In an age marked by distraction and uncertainty church buildings speak of permanence, stability and serenity. They can serve as places to withdraw to from the over-active and anxious times we live in. They can be where the tired may rest and find peace. Bishop John Inge has written of church buildings as being places of journey, encounter, and pilgrimage. He believes that they proclaim that God is present and active in the world, and that God is not to be forgotten. Their physical presence echoes the Hebrew word emuna with its sense of trustworthiness and reliability. In a way that cannot easily be put into words they elicit loyalty, respect, and a sense of the sacred.
They also have the capacity to gently mould within people a sense of the divine in both conscious and unconscious ways. They provide places for silence and calm, reflection and prayer. A beautiful and well cared for church can transmit something of the character of the Christian faith as well as the perception that this building is a place where God can be encountered. A sense of the holy where generations of people have engaged with God and where the distance between earth and heaven is reduced can be conveyed in historic churches. People may experience a sense of awe and reverence for the magnificence of God, or feel curious and interested in the faith on which they were founded.
The interconnectedness of place, memory and relationships
The 16,000 Anglican Parish Churches are widely recognised as places where the stories and events of people’s lives, and local communities, can be connected to the story of God’s engagement with humanity through Jesus Christ. This is evident at christenings, weddings, funerals, and Christmas. Family histories are often deeply connected with the story of their village church. The interconnectedness of place, memory and relationships often has deep significance for people. Their sheer physical presence reminds us that God took human form and presence in Jesus of Nazareth and in a subtle, almost unspoken way they remind us of the importance of the doctrines of creation and incarnation.
They have the potential to connect people with history and heritage. English people have a strong interest in the past and its physical spaces and places. This is demonstrated in the considerable growth in membership of the National Trust, which reported having 5,600,000 members in 2019, and ‘500 heritage properties’. Church buildings have the potential to act as a bridge with this facet of English life. At its simplest they are the outward and visible sign of the nation’s ecclesiastical and spiritual heritage.
Serving the common good
Church buildings have an important part to play in serving the common good. This aspect of a church building’s identity has increased in many rural communities where other village public spaces and amenities such as the shop and the pub have closed in recent times. The parish church is now often the central focus of village community life. In 2006 the Rowntree Foundation observed that faith buildings, as well as being a resource for the neighbourhood, give the faith community visibility and a platform for wider engagement. As Luke March, Chairman of the National Churches Trust, observed in 2019, “At a time when so many public buildings are closing and high streets are losing their shops, church buildings are places where people can meet, collaborate and build community, as well as continue to worship”. The House of Good Report by the National Churches Trust in 2020 made the point that church buildings are more than places of worship and that they provide a growing list of essential services for people in need. Their work shows, “That the UK’s church buildings are not just Houses of God. They are also Houses of Good…. Despite having to lock down, some 89% of churches continue providing local support – from online worship to delivering shopping to isolated or vulnerable people”. Interestingly the Local Government Chronicle wrote in December 2020 that Councils should make better use of churches to bring communities together.
At its simplest a Christian community needs a home to meet in and a distinctive building serves this purpose well. Church buildings can be a reminder that God chooses to reveal himself in specific places, such as to Jacob in Genesis 28, to Moses in Exodus 3, and to Isaiah in Isaiah 6, and such places are deemed to be sacred and holy. Such revelations elicit a response. They witness to Christian faith being alive and often, through the windows and other physical aspects of the building and its surrounds, to the message of that faith. They have an invaluable role to play in the developing life of a Christian community for they are the designated places where the congregation, the local embodiment of Christ, comes for worship, to be taught, fed and sent out to love and serve God in the world.
Potential to attract people should not be underestimated
At a time when concern about the environment is increasing, the area around church buildings can provide a space where, through carefully managed churchyards, fauna and flora can flourish. They can offer a haven for local wildlife as well as demonstrating stonemasons’ creativity and the social history of a parish. Beautiful and artistic gravestones and well-tended graves can remind us of the value of every human life.
Church buildings deserve to be valued as historical assets that convey more than can be put into words. They have been adapted in a whole range of ways across the centuries and much creative re-ordering work is currently happening, particularly in the rural context. They can be a physical means by which communities may be drawn together, where God may be encountered, and they can be a place that cultivates a deeper sense of what it means to be truly human. Their potential to attract people, to be admired and appreciated, and to elicit affection and affirmation should not be underestimated, for it is from these that faith may well grow.
Revd Charles Chadwick – December 2020