Jonathan Baker considers the importance of place
Today we are celebrating the anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of this church. It’s not a ‘big’ anniversary, a number like 100 or 125 or 150, but I would venture that we are celebrating with greater joy than even on those principal commemorations. Why? Well of course you know why, because this year, for a season, we were excluded from this sacred building, kept out of this place which we love because of the coronavirus pandemic. And as I’m sure you also know, because it has been mentioned in the press so often, this has been the first time since a period in the 13th century, when the whole of England, during the reign of King John, was put under a papal interdict and the sacraments could not be celebrated, that our churches have been closed to the people of God. What an extraordinary time we have lived through – are living through; how fervently we must pray that we never have to return to this state of affairs in our lifetime, or anyone’s lifetime, ever again.
So here we are, and we give heartfelt thanks to God. We do so confident in the grace given in this holy place, by its very witness to the crucified and risen Lord, in stone and brick and glass, through the fixtures and furnishings inside this sacred building, through the Images, the decoration, the bells and of course yes, most importantly of all, the reason why the whole edifice exists and has a purpose, because of the altar of God which stands here, the place of offering, the place of sacrifice, the place of the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, the Eucharist which makes the Church.
This Covid-19 pandemic has challenged us, challenged the whole of society, indeed the whole world, hugely. And as with every crisis, it has provoked great faith, great resilience, a massive outpouring of love of neighbour; but it has also allowed the conditions for doubt and uncertainty about some of the fundamentals of our faith to take root and begin to grow. Siren voices have questioned whether we need our church buildings and have questioned their value. The online offering of worship has been hailed as a breakthrough, a new and perhaps an even better way of being church.
Now let no one misunderstand me. During the unprecedented times we have been living through, worship online, recorded, and live streamed has been a lifeline for many. I have been doing it myself as have many Fulham parishes and I know it has been valued and appreciated. We have learned lessons which must not be forgotten, particularly about how we connect with those who, habitually, and for a variety of reasons, find it difficult or even impossible to attend, physically, our liturgies and other church services. But. There is a But, really quite a huge one. Christ calls us not just to watch the mass, to be an observer at a distance – whether that distance is physical or digital – but to be a participant in the great offering which is the active proclamation (as St Paul teaches us) of the saving mysteries of his death and resurrection. We are to gather around Christ, to be fed by Christ, in order to be sent out by Christ. As we arrive, from our different homes or places of work, for the Eucharist, we are not just making another casual or purely functional journey: we are being constituted, by Christ, to be the Body of Christ. We are stepping into a different space, a space which is, actually, a place of freedom: the freedom to worship God and to be His people, in which all our secular cares and anxieties are not simply forgotten, for of course we bring our whole selves, our worries and our joys to mass; but they are transformed as we step into heavenly space, heavenly time, the breaking in of the eternal into the here and now. This is one of the blessings which sacred spaces such as this and other church buildings bestow: they provide that place which is set apart, dedicated to the worship and adoration of almighty God.
We need this, we are made for this. We have become familiar with the phrase ‘WFH,’ working from home. It sounds lovely but others call it ‘Living at work,’ which sounds very much worse. The church building teaches us that we do not just live for work (nor simply for selfish pleasures), we live for God and for the worship of God. Time and again in the Old Testament we are pointed to the importance of the sabbath, the day set apart for worship, the day, in a sense, around which the whole of creation revolves. Now, in the epoch of the New Covenant, all are called to share the sabbath blessing. Our churches are public spaces, summoning everybody, young and old, of every culture and background and yes of every colour into the family of God in Jesus Christ. The Zoom gathering, with its pre-prepared invitation list and its password can never replace this. Whether you live in a bedsit or a mansion, whether you have high speed broadband, the church building is for you. Through those doors, and though we have our different orders and ministries, all are equal together as the children of the one heavenly Father. There are few types of building or public space which offer this gift in quite the way our churches do.
And of course we cannot end without recalling that the our churches are above all the places where the sacraments are celebrated. Christ gave us material, physical means – though supercharged by grace and the Holy Spirit – by which to be close to him for all time. Water, bread and wine, oil, the touch of the bishop’s hand in confirmation and ordination; these physical gestures are rooted in the physical nature of the Incarnation, they derive from and depend on the coming of the Word made Flesh, Jesus of Nazareth who walked he earth and rose again and who is both God and Man. In times of emergency the sacraments can be celebrated elsewhere, this has always been the case and for persecuted Christian communities it has been necessary and inevitable to do so. But habitually, normatively, the church building is the proper environment for the celebration of the sacraments because it is itself sacramental, it speaks of the coming of God in Christ into this world, into His creation in time and space, in the particularity of a moment in history and a location in the geography of this planet.
So yes, we are the Body of Christ and we must be Christ in the world, for the sake of the world. But as God’s people we are gathered around Christ, fed on Christ, sent in the power of Christ. We give thanks for this place not because we idolise it, not because we worship it, we worship only God. But because of all that it points to, all that it proclaims: a place where space and time are redeemed, where the sacraments of salvation, the continuation of the Incarnation, are celebrated; where God’s praises are sung, where our stories are taken up into God’s own story; where an altar is erected to God’s glory where with Jacob we can say, ‘how awesome is this place, this is none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.’
Bishop Jonathan Baker is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of New Directions. This sermon was preached at the Dedication Festival of All Hallows, Gospel Oak