Churches – what are they for?

I must have spent too much time this summer in churches and it has left me wondering what they’re for. I know what I think they are for but it is perfectly apparent that different people have different ideas.

Bordeaux Cathedral
Bordeaux Cathedral

I caught an image of votive candles in Bordeaux Cathedral whilst tourists walked by.  Some had come to light a candle and say a prayer, others to look at medieval architecture; some to consider history and others to look at the art; some to find shade from the heat of the sun and others to take photos; and for some, all of the above.  The picture sums it up.

Sword sharpening scars
Pillars at Dunton Bassett

Back in Leicester, over a relaxed August, the DAC had a day out to visit some churches it has an interest in.  The scars on the pillars at Dunton Bassett church tell us that this was once a good place for sword sharpening!

These things just serve to provide a glimpse of the competing expectations those who are responsible for church buildings are confronted with.  The fundamental mission of the church, which is the people of God, is to draw the whole of creation into the love and worship of God. Among the many ways that our buildings can serve this are the magnificence of architecture pointing to the heavens, imagery and artwork telling the stories of salvation and the symbols of prayer, word and sacrament.

Bitteswell Extension
Bitteswell Church – new extension

But this can become a millstone too.  When the church community that is responsible for an historic church can no longer adapt it to the needs of their neighbours, the vitality of the building is neutralised. And if a church community is not able to use the building they have inherited to serve their mission, they should perhaps chose to direct their money and energies somewhere else.

Church as art gallery
Amsterdam: an art gallery in a church presenting visitors with spiritual meaning in a contemporary register.

The history of our many ancient listed church buildings is one of constant change and adaption to the needs of society.  What we see carved in the stones is the constantly changing means the Christian community has used to present faith to its neighbours with authenticity and relevance. But today it seems different. Local churches do not have a free hand in what they do. The other interests in play often have more concern for conserving or preserving what has pervaded in the past than serving a living faith in the present.  So we often encounter contention about such matters as:

  • The introduction of a kitchen and toilet – twenty-first century hospitality basics, although they were luxuries in the early twentieth century.
  • Replacement of pews with flexible seating – the structure of Victorian society neatly set out in rows no longer pervades.  People relate differently today. A colleague recently quipped, “Christians are not like carrots – they don’t grow in rows – Christians grow in circles.”
  • Improved heating and lighting – contemporary people are not familiar with wearing coats indoors, yet at the same time are more conscious of the financial and environmental cost of energy than their predecessors.  Heating hundreds of gallons of water to keep a church warm and burning incandescent light bulbs is no longer acceptable.
  • Use of high value metals such as lead and copper for roofs. Stainless steel and plastic membranes have many advantages although they are not traditional materials.
  • Installation of audio visual facilities.
  • Updating decor and softening the floor and furnishings.
Victorian church preparing for growth
St John the Baptist, Clarendon Park

I wonder what sometimes is being conserved.  When we preserve the stones of a building we can do so at the expense of the purpose for which they were hewn.  These were often radical and extravagant public buildings that innovated and challenged the mores of their day. Bodies that today oppose their ongoing development should ask themselves whether this is in the spirit of that which inspired them.

Of course church communities themselves can also misunderstand the nature of the building for which they are responsible.  I once visited a church where a curtain had been strung across the arch between the nave and the chancel.  The Victorian Choir and Sanctuary served as a storage space for a lawn mower and step ladders.  The congregation met in the nave.  This seemed to me to represent too many violences to the building to even count.  How would any visitor read what is important here?

In a little book from 1979 (1), Harold Turner discerns two fundamental patterns for sacred buildings:

Domus Dei – House of God, and
Domus Ecclesiae – Meeting house.

Newly built church interior.
St Andrew’s Tower Hill

Many of our churches with Victorian interiors, whether they are medieval or nineteenth century buildings, are conformed entirely to the former pattern.  The raised chancel and sanctuary with an altar at the east end serves to locate the presence of God in the place where Communion is celebrated. But the contemporary church is growing most noticeably where people meet in good relation with each other and experience the presence of God in their daily lives. Perhaps church buildings need only be a meeting house to serve this growth.  Turner sees the most developed forms of sacred space as both (Domus Dei et Ecclesiae).  The story is not one of compromise but of building on what others have done with respect.  Maybe this is the spirit today’s church and conservation lobbies need to recapture.

(1) Turner, Harold, From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979).

A question of identity?

Victorian Black Vestments

I need to get up early in the morning for Radio Leicester. It is because General Synod have approved new legislation that means clergy need not always wear robes when leading worship in church.  This comes in that same month that the Queen opened parliament without wearing a crown and the Speaker of the House of Commons has relaxed rules on members wearing ties.  I am not sure these things are directly connected but they do seem to capture something of the spirit of the times.

So I have had to do some thinking – and I have found a picture I took a few years back to go with the thoughts.

I have clocked that the clothes we wear say something about us. If you wear a blue top and shorts in Leicester you are going to be identified with the Foxes (a football team if you don’t live in these parts). When the Queen dressed down to open parliament she conveyed a message that this was not such a great threshold of national life as new parliaments sometimes are; “Business as usual!” And I guess that MPs who choose not to wear ties will be dissociating themselves from the managerial classes. They may identify more closely with the majority of people as a result – unless the majority of us want to see politicians cast in such a mould.

