St Bride's: Sermon Series

Faith in the Parish Church

“God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved.”

It was tough in the ark. It was very big. We couldn’t choose the size or the design: it was laid down for us by God, so we had to take it as it was. Three hundred cubits long: 150 metres, some 450 feet. Fifty cubits wide: 30 metres, 90 feet.  And thirty cubits high: 18 metres, 56 feet. Three storeys. It was difficult getting all that wood, and it had to be the right sort. Ordinary cypress wouldn’t do.

It was tough in the ark. All that space for just eight people. Sometimes we rattled like peas in a pod. Wasn’t it a waste? Then there were all those animals. We didn’t choose them: God told us to take them. The butterflies were quite sweet, when they flitted around our rooms. Sometimes a bird got in; that was more of a problem. The bats were the worst. All that mess! We just hoped we would be out of the ark before they started nesting.

It was tough in the ark. All that rain coming down without stopping. We’d never seen so much. We heard it drumming on the roof and just hoped it wouldn’t come in, that the roof would hold firm, because we had no idea how to manage the repairs if it didn’t.

We weren’t sure how we would all get on. Yes, we were family, but we were all very different, and we really were thrown together. We had to learn to respect our differences, encourage each other, work together.

Sometimes we felt very isolated. Was anyone else left? Where were our neighbours? Were they actually laughing at us? Were we being stupid, placing so much energy and emotional investment in this great wooden hulk?

Or was it true what God had said – that he was making a new start for humanity and the whole of creation, for his world, and using us to help him? If that was true, then what we were doing, with his help, must have meaning which went far beyond the eight of us, even if we never quite understood it. Our job was to trust, support each other, and care for what we had been entrusted with.

Yes, you can see parallels with Faith in the Parish Church. We all know the problems: costs of maintaining historic buildings, concerns about small congregations, the beleagurement which can attack the most devoted churchgoer when problems multiply. We have all heard voices saying there are too many parish churches, in the wrong places, that they are inflexible for modern worship, unwelcoming, a waste of Christian energy and funds. Are they right?

I want to concentrate on the positives this morning. For I believe that our parish churches have a precious part to play in God’s mission for this country, past, present and future. Indeed, after the power of God himself and our own commitment, they are one of our strongest tools.

So I’d like to reflect with you about why buildings matter; what is special about church buildings; and why the parish church has such potential for our mission today:  the framework for all our worship, activities, outreach. My reflections come from a journey which started in a vicarage, continued through the former Department of the Environment, English Heritage, and to Church House in Westminster, responsible in each for church buildings, before leading me to train for ordination at Westcott House. There is, perhaps, a straight line running through that zig-zag career.

Why do buildings matter? Professor Tim Gorringe, a writer on sacred space, argues that all buildings, from the humblest garden shed to the grandest cathedral – or the biggest supermarket – embody their designers’ views about God and their fellow humans. It’s usually unconscious: few secular architects discuss theology as they turn to their draughtsman’s boards or computer design. But the building itself shows whether they are making a statement, outdoing their rivals; whether they want to give people space to breathe, or hem them tightly in; whether they are working on a human scale, or one which overwhelms.

What is special about church buildings? Church builders seek to reflect God’s glory and Christ’s love for humanity. Past centuries found meaning and symbolism in scale and size: Gothic cathedrals vied in height or length, soaring to the heavens, literally aspiring in stone. Today our mindset is perhaps more parsimonious, or practical: we prefer an intimate scale where people can feel welcome, where the space is flexible and not wasted. We shrink from the big, high-maintenance, gesture. For our predecessors, the church might be the largest building they knew, except the local castle. Yet how often now is the castle long-ruined – while the equally ancient parish church is still used for worship?

You can tell, immediately you go in, whether a church is prayed in, and loved, or not. Some have a sad sense of depression, a place abandoned by its people, with tired clutter and tattered notices. But more often you sense a community working together in prayer and love, and of a place growing into itself over the centuries, absorbing prayer and praise and joy and sorrows to become hallowed by and for God.

