Photo by Getty / George W Johnson
Sounding Board

Sacred — and vital — spaces

A church is not the same as an old castle or a pub

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete …

Well, nobody could have expected Philip Larkin to have predicted the coronavirus emergency. But even in his poem, “Church Going”, in which he mused on the bleak future “when churches fall completely out of use”, he never presumed that the sacred spaces would indeed be — temporarily — obsolete; whose blent air is deemed too dangerous for even a clergyman to breathe in alone with nothing but a livestreaming iPhone for company.

This decision by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York was met with howls of outrage and disbelief (especially by the laity), whose howls have, in turn, been met with an avalanche of derision (especially by the clergy).

What is it about these sacred spaces which inspire such love and devotion? This is a question worth asking, especially in the face of the charge that one can perfectly well worship the Divine from a sofa or a kitchen table.

Why is place and space important? Churches are an odd collection of the material and ideas of each generation.

My own sees a nineteenth-century wooden screen block off an abrupt wall which marks where the nave was pulled down at the Reformation, while solid Norman pillars hold up a gothic Oriel window through which a sixteenth-century prior looked out from his fifteenth-century house (now destroyed) onto the fourteenth-century tomb of the twelfth-century jester who founded
the church.

Churches are places set apart for prayer, hallowed for people to worship Almighty God

That tomb is the perfect socially distant two metres from the grave of my wartime predecessor, who died during the memorial Evensong for his director of music, who is (in turn) remembered in a plaque at the other end of the church. Great national events and private griefs nestle against all the little things people have bought or built to enhance this serious house on this serious earth.

But how are churches different from an old castle or a pub? Churches are places set apart for prayer, hallowed for people to worship Almighty God, where the Gospel is lived, where the most momentous events of a person’s life — and, over generations, of a family’s life — take place.

This is where two people got married, another buried her son, a third remembers how he found God by the light that shines through a particular window on a particular day at a particular time. Churches are the physical outworking of the prayers, hopes, fears, griefs, and joys of generations — but, perhaps, most importantly of the people who go there now.

This is where they have encountered the Divine. Between these particular walls. Looking at this particular painting. It’s why so many people continue going to church miles away even after they’ve moved house: because their church is the repository of so many of their memories and has been the silent witness to so many of their prayers and tears.

The psychological intertwining of so much that is significant with these particular places makes their visible presence vitally important to the mental health of many of those most vulnerable right now.

This is why starving them not only of the presence of their friends but also of the sight of their church in action — albeit action which they can only partake in remotely — is so cruel. Seeing your priest praying from home and celebrating communion in their study or on their kitchen table goes some way to mitigating this, but it is a very clericalist approach to this crisis: it invests all the focus of the community in the priest.

Using the building, built up by generations for and on behalf of the current generation, leaves the priest merely as the cypher for his or her community, part of an ongoing story that began before our birth and will go on for generations to come.

And this goes beyond convinced believers. Church buildings narrate the development of a community more than any other. They tell a story by when they were built; by when they were rebuilt (and why); by the noticeboard announcing village fêtes or AA meetings or concerts; by the war memorial put up in front of them; by the graves that lie around them; by the patch of grass never built on because of the victims of earlier plagues who lie beneath. But this time round, the church has written itself out of the story.

Of course amid this debate there are those who don’t want the church to be part of the national story, either because they’re proper atheists who want a brave new world without the encumbrance of its Christian past, or Christian radicals who want a brave new church without the encumbrance of its national role. To which I say to both: tough.

Since [to finish as I began] someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

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