Nigel Elbourne asks us to reconsider the church guide as a means of explaining the significance of the symbolism shown in every aspect of a church’s design

A visitor to my theological college began his talk to us by saying ‘Whenever I go into a strange church, I help myself to as many Parish Magazines as I can find… then destroy them before they can do any more harm!’ Back in the Sixties most parishes could only run to a basic duplicator, which placed great limitations on graphic design – but I suspect Michael Saward (for it was he) was concerned more about the message than the medium.

The same, I suspect, is true of Church Guides. Some are attached to yellowing ‘ping-pong bats’; some are – optimistically – on sale. Most are intended to direct the visitor to the architectural and historical importance of the building and particular points of interest within it. There are some churches which attract the sort of clientele which will appreciate and learn from such a guide. I don’t think my mid-nineteenth-century town church is one of them!

Valuable opportunity

In this post-modern society, the Church Guide deserves another, more critical, look. Post-modernism was described to me as a sort of museum culture in which anyone may show interest in anything, as if it were an exhibit. They may wish (for this is an up-to-date museum) to interact with it a little, but they do not own what they see, nor do they commit themselves to it in any way. This means that people will quite happily visit our churches but are less inclined to join them. Although we piously hope that people will ‘come as tourists but leave as pilgrims’, we rarely have a strategy to bring an answer to that prayer.

One of my French friends was in Poitiers cathedral one day when she overheard a woman say to her companion, “That man in the stained-glass window doesn’t look very comfortable. They seem to be nailing him to a plank!’ Alive to an evangelistic opportunity, Suzanne offered to explain what was going on – not iconographi-cally but soteriologically. When she recounted the episode to herbishop – for his amusement – he pointed out the importance of encouraging all Christians to be alive to such opportunities.

Whatever our churches mean to us as regular worshippers, they are also full of fairly accessible symbolism – and this is especially true of churches of a more catholic tradition. Our Stations of the Cross are unlikely to be of any great artistic or historical merit, but they certainly tell a graphic and crucial story. Even the layout of our churches is not haphazard, but speaks of our relationship with God – and with each other.

Do we consciously use our buildings as a visual aid?

When children come to visit my church (most teachers are grateful for a local ‘outing’ to illustrate some point in the National Curriculum), I challenge them with the fact that there is hardly anything in the church which is there by chance. However, the time they have available usually passes far too quickly for me to do more than scratch the surface. This is where the guidebook comes in!

A practical step

I have prepared a 15-page illustrated leaflet, which introduces anyone who has the slightest interest, to the significance of the layout and furnishings of the church. It can either be used to accompany a walk round the church or as an aide-memoire when the visitor has returned home. It is also available on the parish website for casual visitors [ -where you may read it too. If you have comments or criticism, I’d love to hear them]. It includes simple questions and suggestions, which encourage the user to engage with the deeper message.

I would love to say that this has led to people nocking to our services. It has led life-long church people to exclaim: ‘Fancy – I never knew that!’ But it is an essential part of our church’s engagement with post-modern society; and I commend the exercise to you. Remember the Ethiopian eunuch [Acts 8.26ff] who spoke eloquently to Philip of the need for a little explanation to turn curiosity into faith!