by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley and Member of General Synod
A small group of beleaguered disciples, tired, fearful and disappointed, uncertain about the future, meeting behind closed doors, wistfully reminiscing about the crowds who had at one time gathered with them. Now it’s just the faithful remnant.
The Holy Spirit comes, and they are transformed, heading out into the public arena, living life fully as Christ’s followers, drawing others to join them by their love for each other and their neighbours, and their accessible, amateurish but heartfelt teaching and worship.
We have all reflected recently on a story something like this over Pentecost. However, what I am describing is not the early church, but rather what I have seen played out in many small congregations across my diocese in these last few months. In multi-parish rural benefices and urban teams, where previously ten to fifteen committed long term members met in multiple locations for worship, now a hundred or more gather online together, energised and engaged each week, making new friends and attracting others. It’s easier to join a crowd than a clique.
For many years across the country, weary church wardens have with dogged determination, fought to keep regular Sunday services going in their church building, not wanting to betray their predecessors by allowing the church to die on their watch. Failure and local wrath have been constant threats Then, overnight in March, the doors of every church building were closed, unilaterally. And they were not responsible. It was not their fault. A Kairos moment?
Lockdown was dramatic and shocking for church communities. Emerging from it will be far more nuanced, and no less difficult. Already MPs and journalists are politicising the ‘draconian’ refusal to permit the use of church buildings for private prayer and funerals. Bishops across the country are tweeting (including my own)! Passions and anxieties are running high amidst uncertainties and swathes of guidelines for ‘whenever we can reopen’.
Churches will soon be allowed to open again, and that is right. But please let’s not rush back to opening them all. Church buildings are different, have different purposes and callings, and can sometimes get in the way of God’s people truly being church. And we have too many of them.
It’s very easy to say. “Open your church building from tomorrow” to gain some support from vocal campaigners. But what about the tiny rural church with no mains water, where handwashing isn’t possible? How do you clean an ancient building with nooks and crannies when you can’t slosh the bleach around? How do you safely open a huge cathedral with multiple entrances and many chapels, when staff are furloughed, closure of cafés and shops and no tourists has caused a financial crisis, and most volunteers are vulnerable or shielding? Practically there are many issues to be overcome. The challenges will be met of course. Clergy and church members will rise to the occasion creatively, just as they have adapted to the constraints of recent months with resilience and faith.
But what about the opportunities of this Kairos moment? Strategically is it right to go back to dispersed, fragmented and often insular worship in every place? Surely this is the time to courageously ask the questions few previously dared voice.
Should this church be used for worship each Sunday in the future? Can we re-designate for occasional use – weddings, funerals, harvest and Christmas? Can we formally close, and recognise the building’s importance as a local heritage asset, treating it as such rather than trying to meet unrealistic expectations of it becoming a vibrant community hub when we all know in our hearts that this role is filled adequately by the village hall or pub? Dare we contemplate allowing our building to become perhaps a beautiful ruin?
Place is important of course, and prayed in places are undoubtedly holy. It is important to have sacred space where we can gather, celebrate the sacraments, reflect amidst beauty. Buildings where key life events have been marked hold special significance and will always be places of pilgrimage. But not every church building is beautiful, many are not fit for purpose, they are often in the wrong places where settlements have moved. Some were built for dubious reasons – as follies or status symbols. One size does not fit all, and we need to grasp the freedom the current closure gives us to treat each case individually.
If congregations and weary wardens can be released to be church, rather than being burdened with the responsibility of preserving bricks and mortar, maybe the new life we have seen emerge in lockdown might blossom and flourish – not forever online – heaven forbid! But in vibrant Christian communities meeting in the most appropriate church building in a grouping, or even in a school hall, focussing their energies and enthusiasm on serving their communities, fed by corporate worship with many others, sharing gifts and skills as they grow in discipleship together.
My theological college principal often reflected that policy is usually at least ten years behind practice in the Church of England. Re-designating masses of church buildings can, if we are brave to seize the moment, be trialled instinctively as we begin to embrace the new normal. The legislation to make it formal will take Chancellors and Archdeacons and General Synod many years and tie us all in knots, but let’s not be deterred. We cannot go back to a uniform approach to church buildings draining the life from the church. Let’s invest in some, reinvent others, and dare to let some quietly stay closed for ever.