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 Research, 9(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.