Lunched yesterday with a gaggle of local clergy, who are part of an ongoing discussion about the shape of the Anglican church here, and how we can more effectively collaborate across parish boundaries, while remaining true to the great ideal of "every blade of grass in the country being within the care of some (horticultural?) Anglican vicar". There is a pretty wide range of views within the group, as those near retirement lament the lost church of yesteryear, while others contribute frustration, depression or, occasionally, just the smallest glimmers of hope. Having focussed on all the positive potential of collaboration yesterday, our conversation turned to the question of church closures,- not an immediate issue, but probably lurking at the back of most minds at Church House.
Realistically, it seems clear that there is no way the number of buildings we have can possibly be kept open...they are a dead weight impeding so much of what we try to do and be. In a room full of clergy, it's easy to accept this and agree that it's a nonsense the way we spend so much time worrying about our "plant", even to reach for the phone to summon the diocesan arsonist! But actually, I'm not quite sure.
In the months since I came here, I've heard so many people talk about what their parish church means to them but have also been startled that talking about this seems to be far more pressing for the majority than any conversation about faith or...dare I say it?...about God.
I've wondered which relationship is really the more important for them...and whether the faithful in the pews are actually as confused about this as it sometimes seems. More evidence there to avoid misunderstanding by dispensing with even beloved, medieval shrines? Maybe...
But , more positively, our building is open every day and I'm encouraged by how often I find someone there at odd times. People pop in after tending a grave, or en route to collect from school, and sit in the dim quiet. Sometimes, these are people I never see otherwise...some are regular visitors, some come only once...but if that once is at an important time in their lives, they will remember it, just as they would remember if they had come seeking peace and an encounter with God, and found the door locked.
An experience from the past supports this, and makes me think there is still a case for a visible, recognisable church presence in each community. About 10 years ago, a toddler was killed by a car in the new village that had been created out of a former airforce base in my old benefice...I went up there the following morning to see his mum, and found a scene which reminded me of black and white film versions of the aftermath of pit disasters in Welsh mining villages. At almost every gate down the street, women were standing....not talking...not doing anything really, just standing. They needed to be together, to express somehow their feelings of grief and shock as a community....and there was nowhere for them to go. That village has no church...we met for worship in the village hall, but that's not the place to go for a quiet prayer. Those women needed to go somewhere where prayer happens, is part of the fabric, where they could feel safe and welcomed by a hug from God. To get into the car and drive the 3 miles down to church in the old village somehow didn't feel like an option ( not everyone would have access to a car in any case). I didn't know most of those women. None of them were part of the congregation that met on Sundays and I remember very few of them openly saying that they needed somewhere to pray, but it seemed obvious to me that day. They needed a sacred space in their midst, but it had been decreed that they weren't to have one. At the time it was made, that diocesan decision had made sense to me, but I'm no longer convinced.
I accept that a known and identifiable prayer room in the village hall would have met the need, and I'm not campaigning with the Victorian Society or English heritage (well, maybe sometimes) to ensure that no gothic stone, however unlovely, is ever shifted a centimetre. Rather, I'm putting in a bid for recognisable sacred space in each community....maybe above a cafe, maybe part of a community centre...I dont mind what it looks like, provided it is known about, prayed in, and open.