Friday, 22 April 2011

There's no such thing as 'big society' – just many small ones, under steeples

[...] As neighbourhood facilities such as the post office, the shop, the pub, the surgery, the police house, the branch library and the village school disappear, it is ironic that the one ubiquitous beacon of local community in a secular society is one that has stood since the middle ages, the church steeple. Its architecture may seem archaic, even alien. It might stand guard over a bleak cavern of a nave, filled much of the time with bats and ghosts. Its churchyard might be a gaunt, unusable waste, defying property developer and diocesan treasurer alike. But there it stands, a majestic, incontrovertible, everlasting fact – 10,000 Anglican churches alone are listed and untouchable.

The difficulty for the church, and especially the Church of England, is to find some synthesis between often furiously opposing views on the future of these buildings. Antagonism is not confined to atheists, to whom churches can anyway be places of beauty, but within the faith community itself. To many Christians, old buildings are irrelevant to belief – a distraction, an expense and a historical encumbrance, summed up in the evangelical catchphrase, "The church is not a church". I have lost count of the number of vicars, churchwardens, guidebooks and notices all vigorously asserting "this church is not a museum".

Anglican churches are museums, and should be proud of the fact. They are not just buildings devoted, in some sense of the phrase, to the muses of learning and the arts. They are also places for the display and enjoyment of the relics of a community's past and present. The church is where the rituals of life and death take place, where the dead in war and peace are remembered, where family is respected and recorded. Read more

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