By the Right Revd John Inge, Bishop of Worcester and former lead bishop for cathedrals and church buildings
The wonderful church buildings of the Diocese of Bath and Wells are not just the jewel in the crown of the architectural heritage of its communities, they are their ‘memory palaces’, telling their story, often over many centuries. There is simply nothing like them. More than that, they are holy places which can symbolise the faith for which they have stood firm, in many cases for centuries.
The earliest churches were ‘martyria’, built over the places where the martyrs met their death. The word implies that the buildings themselves bear witness. Our churches are powerful signs and symbols in the landscapes and townscapes of our nation, witnessing to the saving events of Christian history and the fact that this world is not a system closed unto itself.
If they are effectively to be witness to the faith then both parts of our Lord’s summary of the law will matter for churches, as they do for disciples. As well as embodying (bearing witness to) the first great commandment – to love and worship the Lord our God, they need also to embody (bear witness to) the second great commandment, to love our neighbour as ourself.
This implies that they should be vibrant centres of service to their communities, but the record is not always good as far as that is concerned. Traditionally, churches were at the heart of the communities in which they stand, in both a human and geographical sense. Over the years, however, a pietism has crept in, which has tended to exclude everything but public worship from them, all other activity being transferred to other places – halls and community centres, etc. Far too many churches remain locked and stand like mausoleums, except when open for worship, and are increasingly marginal to the life of the communities they exist to serve.
These buildings have an enormous impact on how the Church and the God we worship is perceived by those beyond the congregation. The faith we proclaim, will, whether we like it or not, be judged by our buildings. If they are closed or look miserable and uninviting then, for those beyond our congregations, that will be their message about the faith.
There are those who maintain that our church buildings are a millstone around our neck and an impediment to mission. I disagree. Though some churches will need to be closed, I believe that the mood music should be much more positive, recognising the potential for the gospel and for the good of society that our churches represent. In order for that potential to be realised, though, change is needed.
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