Is your church a fortress?

In a guest posting, the Venerable Richard Pratt, Archdeacon of West Cumberland, asks whether Churches are inward looking fortresses cut off from their communities or outward looking hubs at the heart of them?

St John of Jerusalem, Hackney

St John of Jerusalem, Hackney

From Moses to David, the Ark of the Covenant had no permanent home, but the impulse to provide a permanent building was a theme growing in volume and intensity until Solomon built the first Temple. There is a tension between being the pilgrim people of God and being rooted in and committed to particular locations and settled communities. The Tent for the Ark is one expression of faith, but the visible and permanent presence of a Temple building symbolising the visible and permanent presence of God is another.

St Paul uses several images for the church (vine and branches, body with parts, temple of living Stones) helpfully reminding us of the church as the people of God rather than a building. But St Paul is writing in the, at the time, secure context of the presence of the temple in Jerusalem. For us, his thinking is to be held alongside the tensions we face about our buildings rather than as offering a simplistic resolution.

Whether we like it or not, church buildings are then a visible sign of the presence of the Church in an area and, by extension, of God’s work and presence in a community. Communities value their church buildings and their churchyards and we must accept that as right and proper. But when Jesus points out that God is Lord of the living, not of the dead, He is saying something about being for the present and the future, rather than just for the past. Our faith is meant to liberate us, to fill us and others with joy. Some of our buildings help to do this. However, some may be burdens from which we might need to think about how to set ourselves free.

There is also a tension between sacred and secular. Jesus in incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, tore down the barriers between sacred and secular, demonstrating the divine inhabiting the created and taking the created back to heaven. However as flesh and blood humans, we need reminders and symbols of the sacred alongside the secular and this seems to be a universal, psychological as well as spiritual, requirement. So St Benedict in his Rule lays down that the chapel of the monastery should not be a place for storing ‘odds and ends’, but a place clear and clearly devoted to prayer and worship. His Rule also reminds his monks that work is prayer and prayer is work; that is, the sacred transforms the secular.

In our context we achieve this by keeping part of the church (the chancel and sanctuary) reserved for prayer and worship. However the nave, the body of the church, does not have to be so kept, but is sanctified by the sanctuary as the world is sanctified by God in Jesus. Whilst in some places this view is not accepted and there is resistance to using Church buildings for activities, it seems that it is becoming much more widely acceptable to use Church buildings flexibly.

The places we inhabit, their design and architecture, have profound influences on us: indeed they shape us as much as we shape them. We need to be clear about our intentions as Christian communities, and make sure that we fashion our buildings in ways that are consonant with what we want to be. At its crudest, are our Churches inward looking fortresses cut off from their communities, or are they outward looking hubs at the heart of them?

Richard Pratt. Archdeacon of West Cumberland

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Richard. Very timely.
    This is why we have worked long & hard at the Arthur Rank Centre to produce our online “Resources for Rural Places of Worship” to help all churches become more outward looking and available, by gathering together all the key resources on managing, using & adapting church buildings. At http://www.arthurrankcentre.org.uk/publications-and-resources/rural-church-buildings. No more fortresses in the countryside 🙂

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