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DOING 'CHURCH' DIFFERENTLY
What is to be done with all our church buildings now that fewer people want to attend them? That’s hardly an original question. Perhaps the deeper one is whether the whole idea of a parish or local church system, each with its own worship centre, is now well beyond its sell-by date. One ex-church near me is now a superstore; another is plush offices. A former church in the centre of Lichfield is now a magnificent public library and concert venue, as well as home to several community groups. The chancel, complete with stained glass, has made a stunning computer area. I recently stayed in a hotel that has been sensitively converted from a closed Benedictine nunnery. Its chapel may now be a ‘secular’ wedding venue, but its history is still evident for those who want to see it. Redundant buildings can often be put to new uses with sufficient imagination to make it happen.
No building lasts for ever but not every community can muster anything like the resources that will be needed to keep them fit for use. We have to let many of them go. There is a long tradition going back to visionaries like Auguste Comte, and continued by writers like Alain de Botton, who have suggested that such unwanted buildings could be used for other philosophical and creative purposes.. That seems eminently sensible where it is possible. Some might be best used by those of other religious traditions who need a place to meet.
Finding new uses for old buildings is one thing; but how about asking whether this may also be an opportunity to build a new kind of ‘Church’? Not a crisis or a disaster at all, but an invitation to a different, more relevant future. It seems to me that people get much more out of worship and other Christian gatherings when what is done there is done well. Cathedrals are bucking the national trend of decline because they offer a range of high-quality activities, including services, that can stand alongside other options which people might go to instead. Why go to a draughty building to participate in a bit of a non-event that so often seems to involve rather poor quality and ill-considered content, when you can get a much more uplifting experience at a football match or concert? Big events work. The cracks are showing in your local parish church and it simply can’t hope to compete. Of course any new approach has to be ecumenical; I'm not just talking about C of E congregations here, even if they are best placed to take the lead.
Perhaps we would do better to focus on maintaining far fewer places offering a varied diet of organised worship; maybe only 20% of those we have now. Most people can travel to what would then be better-supported centres, and those who can’t can be given a lift or hire a minibus! Put on a lunch and an opportunity for discussion afterwards. Make a day of it. Make this the local synod/church meeting as well. Bring people together who’ve never met before and make it all much more worth the effort. Have people leading and contributing, (and of course we’d need far fewer of them), who are well-trained, skilled in music or public speaking and communication and who know how to make an event unmissable. And this doesn’t have to happen only on a Sunday. Maybe another day would work for many.
Then the ‘Church’ in every locality could meet as often and whenever it wanted to in addition; in people’s homes or in school and village halls. It could be entirely 'lay'-led. It wouldn't have to worry about keeping up with the bigger more professional venues and would offer pastoral support and care to those within and beyond the fellowship. It wouldn’t need to raise a lot of money to keep a building open and can concentrate on supporting people in their lives outside the Church rather than everyone having to attend endless meetings. Perhaps they might even be ‘allowed’ to celebrate Eucharist together!
Personally, I also see all this as a metaphor for what we need to do with the whole Christian enterprise. The beliefs and creeds also need a refresh to make them fit for the C21st and beyond. The idea of one person talking, and everyone else sitting listening to what they need to be told from on high, is as redundant as many of the buildings in which we do it. New generations need new approaches. They need inspiring not herding. People can actually think for themselves now! If Christianity is to survive in our culture we need models of both faith and practice that actually engage with where they are. That is not about keeping the old 'Temples' standing whatever the cost. It’s about creating new ones, not necessarily made of stone, bricks and mortar, until they too have to be replaced by those who will come after us. Otherwise they may not exist to do it. 03.06.19
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