Paul Griffin on sanctuary and its limitations

I suppose if the Church of England collapses like the pillar of Ozymandias, there will be those who remember the old Church; and afterwards, those who look back at our times, and say: ‘Poor fellows! They loved it while it lasted.’

We did. People did, as long as we were not regarded as bees in the belfry, a nuisance to be got rid of. Notice that I did not say ‘bats’, which legally have more right to our church buildings than many of us. Bees are fair game, but even they might remember that the flowers of that churchyard had a beautiful, unforgettable smell. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ they might say.

The holy of holies

That is how many of us are beginning to feel. Where now can we go for honey? and on what flowers shall we feed? Our churches and churchyards were consecrated by a bishop, and they were consecrated for our use. Must we fling ourselves at our altars for sanctuary?

Now there is a word we use frequently to refer to a particular section of our church, felt to be holier than the rest. Lay visitors expect to be free to prowl around a church, but they are less certain about the sanctuary, which hints that there lies safety. We have memories of the ancient laws of sanctuary, which as far as I know are no longer valid, and which in some cases applied to a particular object in the church, like a sanctuary knocker or the altar itself.

If we know our history, we remember the extra horror of St Thomas of Canterbury being martyred at his own altar. Congregations recall also that civic functions were mainly held in the nave of a church, with one or two dignitaries in the chancel, but none further east than that. Some Evangelicals insist the altar is just a holy table, but they still use the word ‘holy’.

Higher powers

Now we must come to earth with a bang. No government can permit its laws and authority to be overridden, even by an Established Church. In the Middle Ages, a postulant was allowed sanctuary for only forty days. At the end of that time he had to head for a port and make himself scarce.

We no less. The law says that citizens may not discriminate in making appointments on the ground of gender. Currently, we are exempt from that law, and for longer than forty days. It has more force than a code of practice, but can be repealed. The indignation at us felt by the general public, not all of whom are pagan, may well lead to a situation in which we have to conform, or take the consequences. ND