Churches – where people seek to do good.

In a special guest post, Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, Priest at Holy Trinity church, Sloane Square, London, shares with us his views on the church as a place where people have always and continue to, do good within their communities.

‘Yea because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good’ Psalm 122, Verse 9

“I have a desk in church. Sometimes I wonder, especially if I ever glance across a bank statement in the midst of my work, whether this is wicked of me. Would Christ come in today and over turn my desk for a furtive look at my online banking app?

I hope not – for I am not alone in my appropriation of God’s house but instead am surrounded by legacies of this building’s rich and varied use. The high altar stands in front of its rich marble reredos as a statement of the centrality of sacrament rendered in stone and in the corner behind me boxes of toys and books sit as testament to the role of new life in inheriting and learning the ancient faith in their new generation.

Brass plaques and stained glass speak, in rich Victorian prose, of lives lived in august splendour and next to them temporary notices about hand wash and distancing whisper of the strange confines of the lives we must needs live now.

All of these are, I suppose, marks of people. All these fixtures and fittings were planned and paid for, used and loved, wept over and celebrated, by creatures of flesh and blood.

Living stones

It has been a worryingly popular false dichotomy circulating of late which would suggest that people and buildings represent an ‘either/or’. That either the building or the people are ‘The Church’. Of course it is more complex than that. The church is a building, but one quite unlike any other: that is to say it is living stones. It is a building shaped entirely by people; by their hopes, their grief, their prayers. By people, and by their relationship with their God.

Holy Trinity church, Sloane Square, London

Our churches, therefore, are monuments to interconnectedness. To the idea that – to quote the priest-poet who had oversight of perhaps our nation’s most famous church, St Paul’s – ‘no man is an island, entire of himself’. Rather, we are linked by our history, common human tragedies and joys, and by an incarnational faith, which undergirds the whole. ‘Because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good’: that vision of the church is one that grounds it in relationship and community. The house of God is a sermon on ‘love thy neighbour’ wrought in brick and mortar.

Many churches seek to do good to their communities. I look from my desk in church today, cold though it is and in the midst of this lockdown, which for so many had proved more bitter than any flurry of winter snow, I see a house where people have long sought to do good. The very walls seem patched together with memorials- some to my taste, others less so- but all to those who sought to do good. There are less explicit memorials here too: the slight wearing of a pillar, its stone gently touched each week by one who loved its specific place, the shallow trough in the paving where the gate bolt has dragged for well over a century- a gash in the stone itself standing testament to gates open and welcomes extended.

Small ordinary goodnesses

Despite our present situation, it is a house where people still seek to do good today: lavatories are open as a clean and safe place for those who spend their day on the streets, a collection for our local foodbank is ready to be delivered, careful preparations are underway for a funeral, so that the dead might be commended to the eternal with the love by which they were known whilst alive. Small, ordinary goodnesses perhaps- but ones to which it is ever more important that we cling in times as drear as these.

Our church is very typical in this regard. It aspires to be a house of good because it is first and foremost a house of prayer and across the nation I see and hear of churches doing exactly the same, each and every day. As we seek to rebuild our society, seek to be more aware of where it is we might do good, the houses of the Lord our God- and the people who make them what they are- will be as important as ever. When I leave my cold desk in a moment I shall pray for them all just before I leave, and for all those- the National Churches Trust in particular- who support them.”

We thank Fergus for sharing his thoughts. Thousands of churches and chapels across the the UK currently seek to do good work within their communities, as documented in our House Of Good report produced last year which highlighted the social and economic value of church buildings.

As well as being a clergyman, Fergus is also author of ‘A Field Guide to the English Clergy,’ a Best Book of the Year for The TimesMail on Sunday and BBC History. More information available at One World Publications.

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