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.

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