But does that matter now to those beyond the doors? Yes, it does. A church proclaims by its very presence, speaking of the eternal and strength, speaking to a yearning which is greater than we often recognise. For surveys and censuses repeatedly find the same figures: 70% say they are Christian, two-thirds think religion should have a voice in public life, 70% pray. Our supposedly secular, politically correct society is spiritually gasping. And we, like those in the ark, can point them to living water. They may not come to worship: yet they believe in its validity. Yes, we regulars could worship in each other’s houses, at far less cost. But we could never proclaim that the Church of Christ is open to everyone, tentative visitors and cradle Christians alike, without public worship in public buildings. In these days of fragmented communities, failing shops, closing pubs, and fractured families, the parish church proclaiming the kingdom in word and deed can embody community hope.

People want to come in. Church House commissioned three successive surveys from an independent market research firm – in 2003, 2005, and 2007 – asking a stratified sample across the country whether they had been in a church or chapel in the past 12 months – and, if so, what for.

Every time, 85% or 86% of those questioned said they had been inside a church or chapel in the previous 12 months. 85% or 86%.

Many came for activities, events, and for worship. But in 2005 and 2007 about 20% had gone in to seek a quiet space. This figure was even higher in urban areas. And 23% in 2005 said that they ‘were just going past and felt the need to go in’ Over 1 in 5 entered a church just because it was there, and open. We must listen to that.

A lady in Lincolnshire sent us a diary. Her rural parish decided to open the doors once a week. She volunteered to man the church. She wrote down what happened: the people who came, shyly and then more confidently, the conversations they had – though she never pressed or intruded - the silences, the sharing. It was intensely moving. The place had generated spiritual growth.

God the Creator hallows place as well as people. In the Incarnation, heaven and earth meet in the fusion of the universal and the particular: God Almighty taking the form of an individual man in a particular place at a particular time. We often undervalue our own uniqueness: no-one, past, now, or ever, can have our special mish-mash of genes, be born when and where we were born, to our parents; or live our life, in our time, in our place. God, by making his Son uniquely human in particular surroundings, thereby hallows both our unique humanity and the place of our being: Galilee, Fleet Street, Cambridge, your home and mine, major city or tiny village. For each place is unique: in its clustering of buildings and landscape and the way it has grown and weathered into its identity; in the talents each community can contribute. A parish and its church serves its community best by pondering that identity, inhabiting it, living it, knowing its needs. Then open the doors: and welcome, in the name of Christ. A great privilege at Church House was to see the imagination and commitment so many congregations brought to doing exactly that – people and place combining to embrace its community, hear its story, use their building to meet its needs and strengthen their own worship in the process: gaining the confidence to reflect in their building and how they used it a tiny facet of God’s rich and inexhaustible glory.

No two churches have the same story. Look at St Brides: Christopher Wren designed other churches, including a large one with a big round dome down the road – but none are identical. Other churches were bombed and rebuilt, literally rising from the ashes – but none quite the same way as this. And, whether you have worshipped here for years or are just visiting this morning, you have touched its life as it has touched yours.

This time last week I was in a very different church, in a small Norfolk village. It was built near the sea, which later retreated, and figures of ships were scratched into the stone. Some years ago, with the congregation numbering half the family in the ark, it was threatened with closure. But then it found new life, and developed its own special mission, to the children of the area. A peaceful and imaginative children’s chapel showed photographs of the wonders of creation, placed next to simple, moving prayers. A row of stones - inviting, tactile, colourful stones from beach and field - lay at the side bench. A notice invited you to take one as a reminder of the visit. 400 stones – more than one every day – were taken over the previous year. There were twenty people, with the two of us visiting, at last Sunday’s service. And over 200 people now come at Easter and Christmas.

A visitor had sent a poem. Each verse began the same way.

“There is love in this place.”

It could not be St Brides: you could not be it. But it, like you, embodied, with its own integrity, its message of God’s love for humanity: a message humanity yearns to hear.

Yes, there are problems. But let us face the future with confidence. It will never be simple: there will be tensions between approachability and transcendence, domesticity versus dignity, tensions of size and numbers and geography, of developing liturgical needs. But like the family in the ark, let us trust in God’s faithfulness, that he can use us and our parish churches to reach to his world.

So may it be. Amen.

 

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