Ian McCormack explores the importance of place

It has been suggested that the rush to embrace online and virtual worship is part of a Machiavellian plot to deny the importance of church buildings and refashion the Church of England along smooth, sleek, Zoom-based virtual lines. I suspect that this is to confuse cause and effect. The hierarchy has shown little evidence of being organized enough to arrange such a thing; but there is no doubt that a significant number of senior and influential figures are seeking to take advantage of the Covid crisis to reshape the church in an image more palatable to them. There has been much talk of ‘wonderful new opportunities for mission’, and of course the old trope that ‘The Church is people, not buildings’, which Angela Tilby quite rightly described as ‘trite’ in the Church Times.

Many readers of New Directions will know instinctively that this will not do. It is not wrong, but it is not the whole story. But those of us who believe this need to do more than simply feel it. We need to be able to justify it, and put forward a positive argument for it. 

The overarching theme of what follows is that place matters, and holy places matter, because the foundation of Christianity is the Incarnation. God became man in a particular place and at a particular moment in time. People could reach out and touch Him, see Him, hear Him. Through the sacraments of the Church, people continue to use their senses to encounter Jesus Christ. Christianity is a physical religion or it is nothing. And so place matters, and thus holy places matter. 

Bearing that in mind, allow me to offer five particular reasons why our church buildings matter so much, and why the creative and imaginative ways of ‘being church’ that have developed in recent weeks should be seen as admirable ways of working in a crisis rather than the blueprint for our future life. 

1) The first Christian Altars were the tombs of the martyrs (which is significant if we’re going to keep on quoting the early church in all of this, as many do). Those early celebrations of the Eucharist could have happened anywhere – but they didn’t. They were focused on a particular place, because that place had a special significance. It was, in fact, holy. That holiness aided the interaction with God that is the purpose of worship.

In a related manner, the primary purpose of church buildings is to house the altar(s) upon which the Eucharist is celebrated. The Eucharist can be celebrated anywhere, but it is most fittingly celebrated in the church and upon the altar built and consecrated for that purpose.  

2) Some places are holy from the outset. Others become holy over time. This was understood by TS Eliot, and illustrated by his famous phrase from the poem Little Gidding. ‘You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.’ Churches are special places because prayer has been valid there. They are, in fact, holy. That holiness aids the interaction with God that is the purpose of worship. That does not mean that prayer and worship cannot happen elsewhere. But it happens most fittingly in the churches built and consecrated for that purpose. 

3) In the Church of England, this point can be developed in two ways. First, there is the sense of our church buildings as the soul of the nation, the living record of the history of our communities, great and small. That’s why our war memorials are so significant, and why in many communities hundreds of people come to church once a year – on Remembrance Sunday. This is where orthodox Christianity rubs shoulders with a vaguer spirituality, a folk-religion which defies precise definition, but is valuable nonetheless. For it is in these hinterlands that conversations about faith – about Jesus Christ – can be started, or continued, or resumed after an absence of many years. Difficult though this is to pin down, it is what we mean when we talk about the Church of England being the Church for the whole nation. It’s surely part of the thinking behind the strap-line ‘a presence in every community’, a slogan of which CofE PLC was inordinately proud, until suddenly it wasn’t. 

Once again, TS Eliot has the words for this. Little Gidding continues: 

‘And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.’

Our churches matter because they are the places to which people look to experience the intersection of the timeless moment.

4) If the previous point is particular to the Church of England (and indeed one of the reasons that some of us remain Anglicans), the next point is something we share with the wider Church. It is the sense that churches are God’s house: the home of God. Now again, this is not to limit God to these buildings, but it is to say that God can be found particularly within them. Human experience helps here: I am me on the bus, in the park, at a football match. But I am most comfortably me in the space I have made for myself, the place I call home. That is, in fact, why we call our houses ‘home’. We could dwell anywhere – but we choose to dwell in places we make special for ourselves, and call home. So it is with churches, though in fact it is not God who is most comfortable in church buildings, but we who seek to encounter Him therein. 

In his book Why go to Church?, Timothy Radcliffe remembers being taken into church by his mother to light a candle and say a prayer at the end of a shopping trip. ‘We could have said the prayer equally well at home, but the empty church was not empty for my mother. It was the home of God, and a reminder of the communion of saints and of the whole Church.’

5) Tied up with the importance of place is the significance of travelling. The sense that life is a journey towards God (into God?) is a profound part of the Christian faith, recognized in hymnody, from John Bunyan’s ‘He who would valiant be’ through to Richard Gillard’s ‘Will you let me be your servant’. The refounding of the Shrine at Walsingham – and the rediscovery of pilgrimage more generally – has been one of Anglo-Catholicism’s great gifts to the Church of England. The fact that we are not all able to make physical pilgrimages as often as we would like means that we have to seek alternatives. 

Timothy Radcliffe again: ‘Churches remind us that we are pilgrims. The archetypical place of pilgrimage is, of course, the Holy Land, the place where God shared our lives in the person of Jesus.’ Radcliffe suggests that each church becomes for us our own Jerusalem: the symbolic end-point of our pilgrimage through life, the goal for which each of us is striving. To go to church is to enact in miniature the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

The hymns for the Dedication Festival of a Church (‘Blessed City, heavenly Salem’; ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’) draw out the idea of each church building being, in effect, a mini-Jerusalem. And to what end? Surely, the sanctification of those who come: sanctification which is not limited to church buildings, but is nonetheless to be found in particularly powerful ways therein: Here vouchsafe to all thy servants gifts of grace by prayer to gain; here to have and hold for ever, Those good things their prayers obtain, and herafter, in thy glory, with thy blessed ones to reign

As for the importance of the connection between pilgrimage and pilgrim – the church as building and the church as people – William Draper’s beautiful hymn ‘In our day of thanksgiving’ makes things clear: These stones that have echoed their praises are holy, And dear is the ground where their feet have once trod; Yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims, And still they were seeking the city of God

Church buildings help everyone – at all stages of the Christian journey – seek the city of God. Let’s not be in too much of a hurry to mothball them, for sanctification by Zoom has a long way to go to catch up. 

Fr Ian McCormack is the Clerical Vice-Chairman of Forward in Faith.