Thursday, 24 September 2015

Do you know where to stick your church?

No, not something rude - I'd like to offer a little challenge this morning:

Take a look at these two images and think about what your can see, and perhaps what you know and perhaps what you assume about the two buildings, the people in them and the people around them - what are the differences (and similarities) between them? 

A recent conversation I overheard (and keep back from) was heading towards, 'Burn the cathedrals and put those in sector ministry in the diocese to the sword'. A foolish misunderstanding of many of the realities of church and yet a realistic observation when some are considered as well!

So Take a look and have think about them:

Here are some of the possible responses:

One has a black border around it - but it isn't dying (intact it's pretty stable and showing gentle signs of growth - of all sorts).

One has blue skies around its domed splendour - but I'd hazard to suggest that it's not all sunshine and roses being there!

One has only one room whereas the other has many rooms - one can accommodate about sixty people whilst the crypt in the other holds about two hundred more than that!

One is pretty and the other is merely something utilitarian and considered by some to be anything but pretty (which is why weddings and baptisms go elsewhere perhaps?).

One is in the centre of an Estate Church: An Urban priority area. The other is situated within one of the most prosperous centres of commerce and law in the world.

One has around fifteen percent of those who come in full-time work - I was told by someone in the other that that's probably the other way round there!

Some might think about the difference between the two locations in terms of IMD numbers (Index of Multiple Deprivation - the higher the number the better the area) one is around 8,500 and the other around 28,000.

One of them charges people to come in (£18 for an adult and £8 for a child) and the other doesn't charge admission (perhaps there's nothing to see?).

One of them has to pay parish share whist the other appears to be exempt (and in fact receives money from the Church Commissioners) from that charge. I'm told that's because they struggle to pay the bills - but then again that's a common area for both I would think.

Some might think that the worship styles differ, after all one has a robed choir and p

Perhaps you've thought of a different difference? If so, plonk it in the comments area and we can see what others have come up with and perhaps grasp some insights which would have otherwise been passed by and ignored.

Here are a few of my own observations to add so grit to the machinery (or hopefully, grist to the mill!):

The differences?

Physical:  Size - Age of the buildings - Location - one is an icon, the other an eyesore (a quote!)

Spiritual: None at all - both seek to witness to the saving power of the cross and the servanthood of Jesus, the Christ. It's all about scale and audience and opportunity. One has a massive footfall and a great tourist trade whilst the other has none of the above!

But when it comes to knowing where to stick a church building, the smaller of the two does something very important for it ministers God's love in a place where hardship, adversity and struggle are quite often to be found (yes, I know that happens in the City of London too, but it's a matter of scale). 

Reputation: The majority of people are in awe of those who work in the larger of the two buildings. How often to you hear an estate church or urban priority minister doing 'Thought for the Day' or being quoted in one of the national papers? The answer is that generally you don't unless there's been something juicy in terms of news. The truth is that the smaller, dare I say more community engaged (now there's an invite to a punch up if I ever heard one), little churches are largely only of import to the people and the communities that they serve.

Extend this to include rural churches and you'll find yourself struggling just as much for although they are a lifeline to many and the remain community cohesion for many in a place, they just aren't counted as equal to the big and splendid places of worship (where sadly admission is charged and egos can be as polished as their floors). I must just tip my hat to the congregation of St Ethelbert - East Wretham, Norfolk to the community that it is and for the wonderful service they had recently to celebrate 150 years since the building's was rebuilt; and a thumbs up to the bishop of Norwich for a great bit of history, Bible and pastoral gathered into his sermon on that day. 

Rural churches are a treasure and focus for many a community

Sustaining the witness: And it is here that perhaps the real difference is to be found for should any conversation of closing an iconic building such as the larger featured here there would be uproar. How could we countenance closing a 'national treasure' and a place of such importance to the tourist industry? I can envisage the letter to the Times now. But when it comes to the smaller, those where 'can't pay - can't have' means the end is nigh, what of the people we serve and where and how do we do are evangelism (of course as a missioner I'll point to pubs and homes and mention 'fresh expressions' but the public understanding is that, as we close building we are no longer voice or influence for good (and God).


Close the smaller of the two pictured here and it wouldn't attract a column inch in the national - I know that because the others who have closed their doors and been merged and reorganised haven't!

Church buildings need to be where the need is and this means that some, where communities have moved away or been incorporated into larger gatherings of people, do need to be closed to make them relevant and among the people they seek to serve. The problem is that we are not just about the 'cure of souls' but we also have the role of being 'curators of a place's memories' too and this means we have more listed building than we need and spend more on upkeep than perhaps we do on evangelising our communities - a situation that cannot continue. So there is the question of ownership and the issue of making Christ known - two areas of friction which leave nasty chafes in embarrassing places (i.e.. in the public domain).

