Inkling Two: Place and Space in the Rural Church.
by Sarah Cawdell
I have been re-reading one of my main theological text books. I have two that are standard reading, and a few others that I refer back to occasionally – Jubilate, and Finding the Church for example. Anyway my recent re-reading is Mr God, this is Anna. Do you remember it? So old now, stories of a child’s exploration of their experience of God. One of the bits that made me laugh again, somewhat sadly, is where Anna has gone to church, and then discovered for the first time the wide open spaces of Hyde Park – at once terrifying and amazing. Then she is told off by a park keeper, for running over the grass. She says to her companion that going to church can often be a bit like walking in a park – as soon as it becomes interesting someone says, “Get off the grass.” I am sure that none of us who go to church would want that to be the experience, but equally I am sure that many of us recognise that all too often church has been like that for people.
It is, perhaps, particularly noticeable in a village community, where the day to day behaviour of one’s neighbour is so desperately visible. I know that there were people in the previous parish who didn’t like me hanging out my washing on a Sunday, and always knew when I did. (They didn’t say so exactly, but I knew they knew). Other examples are more potent, those who won’t attend church because someone who does has behaved in an appalling way. Those who go to church know that they are sinners who go to be forgiven, others looking in see often hypocrites.
Yet many villages still have their church building, more or less regularly used for services of worship, but hugely important in the place, as a symbol of God’s presence, and concern. Many more will call in for a moment of peace than any visitor’s book can record. There is a lovely record in the Marches Chronicles, a work of the community unique to Hereford Diocese, of a vicar clearing up after a mid week communion, finding a young couple who had dropped into church with their new baby, wanting somehow and somewhere to give thanks for this new life. The churching of women may be an out dated and misinterpreted custom, but to come safely through childbirth with a new baby as well, is still an occasion for thanksgiving and praise to someone greater. For occasions like these we must surely keep the churches open.
So we have the dilemma of the history of the church as a holy place in the community, a place where people enter hoping to find a touch of divinity, a modicum of spiritual experience to sustain them in their journeying, and at the same time a place of terror, or damage to many.
And many preachers proclaiming that the church is not a place, but a gathering of people, and so it is of course.
But God, our God, has so told his story to us, through the treasure of Scripture, through the experience of the church, through our own experience, that we know without a doubt that matter matters to God. He is a materialistic God, who delights in all that he has made, who makes himself present to one people, who is incarnate in one place and one time, who is particular in his self-revelation in order to express his love to the world. We struggle over the allocation of gender only because God is intensely personal, and yet not confined to one expression of male or female.
There are thin places around, places where the veil between heaven and earth is experienced as less impenetrable than in others. Sometimes these are church buildings, though I think that those of us who potter in and out of these places are apt to take this for granted. Other places become thin by the development of history – Holy Island, Iona, Ffald-y-Brenin: isolated places where people have consistently found God to make himself known, and have made a response to that revelation.
There are thin people too, though that expression is not always applied in that form – people who carry a sense of their being made in the image of God, people who make God’s presence felt for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes we call them saints: Francis, Mother Theresa, Kolbe. I have heard Archbishop Rowan speak tenderly of such people. Others are more ordinary: the lady in our street who has prayed over and around this town for many years, and is treasured by the local Christian communities in all their guises.
And there are certain times when God makes himself more clearly known. Sometimes we call these times revival, and some pray earnestly for these large manifestations of the glory of God. Sometimes we recognise a sunset, or dawn as a moment of God’s self revelation to us in particular. Mary Oliver, the poet, delights in that moment of revelation in an extraordinary view of nature.
I don’t know why God chooses some people above others, some places in particular, some times in history but it is clear that he does. He desires to make himself known, and, as Christians we believe that it is his desire that all should be brought to a place of salvation, which is a place of well being and peace, of human flourishing, of being changed from one degree of glory to another.
And for many in a particular place the church building is that place where the presence of God is made known to them, and where they feel a blessing. It may be the only place in which they begin to experience inklings of spiritual presence.
What does this mean in rural England, where small ,often ageing, congregations are struggling to keep open a place of worship, an outward and visible sign of the truth that God is concerned for every place and time, an outdated and crumbling, inconvenient building for a community who don’t want to turn out on Sundays?
I believe that in the face of the evidence the church is called to be a place of hospitality, and it is the worshipping community who are called to make it such a place in whatever form they can.
Often many are willing to do so.
I was speaking with a friend who organised a pilgrimage of song over the hills around their parishes. In one church they were welcomed with glass of cold lemon squash and a friendly smile, and felt that they were in a holy place. So simple as to be laughable, so profound as to make an eternal impact. Some I have heard of leave the makings of a cup of tea for casual visitors.
Sometimes hospitality is abused, buildings spoiled or raided. Even when the building must be locked the churchyard may be a place of prayer, and welcome. Sometimes a prayer station can be arranged outside the building, some information laminated and left for visitors to read, and be thus led towards a knowledge of the love of God for them.
The church can be used for hospitality in many forms, in a community. It can sometimes reclaim the historical position of being central to a community, especially if the building and situation lends itself to redevelopment which includes a post office, shop, some sort of community centre. The building may, if the worshippers are willing, become a place where community decisions are discussed and made.
In one church not far from us the parish plan was presented to the bishop at a Sunday service, at another time the building was used to discuss a controversial development in that place, providing a ministry of reconciliation.
At least the church building can house the memories of a community, and these can be hidden in a safe, or somehow presented to the public, celebrated amongst the people. A display of the memories of a place can rehearse past stories of the love of God made known through those made in God’s image.
And however frequently the people of a place gather in the church building for an act of worship they can recall the whole cure of souls, bringing all who live in a place into the worship of angels and archangels as the sacrament is celebrated, as the love of God remembered, as a meal is shared. When a community consistently receives that blessing of peace which passes understanding it cannot but become a place of salvation, where God is pleased to dwell. We only then need open eyes to see the signs of the kingdom amongst us, and to join in with whatever God is already doing amongst us. Above all the people of God must not be those who say, “Keep off the grass.”
Sarah Cawdell is an ordained rector’s wife living and caring for the family in a small market town in Shropshire. She plans to offer a series of monthly inklings: hopeful thoughts about the rural Church of England.
Sarah Cawdell lives in Shropshire with her husband and three teenage children.