Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Church, Cathedral or Museum: a response to Bones

This started out as a comment on Bones' most recent blog post, but it grew in the writing, and eventually I thought it bad manners to use her comment space for, effectively, a whole post of my own. Check out her blog to see the background.

Sacred spaces are special to lots of people, I think. When out walking, we love to drop in on country churches, large or small, and are disappointed if they're locked. For me it's very different to simply enjoying and responding to creation itself – I like being in an enclosed, quiet space, taking time to be still and to talk with God about important things. With very old buildings it's also awesome to think of people coming here to worship together for so many centuries. All this affects me more than a huge and busy cathedral, much as I might appreciate the architecture, the grand design, the concern to do something great for God and the beauty of sung evensong.

I think the tensions Bones writes of are the tip of the iceberg, especially for parts of the Church of England. Here is the established church, with a very broad brief, a strong sense of its traditions and frequently, the strong association of those with its buildings, trying to relate to the whole community. Meanwhile that community seems less sure about the detail or relevance of what the church stands for, may well be more interested than it used to be in cultural and antiquarian things, but doesn't know how to relate that to activities and buildings needing to be maintained and financed. The church / museum dichotomy is the elephant in the nave. What is the church, anyway? Does the question "Who is it for?" actually make any sense, as though the church were a social services department? Is it "for" its members, or committed Christians, or people seeking reality / truth, or those in need, or the public at large? In what sense is it "for" them? Is it for God?

A new breed of independent "community churches" faces similar questions – they are not confined to an established, national church. As soon as you define yourself, in some sense, in relation to the surrounding community, you get these same tensions about role, even when they are not building-centred. Much easier to be a cosy, inward-looking club than work with the messiness of reaching out to others! How do you reach out to a society that has grown tolerant of almost anything, when the convictions that lead you to reach out include some about absolutes, bottom-line realities? Bones' cup-cake refuser clearly had some convictions, but lacked the ease with which to communicate them with love. For me, this was the saddest part of her whole post, as the moment hardened the caricature.

I thought back to moments of my own when I hadn't the skill to keep integrity and graciousness together. Here's to the wisdom that entwines them.


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