Sunday, January 08, 2012

What about the building?

In response to my earlier post "In defence of the Parish System" many, both on the blog and via other media, pointed out to me that what I was really celebrating was the opportunity to offer pastoral care -and the role of the church building in enabling and focussing that. 
Of course you are right...but oh, church buildings are represent so much complexity.

This year sees the 150th birthday of one of my churches, and the 175th of the other...
And of course there is much to celebrate as we look as those beloved buildings, and imagine all those faithful worshippers who filled the pews before us.
Of course, there's always the possibility that they were as beset with doubts and questions - and felt as dwarfed by the building of valley church (designed to seat 500, til they thankfull removed the gallery, bringing it down to a mere 300) - as their contemporary counterparts.
But somehow as we remember our predecessors in faith, they seem to acquire a patina of holiness that may actually have only tenuous roots in reality. 
We won't know the truth...and we don't actually need to.
All we know is that they kept those buildings weather proof, were, it seems, generous with both time and money (think of the number of commemorative gifts in any average English parish church!) - and handed on the buildings to the next generation, and the next....til they reached us.
Yes, there IS something to celebrate.

But there is, also, something to lament.
Neither congregation that I serve is huge or wealthy - and that, of course, means that taking our part in handing on the building in good repair can feel rather overwhelming.
Then there's the added bonus or burden of the particular artistic and architectural merit of Church on the Hill - which attracts visitors from far and wide and means that we really do have to take our responsibilities particularly seriously.
It's a lovely building, with amazing glass - but that in itself demands so much of our time and attention that it can be hard to hang on to the knowledge that the building exists to enable encounters with God.
The extraordinary fund-raising efforts, the welcome extended to endless parties of visitors, the beauty of the flower arrangements - all are pointless if we lose sight of that basic truth.
The church building exists for worship.
Full stop.
If caring for our buildings hinders our primary calling as Church - to love and serve God with all that is in us, and in loving and serving God to love and serve our neighbour - then we are in serious trouble.
If we can find money to maintain our building but not to give to those in need...

Well, you know all that.
So do I....but it's a constant challenge.
I want to celebrate these two church buildings as a symbol of God's presence in our community...
but I want to be able, too, to recognise God's presence in the lives of those who meet there week by week.

If I can't, if others can't - then, for all their beauty and all their heritage, those buildings are just a waste of space.
Let's pray that this year we can rightly celebrate the Church and the church both up hill and down dale.


jante said...

I am very interested when you say:
"It's a lovely building, with amazing glass - but that in itself demands so much of our time and attention that it can be hard to hang on to the knowledge that the building exists to enable encounters with God."
I am writing a dissertation on the use of the church building to encourage a spiritual encounter for tourists. I think we often dwell in our literature on the history and architecture and miss opportunities to encourage a meeting with God for those who come in to visit.

Perpetua said...

Oh, the buildings, the beloved, burdensome buildings..... Kathryn, you capture very well the dilemma that besets all clergy and congregations. I and my churches didn't solve it and I doubt you and your churches will either, but we have to try.

Still Breathing said...

Buildings are as very big temptation to any congregation because it is so easy to end up with it at the core of all your effort. For that reason I may take issue with you over "The church building exists for worship." as I think it's broader than that. The building should be there to further God's Kingdom which, of course, includes worship but it is a tool rather than an end product. Having said that just being there can, in itself, further God's Kingdom by being a visible sign of His presence.

UKViewer said...

We have 5 buildings in our rural benefice, the oldest of which is Norman, built over the site of an earlier church. The youngest is about 180 years old.

All of the churches has history attached as well as burial grounds. Their upkeep, heating and maintenance is a drain on our resources. Currently we're trying to raise around 90K to repair historic windows, having just spent about the same on other windows in the same building.

Our PCC's and friends groups work hard at fund raising. Many volunteers work in the churches and burial grounds to keep them usable, but the reality it's a bit like the boy with his finger in the dyke.

I don't have any solution, apart from more of the same. The Church itself doesn't have any answers apart from modernise and open up the buildings for wider use - but in a small hamlet, desperate to keep their church, that's not a viable option.

In an area of apparent wealth, we have real pockets of rural deprivation. The landed gentry no longer own the big houses or land. They're now hotels, conference centres or in the hands of newcomers, who don't necessarily want to be part of the community, and most certainly not the church.

We haven't adjusted to being the mainstay church to a pilgrim/mission church. The sooner we do and get rid of the baggage the better.

Meetings in village halls or schools or more viable, attended by a wider community and create distinctive new congregations. Perhaps this is where we should be, instead of being landlords for obsolete tourist attractions.