For Stephen Conway, the tent is large enough for all and church buildings really matter


Our Evangelical sisters and brothers are always talking about widening the tent horizontally, which is fine. But when the Prophet Isaiah encourages the faithful to enlarge the size or their tent (Isa 54.2) it directly follows the depiction of the Suffering Servant. First things first: we need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb like the white-robed chosen of God. I once had the experience of being at Mass when a disturbed person took the chalice and poured it over their head, for a literal bathing. If it had been a spill on the carpet, the MC would have burned it. As it was, he persuaded them to suck their cardigan dry. Sometimes we must deliberately accept suffering to stand for Christ as a public witness.

The Church of England is going through a fearful phase at present, with lots of anxiety about institutional relevance and survival. This is not surprising given the degree of cultural ferment through which we are living, even without the grief and dislocation of the pandemic. One of the benefits of the pandemic for me was being in a bubble with a family whose adult daughters in their twenties gave me valuable tutorials on semiotics, the study of cultural trends. Anglo-catholics come out as winners. We are powerful both when we re-invest in the Tradition and when we challenge the dominant culture which is never as strong as it looks and feels. Funnily enough, our default position as counter-culturists is alive and well. I was brought up to be ready to die for episcopacy but to hate bishops. That is an existential challenge for me!

Another more daunting challenge is to discern where the emergent culture is which will challenge us mightily. As I lean more heavily on my crozier and look closely in the mirror, I can imagine myself as a protected species of tortoise, but living a long time is not in itself creative. What do we Catholics of various apparently irreconcilable shades have to offer going forward?  Can we be forced into the sidings?

I do not pretend to have the answer to these conundrums. What I do know is that God is faithful. I am very fond of the novels of Morris West about the papacy. In The Clowns of God, a pope has a vision of Armageddon which leads to his resignation from the Seat of Peter; but the Lord averts his wrath and the symbol of hope is a little girl with Downs Syndrome. The God of surprises is not a cliché.

Thankfully, the truth is that God does not see the world as we do. Grace takes on a thousand different faces, but the unifying element for us is a generous loving God who created the world, sent the saving gift of himself in Jesus and who continues to be present and active through the Holy Spirit to transform us into the likeness and character of Christ. In the language of Ephesians 1, God wants us to have that revelation that the eyes of our heart will be enlightened to see how much God loves us, and has a purpose for each and every one of us in bringing about the reign of heaven here on earth.

And principally that he values us stripped of everything we have. Faithful and lively churches are the answer to the ridiculous notion that church buildings don’t matter. I travel round the flat Fens of Ely directed from one tower or spire to another, each a sacrament in stone or brick signifying the real presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament. Everything in these buildings proclaims that God is true and that heaven is real. They remind everyone who comes through the door that Our Lady is praying us onto the throne of her Son.

None of this depends on the survival of the Church of England as a contingent reality, but on the faithfulness of the great Church of the now-and-not-yet. The fact is that the building and the people are symbiotic in offering the same heavenly shine. We Christians are often accused of being so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly use. Actually, it is only by being heavenly-minded that we are of any earthly use.  

I was an aspiring actor as a student. I won two parts: a Counter-Reformation Pope and a grave robber. Since then, my only encounter with the acting world was working in a pub for a former wrestler and actor and later, as a parish priest, cared for an aged actress down on her luck. However, she had been on a Father Hoey mission in her native North East and became very devout. She lived on sixpence but was always joyful and every day at Mass. She said, “Life is a bit tuppence ha’ penny, Father love, but I’m living the currency of glory”.

The true Christian lives the currency of glory as they give themselves to extravagance: flagrant mercy, radical affection, immoderate faith, intemperate hope, inordinate love – none of which is a badge to be earned or a trophy to be sought. None of us should feel discouraged because our part doesn’t seem very big – it is the part that God has especially chosen for us and for no one else, like the saints who have gone before. We do not know what we shall be, but we know that we shall be with Our Lord, and bearing his likeness, sharing the tent in the company of people we never expected to be with.


The Rt Revd Stephen Conway has been the Bishop of Ely since 2010.