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.

Champagne Rules

It became my custom to give up alcohol during Lent. I’m not sure when it started, but by the time I was ordained it was an established practice. With the eagerness of a new curate I was very clear that this was something I would observe, come what may. Like so many of the things we decide with absolute conviction, God is adept at questioning any rule we might turn into an idol. During those first few years of ordained life I found myself on one occasion at a 90th birthday celebration for a parishioner. Naturally, the fizz was circulating in abundance and there was to be a toast. I began to wonder whether my Lenten observance was pharisaical – placing the observance of a rule over its spirit and purpose. At that moment I took a glass and toasted the nonagenarian.

Rules can be very useful, even essential, but it can be important to know when they should be set aside for a greater purpose. In the Church of England the recent debates about same-sex blessings might be another example of the ‘champagne rule’. The moment when we realise that a rule no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended. When the Church realises it is operating a self-denying ordinance that leaves it skulking in the corner when the community we are called to serve is celebrating.

‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Matthew 11: 16-19 NRSV

When we develop or change rules it can be unsettling. Many of those who have changed their mind on the topic of the blessings have done so because they have listened to people in relationships that are enriching each other, and the community: ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’. I am quite sure that they have also been open in prayer to seek what God is asking of the Church. Opponents simply battering on about marriage as something that has never changed (it has), or investing a particular interpretation and a huge weight on a few verses of the Bible, should not fly in the face of the overall purpose and direction of the Gospel. God is love, and enabling people in love to be blessed in the community does not seem un-Christian.

Perhaps it is only when we arrive at a particular moment, and are open to hear the whisper of wisdom, that we feel able to engage the champagne rules. For me it changed nothing about my overall observance of Lent. In fact, it helped dispel my youthful pride in a holy and sacrificial abstinence. God didn’t allow me to complete Lent with a clean sheet, but ensured that when there was a wedding or a birthday I always raised a glass. As the days of Lent progress it is important to remember that rules alone seldom (if ever) bring us closer to God.

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’.

Romans 13:8