Christian community just as much as that community needs a place to meet, and a place to manifest the physical expression of faith over time. I’m not sure we understand fully, as a society, how precious and valuable our stock of churches is when it comes to art; social history; traditional crafts; and the evolution of theology and belief. Perhaps there is more that we need to do to enable these buildings to speak and, in their speaking, to tell afresh the faith that has inspired their creation.

“Comprehension of architectural monuments, signs, symbols, cultural codes allows students to penetrate into the spiritual life of another culture, especially the national character through comparison with their culture. Thus, when considering the semiotics of a Russian church and an English medieval cathedral, students’ attention is focused on symbolism, which helps decode non-verbal languages and meanings, helps to understand the mentality of the English people”.

Sabirova, D.R., Solovyova, E.G., Pomortseva, N.P. and Antonova, S.P., 2019. Comprehension of the english national character in building professional linguistic culture. Journal of Educational and Social Research9(3), pp.101-101.

Perhaps the lack of progress in this direction stems in part from anxieties concerning cultural heritage. For example, that prior to the 1950s Britain was a culturally much less diverse society than it is today. Using building to interpret the past could emphasise a narrow concept of being English and exclude the presence of the faiths now widely present in society. Furthermore, as the Church of England itself recognised with a debatable financial commitment, the construction of many churches was funded to varying degrees by the proceeds of slavery; exploitation; and the blessing of abusive power.

At the moment it seems that we do a modest amount to share the architectural marvels and complex histories that litter our countryside, towns and cities. In some cases, if just one of these buildings was somewhere in the USA, it would draw visitors from across the continent. Here many are closed most of the time; lack explanatory boards and information; and do little to make their presence known. No doubt funding is part of the problem – but that is also a catch 22. Without being open and communicative, fewer and fewer churches will have the vibrancy I encountered in rural East Yorkshire.

Today is Mothering Sunday and some people will be remembering with thanks a particular church in which their faith was once nurtured and inspired. A number of those church buildings will no longer be in use as a place of worship, while others will have disappeared entirely. However, the spiritual imprint of a church that has served us well is carried far beyond the walls of any given place. We carry its light into our daily lives, and hope that – meeting the lit shards of others’ faith and love – a pattern of greater purpose and beauty takes shape. At times this can feel a forlorn hope but, perhaps, it is the only meaningful hope we have.

A Fleeting Shadow

It is an incidental fact of the modern world that most of us are captured, unwittingly, in other people’s photos. Whereas once upon a time we might have dodged around the line-of-fire between camera and subject, there are now so many pictures being taken that it is almost impossible not to intrude. Outside York Minster cameras and phones are in all directions, with an almost continuous stream of snaps being taken from dawn until well after dusk. I’ve long given up trying to walk around.

No doubt my nonchalance about the risk of ruining an image is partly the result of technological progress. In my youth a photograph was a precious thing, involving physical film and a long delay between a click and seeing the image itself. If the camera was set incorrectly a whole reel of film could be lost, but you wouldn’t know until after all the photos had been taken and the cost of developing had been paid. As with all technology, there is a rearguard action against this progress and a growing interest in using film cameras, which market analysts expect to continue. Nevertheless, when I walk into someone’s line of sight today I know that more often than not the image can be deleted in a second, at no cost, and further attempts to capture the desired picture are almost unlimited.

In her new novel, The Hero of This Book, the novelist Elizabeth McCracken writes entertainingly about this shift in behaviour reflecting the altered state of the technology used in photography. At one point we find McCracken’s protagonist walking across the Millennium Bridge by Tate Modern:

I slowed but I didn’t stop. I strode out. “Well, that’s ruined it,” I heard a woman mutter as I passed. She was examining the screen of her camera – an actual camera, not a phone; she took herself seriously – and she wanted me to feel bad. The wind was pulling apart her ponytail in a quarrelsome way. I didn’t feel bad; I felt marvellous. For years I’d been polite around tourists taking pictures. I’d yielded, believing as many people did then, and some still do, that this was a moral law.

Elizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book, Jonathan Cape, London 2023 p. 38

Across the world millions of us will be captured on the edges and backgrounds of strangers’ photographs. In the Cloud there will probably be millions more – photos that will never see the light of day; be added to an album; or turned into images for cushions, mugs and mouse-mats. It is a theme picked up by the former doctor and hit TV script-writer Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty). In a semi-autobiographical novel that preceded his fame, Mercurio wrote about his time as a junior doctor in an NHS hospital. At one point he reflects on the fact that at the end of a patient’s life it is usually those closest to them who are present. However, there are also figures around the patient who have only appeared for the first time in the patient’s life at this critical moment: the clinical staff. As with many of the most significant moments in our lives, the images of this experience will be etched into memories for years to come. However, in those mental images – with key family members static by the bedside – the staff are little more than a blur:

Though I’m beside her I’m not part of the moment or part of another life ending for no reason I can comprehend. I’m a passer-by captured in a photograph who’s an out-of-focus streak of lines flashing through the frame and then gone. I’m a cold scalpel-sharp instrument slicing through scenes in other people’s lives and not ever being slowed.

Jed Mercurio, Bodies, Vintage Press, 2003, p. 134

I am less gloomy than Mercurio about the import and significance of the professionals’ fleeting presence. At our best we help foreground the key family members and the person whose life is ebbing away. By doing our work with suitable skill, attention and compassion we leave family members, not with the images of the clinical staff, but with an imprint of their loving concern and professional care. Many times I have heard people mention the commitment and dignity provided by professional staff when speaking about a critical moment in their life. The memory of faces may blur, but the impact of humanity and empathy remains. This isn’t only in the weeks and months following a loss, it can endure for a lifetime. What at the time may feel like a fleeting shadow, an intrusion into the frame of our family and friends, may leave a legacy of enduring goodness.