“Well, at least the tower is still standing!”
Returning home along the M58 our church tower invariably comes into view at junction 5, some 8.4 miles out, as a reassuring welcome.
To misquote John Betjeman:
“What would you be, you wide West Lancastrian sky,
Without church towers to recognise you by?”
Sir John loved the parish church, a building very special, unique even, to England. As does Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, who wrote yesterday:
“Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches – 85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation.”
“The essence of most churches is their beauty and physical prominence. They are the physical embodiment of local England and should recover their status as the community’s social and cultural focus. This will never happen while they retain their aura of religious exclusivity.”
His fellow columnist, Giles Fraser – a London vicar whose Area Dean, incidentally, is my son-in-law – reaches a similar conclusion but from a very different direction. He wrote last week:
The Church of England is the custodian of 15,700 churches. A whopping 78% of them are listed. And they are a millstone around our necks, sapping the energy of our wider social and religious mission, and transforming the church into a buildings department of the heritage industry.
The appropriate theological response to all this is called iconoclasm – creative destruction. And it is deep in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
His response – to get real, sell the buildings and focus on ministry. I noticed yesterday while driving through Liverpool 7 that St Cyprian’s church – St Cyp’s – which had a fine evangelical tradition with a flourishing Boys Brigade – is now being converted into student flats.
And certainly, Fraser would seem to have the whole New Testament on his side. When Jesus told his disciple Simon: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” he was talking about building a fellowship of saints, not a physical building as such.
And yes, of course: our ministry, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is to build community. This is how the apostle Paul realised his call.
So he writes to one of his churches, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” (1 Corinthians 3:10).
However, all this sounds very convincing except there is one flaw in Fraser’s argument. He urges the church to “do what Dr Beeching did to the railways. Moses didn’t have to worry about the hole in the roof. He worshipped in tents not temples. And we must learn to do the same.”
Now I can well remember Dr Beeching did to the railways, way back in 1963 – my own father’s job was on the line, the Liverpool-Southport line to be exact, which Beeching wanted to axe.
I used to cut out the articles from the Daily Herald. Railways were underfunded and overstaffed. The bright new era of the car was upon us. Soon we would be whizzing round the country on super-roads. Like the canals the railways had had their day.
Dr Beeching got it spectacularly wrong – for the simple reason his generation were unable to foresee the resurgence of the railways, as demonstrated last month by the Queen reopening the Scottish Borders Railway which Beeching closed 50 years earlier. He never travelled up the M6.
So what does the future hold for the parish church? What are the currents in our community? Remember the out-of-town super stores?
We are where we are, and certainly at Christ Church we are blessed with a wonderful building, thanks to the vision and perseverance of Canon W H Boulton 150 years ago.
The point is, whether you like it or not, that people do relate to buildings. And in particular, to the parish church – for all that it stands for, for the memories it holds. As such it makes a statement, that God is in our midst, even in the life of our community. “It’s a way of saying ‘I believe in the Incarnation,’” says theologian Raymond Cannata.
Our church building allows us a remarkable opportunity not just to worship but to serve, not just to celebrate but to welcome.
“How we use it?” is the question rather than “Should we use it?” As ever, we need the Holy Spirit to take us forward, step by step, stone by stone.