Thursday, February 02, 2006

Oh dear, again!

Yesterday evening, in between manic bouts of review writing, I found myself watching a brief programme on BBC 2 "A Passion for Churches"...
I suppose the title should have been a give-away that this was very much an example of the struggles of individuals in the grip of the heritage bug, but last night's episode struck me as particularly sad. You see, the church threatened with closure was once the centre of a thriving "Children's Village". Quarrier's was clearly the Scots equivalent of Dr Barnardo's , - a whole community dedicated to the welfare of children who would otherwise have been destitute,- and until changes in childcare legislation, the church had been very much part of the life of the place. But, with the disappearance of this sort of institutional social care, it became a building without a realistic purpose. Instead of being crammed with a captive congregation of 1000 children every week, Mount Zion had to take its chance amid the rocky waters of contemporary life like any other church, and the congregation dwindled to more realistic numbers. At this point, the problem of maintenance, money and maths began to grow. The charity which owned the village and the church needs its funds for its fundamental work of social care. The congregation is too small to raise the sums needed to renovate the church, which is beginning to look distinctly decrepit. Having explored all other avenues, the trustees of Quarrier's Charity therefore decided that their best plan was to sell off the church building, and use some of the money generated to create/improve a community centre, including providing what sounded like rather excellent ways of making it an appropriate space for Sunday worship. Their most promising would-be purchaser planned to convert the building into luxury appartments,- generating welcome funds for the charity and preserving the shell of the building at least,- but, predictably, the locals were up in arms.

The programme was a sad catalogue of campaigns, planning appeals and intense conversations between former Quarrier's children and staff...Clearly, the charity did its job very well in creating a safe haven for those in its care,- so much so that they came to associate the church building itself with all that was good about their childhoods. One woman described entering the church as "like receiving a great hug", and there was much nostalgia about the Vespers hymn that the children sang Sunday by Sunday through the years. But at no point did it seem to occurr to any of these impassioned women that they could worship God anywhere else...that it might be his presence that was the source of those feelings of safety and love they recognised in the church....that if they only looked, they could find him all over his world.

How and why did we all get so hooked on buildings? What is the secret of the tyranny they exert? And how do we break free?
I asked the Archdeacon this morning, and he said very sadly that he didn't have a clue...but that it is a universal problem. Is that supposed to make me feel any better?

1 comment:

Justin Lewis-Anthony said...

Who says that buildings are a problem?

Very often our church buildings are described in this way: we either have mission or we have buildings. It seems to me that this great Either/Or choice is a pestilential, false one.

I don't subscribe to the fashionable belief that church buildings are a millstone around the neck of a mission-shaped church. I believe that church buildings are the strongest expression of the Church of England’s commitment to a community, and a powerful witness to the presence of God in all parts of our nation: we have been here for a thousand years; we intend to be here for another thousand years – come and join us. So, we have a moral responsibility to our predecessors and our successors in the faith to preserve, maintain, and beautify this place of worship.

Look for the church worshipping communities that have done without buildings; where are they now, and, perhaps more pertinently, where is the witness through the generations of their faith and work and action in their community?

I'm surprised Hedley didn't say as much; he was always a great one for the mute witness of the stones when I worked for him!

Thomas Ken had it right in his prayer for St Stephen's Walbrook: "O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship; narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and strife. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power; God make the door of this house the gateway to thine eternal kingdom."