Paul Griffin explains why our churches, like our own bodies, should not be regarded as our permanent possessions
There are some pretty deserted churches in our land. Visiting one in Norfolk on a fine day, we sat in the sunny porch to eat our sandwiches and enjoy the southern prospect. There had been another pair of visitors when we arrived, but they soon went, and we were alone, gazing over the Norfolk fields and woods. After a bit, I thought, some lady will come to clean the brass or arrange the flowers, or perhaps the Vicar will come in; then I realized I was living in the past. Ladies are busier these days, and so are priests.
Checking on the notice board, I saw this chap had eleven parishes, with help spread as thinly as workhouse margarine. Visitors and burglars were commoner than parishioners for most of the time.
What was the point of this church? What made it worth holding on to? Was it essential to its congregation?
In our present state of uncertainty, we are worried about losing our own church buildings in some realignment of what will continue to call itself the Church of England. Yet in the sticks are dozens of underused churches, in the wrong place, while we may have to content ourselves with hastily consecrated halls in the best place we can find.
That excellent couplet of Edmund Waller’s came to my mind: ‘The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed, Lets in new light through chinks that time has made.’ He meant, I suppose, that when the human body begins to fail, the light of heaven begins to shine in, until at the end, when the useless material body dies, the resurrected body springs forth into a greater light. Was this also true of churches?
If English Heritage paid for the fabric of this Norfolk church to be improved, would it diminish the church spiritually? That is not such a stupid idea as it seems, when you have seen some of the Church’s attempts to restore ancient buildings.
There is a comparison here, for a church is the house of our Lord in his bodily resurrection, whereas our body is the house of the spirit; and as some bodies are beautiful and others not, whereas God cares for both sorts; so a consecrated shed is as dear to him as Durham Cathedral.
An earthly shelter
William Blake has an engraving of a winged baby emerging from an egg, with the inscription: ‘At length for hatching ripe, he breaks his shell’. Here is the nub of the matter, that in the end the human body, or the ecclesiastical building, will meet the lot of all created things, and be reduced to a useless shell, while the phoenix of the soul flies upwards.
Another of his engravings portrays an old man entering his grave, while above the roof and looking upwards his soul, a young man, aspires to the light.
We should love our churches and look after them as we look after our own bodies, but only in a sense are they our permanent possessions. Our souls, as that seventeenth-century poet says, are confined within material walls; but we should never imagine that the walls are anything more than an earthly shelter. The gleam of light should tell us that our churches, like our bodies, are temporary. Of course we fear death, and of course we fear losing our churches, but in the end both are lost in the greater light that is to come. ND