Faith & Reason / Bricks and mortar and a sacred space

Do church buildings matter? Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times, who has found himself extraordinarily moved just by a shaft of light through stained glass, thinks they do.

The exodus to Rome by disaffected Anglicans has hit a snag. They want to take their buildings with them.

In the original exodus, Moses had a hard time persuading the Israelites to leave Egypt, and that was when they only had tents to worry about. A large Victorian Gothic pile is less easy to transport. Nevertheless, people cannot bear to leave them behind. This problem throws an interesting light on what exactly are the essentials of the faith.

At St Stephen's, Gloucester Road, in Kensington, London, Canon Christopher Colven and 35 of his congregation think they might have a solution. After Easter, they are going down the road to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. The next day, they are coming back again. The diocese of London has agreed to their using the parish church for Roman Catholic masses on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. The part of the congregation which is staying on will continue to keep Sundays to themselves.

At Holy Trinity, Hoxton, in east London, the diocese has been willing to go one step further, by declaring the church redundant and leasing it to the Roman Catholics. That way, Fr Stuart Wilson and the 40 of his congregation who went over to Rome earlier this month could have stayed put. The Romans declined, not wanting any more churches in the East End - which must have been a relief to the 35 or so members of the congregation who have chosen to remain Anglicans.

All will be well now. The diocese is sure to find a priest who is happy to take over at St Stephen's and work alongside his predecessor, and plenty of priests will be glad to move to Holy Trinity, to minister to half a congregation in a church which the diocese is so attached to.

The diocese might not be committed to Holy Trinity, but Jacky Keegan is. She spoke this week about the temptation to become a Roman Catholic. "I would have gone, if I could have stayed in my church . . . but I've been there too long to leave it. They say bricks and mortar is nothing, but it isn't for me."

Canon Colven said the same thing in the St Stephen's parish magazine, though in more clerical mode:

The significance of church buildings ought not to be over-played (they are essentially no more than a roof under which the eucharistic family can gather); but neither should they be under-played. They are the focus for so many memories that mark important staging posts on the journey to God. They also provide a meeting place with fellow pilgrims both alive and departed.

Colven begins by paying lip-service to the received Christian wisdom. The Church, it has always been said, is the body of Christ. The Church is a living thing, made up entirely of its members. The "just-a-roof-over- the-head" argument is part of the Church's anti-aestheticism (not to be confused with asceticism). What matters is the spiritual communion between worshipper and a God who is spirit.

This sentiment rings a little false in a Church which has billions of pounds invested in church buildings. Of course the buildings are important. Only look at how impossible it is to get people to agree to even the most modest rationalistion, if it entails closing down or even reducing the use of their church.

It is optimistic to uproot a seedling and expect it to take in another location. When a post office is closed down, the Royal Mail can be sure that its customers will buy their stamps somewhere else. Not so a church: under such circumstances, many people simply depart, never to return.

The pull of a particular building is hard to explain. I once attended a post-war church not far from Holy Trinity. From the outside, it looks like a swimming-pool. Inside are some pretty stunning murals, but it still resembles a municipal badminton hall. Except for some insignificant stained- glass windows high up on the walls. To be praying, and find a stain of coloured light on your hand, or your sleeve, was extraordinarily moving.

Those who are tuned into these things talk about sacred space. The suggestion is that the bricks, mortar and stone are not important in themselves; but they frame a shape of air. These are motionless bits of the world, rare places where prayers can be held and not blown away, where God can dwell and be encountered. Light, colour, smell, order and the texture of sound, more precious, to many, than denominational ties, cannot be easily parcelled up and carried away.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution