As was once said to church wardens at a tetchy PCC meeting by a now elderly Vicar, there is a divide of responsibility within churches – “Me liturgy, you drains.” To an extent, clergy ‘sit light’ to the buildings – certainly as a curate, I have come to know and love four very different churches, but I feel no particular allegiance to one over any of the others in the way that a ‘regular member of the congregation’ might.
One of our churches is less lovely than the others. Phase one was built in the 1950’s, phase two in the 1960’s, and the edifice bears more resemblance to my primary school hall than to a traditional church. It is one of the early ‘fresh expressions’, conceived in a fit of pique by a thwarted Vicar in the 1930’s, built to serve a community which had ‘slipped down the hill’ from the original village and the (still existing and very lovely) parish church. Alternatively, one of our churches is much more usable than the others. Its rectangular shape, its easy access, its flat floor (no steps up from aisle to seating area), its chairs, all mean it serves as church, small chapel, computer club, cafe, meeting space etc etc. Even here, in this modern space, change spells trouble.
To me, a church is largely a working building. Some things about it will remind me it has been a working building for many (hundreds?) of years. Some things remind me that others see it differently. In one of our churches, I move the two vases of flowers to the very edges of the sides of the altar every single time I’m there – because otherwise, as I hold up my hands to celebrate the Eucharist, I look like I’m a magician with a bunch of newly produced flowers in each hand. For the people doing the flowers, serving their church and their community each week, using their skills to the glory of God, the altar is a place to dedicate their work and gifts anew. In that particular church, they often aren’t part of the regular worshipping community, they come in and do their bit. So they never see the building at work, as congregations do, they see it at rest, full of symbol and beauty and meaning. Some of them will have been doing the flowers for forty, fifty, sixty years. They have spent far more time in that space, using their gifts to glorify God, than I have.
But I too have ‘my’ church, the one to which I return as a visitor from time to time, the one which is home. I Had My Views when ‘they’ Removed The Pews, bearing in mind that I know ‘they’ as individuals, part of a tiny PCC doing their best for a tiny and much loved church. And despite My Views (which I kept to myself) the space looks wonderful with chairs, and they are a whole lot more comfy than the manky pews which I loathed when I had to sit on them. If ‘they’ announced ‘they’ were building a toilet on the back, I would worry about the ancient undecipherable graves I know and love, about the effect of a door in the symmetry of the building…..although as a human being, I am of the view that every church needs a toilet. I would nod sadly, grit my teeth, and bear in mind the needs of the people. Because of course, it isn’t just the aesthetics against human need, it’s the change which hurts.
And if it hurts when a church building changes, how much more does it hurt when the Church changes? When the people of God change, grow, develop – do all the human things we are supposed to do? When Christians as individuals, small groups, large groups believe they detect and discern the will of God, in ways that other good Christians find incomprehensible? It hurts like hell. We have to keep talking and listening, keep caring, keep loving.