Our challenge: Where I am there are many who treasure the large, imposing and quite ancient building in the centre of town; but few actually come into it as part of the normal congregation. This changes a little when there is a baptism or wedding and more so when there is a funeral, for then it is the old or the pretty church that attracts them all. The smaller churches, unless they are picturesque places, only tend to do baptisms for those with whom they have a relationship and weddings (done one here in the past ten years) are even more difficult (because people want nice photos in a pretty setting) are always done elsewhere.

Answers? These are the hardest bit in all this. As we close treasured, yet almost empty church buildings, and remove clergy: Or better still create multi-beneficed monstrosities: the winner of the ghastliest being eleven church buildings and almost as many communities in a diocese I will not name.

A friend of mine (well they were before I started writing this) who works in a cathedral was telling me how tight the purse strings were in their magnificent pile of stone. The problem was that as they told me about their challenges all I could see was how well off and extremely comfortable they, and their place, were when held up against some in parish ministry I know.

Now I am aware that we can always find those better, and worse, off that ourselves and that balance is they key. ALL of the expressions of Church: Cathedral, Parish, District and freshly expressed are valid and worthwhile; the minute we start thinking otherwise is the day when the Church, standing against itself, begins the final phase of decline and heads towards extinction.

The problem is that whilst I admire the wonderful buildings (as long as I can decide whether and what to give as I enter or leave) and marvel at the history and architecture and the music on offer, this in itself will not get the baby saved, bathed and given the bread of life. 

The same is true of the wonderful examples of parish church which are self-contained, self-satisfied and self-serving: If they don't serve the community around them and don't proclaim the Gospel to those inside and outside their wall, then what are they good for?

And again, look at some of the 'missional' churches out there. Those places who claim to be effective for the Lord and excelling in promoting the Gospel: If they are then we need to sustain them if they cannot because of an inability to pay on the part of the people they serve. We are heading to a time when those who can afford to have a church building will have them and those who cannot, will not. Basic economics: if you can't pay for it then you can't have it (even with non-stipendiary and ordained local minister [AKA licensed lay ministers).

This is an important debate - one that needs to be open-handed and big-hearted and yet, like many things Anglican, there is a danger that the divide between haves' and 'have nots' will see but one side win rather than some from both sides. 

So read, look and think and develop some reasoned thinking before you need it, because as it stands, need it you will. Do you know where to stick your church building*?


* Polite answers only please - and remember, there are many sharp bits to a church building so be charitable too!


Nick said...

Comparing the size of churches reminded me that Westminster Abbey can only sit 1250 without bringing out extra seats!

underground pewster said...

Church is not a building of stone but a building of the body of Christ.

JonG said...

"The...little churches are largely only of import to the people and the communities that they serve."

I may be being uncharitable here, but I would suspect that some of the big iconic places are of little import to any but those who actually work in them, and maybe some of the most committed volunteers - like the choir. I doubt if very many of the "paying guests" would rate their importance terribly highly.

Anonymous said...

Very many people rate such places very highly indeed - more highly than the people who "work" in them, that's for sure. That's why the former are willing to pay blackmail to the latter; to see something of the God the latter want to keep from them, unless paid richly for the privilege.

dg said...

I was going to say that my church seems well able to stick (or remain stuck) without my help....and that inactivity may of course be a large part of the reason. Oops.

Buildings provide a focus (venue) for something to happen. Very often that something is quite unhelpfully constrained by the building which may be more part of the problem than part of the solution. The same can be said of ministers and congregations. Too often the diagnosis is based on one or all of those three legs when in reality it is the something that needs the attention - what needs to happen in that place today? Do we really know? And if we do know, is that something for that place and time really deliverable in a Victorian-Saxon-Gothic pile or a brick super-shed by that all-purpose Victorian-dressed shed-minder, for a congregation that resolutely does not really congregate except perhaps at football matches?

Anonymous said...

Vic: I've worked in both sorts of places and can confirm that both have immense challenges and both have particular callings for particular seasons and times of ministry. Nowadays I have an itinerant ministry and prefer to have no buildings to be responsible for. What I will say about a Cathedral is that it doesn't pay common fund because it doesn't get any of its paid ministry from the diocese. It probably contributes quite a lot of that for free though. Also, it has to have a diocesan, city, county and national role, which the smaller church doesn't. That is the biggest difference.

Andrew Godsall