One way and another, architecture has featured quite heavily in my thoughts this week. Tuesday revealed a huge gap between clergy and PCC understandings of what our church building says about our theology...or perhaps it's more a question of the gap looming between our theology and theirs. Then rhys aired the topic , inspiring some rather good thoughts about butresses and the ways in which pillars may not always be totally supportive. Our church, you see, has so many pillars, both literal and metaphorical, that it's impossible to tell which ones are useful to hold the roof up and which simply block your view! Dave had some entertaining insights too, after attending a training day on the future shape of the Anglican parish. Clearly, there is something in the air...
Thursday saw me visiting our link parish of St John's, Ladywood in Birmingham, where re-ordering has certainly said some pretty radical things about being church in that community. When the current incumbent arrived there, the church was under threat of closure and he and his curate of 15 years have done some amazing work in creating an arts and community centre in the body of the church. When we visited on Thursday the place was buzzing with primary school children visiting an exhibition of World War 2 memorabilia "Ladywood at War", and there is no doubt of its value as a community space. My only reservation (which feels rather churlish under the circumstances) would be that though the church is open when there are exhibitions running, it's not possible to leave it open as a place of prayer at other times, and when there are events, finding peace and space to pray would be distinctly challenging. So in some ways it remains a "Sundays only" church, as far as connecting with God directly is concerned.
In contrast, yesterday saw me in Hereford, where the St Mary's Choir were singing Evensong at the Cathedral. We arrived in time to explore, and I was treated to a delicious lunch at the cafe@allsaints, which occupies the rear of the medieval church of All Saints. Thanks to clever use of split levels, the "church" element of this project had far more integrity...The cafe part is raised (with an additional gallery for extra tables) so that you can sit with your salad and look into the church...but though this might sound odd it really works, and there was no feeling of embarrassment or compromise in pausing for prayer after lunch. I loved it...definitely on my short-list of dream churches, though I know precisely nothing about any other feature of parish life!
Maggi had good things to say about reordering at Michaelhouse, Cambridge too...so after all that, when presented with Isaiah 6 as the text to preach from tonight, how could I resist discussing the relationship between the Old Testament vision of God, awe-inspiring and remote, and His architectural seclusion in the holy of holies? I took a deep breath and suggested that much of our architecture and our style of worship here presented the same image, of an inaccessible deity, with whom no connection is actually possible. He is honoured in beautiful liturgy, but kept safely behind the altar rails, to be approached by only a few of those who come to worship.
"But", I went on,
"something happens for Isaiah that speaks of something amazing for us too. That burning coal which the seraph brings to him from the altar symbolises so much, because it represents God’s willingness to engage with us, despite all our inadequacy. It is a sign not only of our cleansing but of our commissioning.
Suddenly we are in a new kind of relationship for God has reached out to us and made us fit for his purpose.
“Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out”
The whole Bible is full of this kind of divine initiative, realised supremely, of course, in the coming of Jesus. We remain dust and ashes, yes, but we are dust and ashes so precious in God’s sight that he sends his Son to transform us, to remove our guilt and blot out our sin.
We remember that when Jesus died, the veil in the Temple split in two, as a sign that God was no longer “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes”. The God we know in Jesus is both eternal and unchanging, and also a God who suffers with and for the world he loves so much, a God constantly at work bringing about its transformation."
Though it felt quite brave, speaking these thoughts aloud, they were not accompanied by any noticeable earthquake....So it would appear that the building is destined to remain standing for tbe moment at least, and I'll go back to seeing visions and dreaming dreams.