So what of us clergy? Well there are times when people want us to be clearly cast in the role of the religious minister. But always? The argument to relax the rules on clergy dress have been strongest in some of our fastest growing churches. It may be that people are more likely to listen to church leaders who identify most with them. There are special times demanding special clothes, but most times are ordinary times.

The way Jesus identified with people gives me pause for thought. He was never associated with religious leaders.  Some people called him Son of God but he always talked about himself as the Son of Man.

Getting up in the morning has never been so complicated. I feel an identity crisis coming on. I am comforted by thinking it will be just as bad for MPs deciding whether to wear a tie or not and the Queen working out what hat to wear.

It’s raining – so I started a blog

I’m hoping to post the odd picture and thought here.  If you know me you’ll know I like taking interesting pictures.  I often have some interesting thoughts too.  I intend to combine both here.

This page is really just to get me going.

It was raining in Thandjavur back in January but the puddles were warm.  I know that because shoes were not allowed in the Brihadeshwara Temple.  It is a awe inspiring place completed over 1000 years ago.  Makes you think. I’m not sure the UK saw anything like this in those days.

Two vastly different culture then and now.  At least we share the rain in common – but in India it is a cause for rejoicing and here it is just disappointing.

Pic:  The Brihadeshwara Temple in Thandjavur (Shiva)

Holy Land blog

The posts from 20-28 March 2014 were originally posts formatted for Tumblr. Click here to see the original blog.

I set out to write this blog after prompting from those who look after the Diocese of Leicester web site ahead of my trip ( The purpose was to participate in a course at St George’s College Jerusalem in a course entitled “Sharing Perspectives: Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land”.

I have written with a little trepidation. Visiting Jerusalem with a group of Christians and Muslims was always going to be a challenging learning experience. So my thoughts below are very much my first thoughts, not I hope my last, as I reflect on what I have seen, done and heard. I am not planning to write any more here but may do so in other places.

Above all things I have learned how important it is to build good relations with those among whom we live. In Jerusalem I have seen the potential of truly good relations reaching across great divides and the destructiveness of bad relations. It is clear to me where human flourishing is to be found and what is most honouring to God.

It has been a delight to travel to Jerusalem with the companions I have had over the last week and to learn alongside members of St George’s College. We have, I hope, shared good relations on which we can build.

Below I have included a few photographs that never made it into the original blog but which I like nevertheless. If you want to see more they are here: ( Please contact me directly through the Diocese of Leicester if you want to use any of the photographs for commercial purposes.

If you haven’ been following this trip as it unfolded but want to read about it I suggest you go to the last page first ( and read backwards.

Photos that didn’t make it

The posts from 20-28 March 2014 were originally posts formatted for Tumblr. Click here to see the original blog.

Photos that didn’t make it
Left to right, top to bottom:

  • Morning bread deliveries in the Arab Quarter
  • The Church of the Ascension seen through the Mosque Gate
  • Me – just to prove I was there
  • Pilgrim marks made on the walls of the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre)
  • Muslims using the al-Asqa Mosque Gardens for teaching and learning the Quran – many such groups can be seen dotted across the whole of Haram al-Sharif.

More photos that didn’t make it

The posts from 20-28 March 2014 were originally posts formatted for Tumblr. Click here to see the original blog.

More photos that didn’t make it
Left to right, top to bottom:

  • Early on a Sunday morning approaching the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre)
  • One of Jerusalem’s many crows
  • Crosses for sale on the Via Dolorosa
  • Roof lights in the Turkish Bath
  • Lamps for sale in the Arab Quarter market
  • Muslim Graffiti behind the Via Dolorosa
  • A cuddly snowman seemed a little out of place in the Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children
  • Crowds under the entrance light waiting to go into the Nativity Grotto

Friday 28th March

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The flight home was delayed. Fog in Luton. British Passport Control was a complete mess when we tried to get through the airport. It took ¾ hour just to get to the front of the queue. Ibrahim was then detained without any of the rest of us realising. He was told by the Special Branch Officer that this was because he looked “middle eastern”. Having hung around the other side of baggage reclaim for ages waiting to give him a lift back up the M1, Clive and I decided he may have already given up and left as we had been so slow having our passports checked. We were just about to leave when he came through the arrivals doors flustered and irritated. “This is worse than Israel”, he exclaimed, “This is my home!”

Friday 28th March

The posts from 20-28 March 2014 were originally posts formatted for Tumblr. Click here to see the original blog.

There was a whole morning to spend wondering around Jerusalem at leisure before flying home today. Christine, Clive and I decided we would take a walk around the rampart. Only half of the walls were open today, presumably because it was Friday and the security forces were twitchy, so we could only walk the west side. That was good as we have become quite familiar with East Jerusalem and this gave a different perspective.

West Jerusalem is exactly as the name would suggest – more western. Looking out from these walls over the outer city it looked like any bustling busy highly developed European city. I guess the ramparts are a strong metaphor of how the predominantly Jewish Israeli population here feel. They need a wall between them and the Arabs. They do, of course, have a huge separation wall that separates those parts of Israel controlled by the Palestinian Authority (The Gaza Strip and The West Bank) from those places under Israeli State control. Our minibus has sped along lengths of this wall for much of the week, only stopping at check-points, but stopping for a photo shoot has been right off limits. So these ramparts, now maintained for tourist access at ₪16 per adult, serve as a metaphor.

Pictured above:

  • Top: panorama looking out over West Jerusalem from the ramparts.
  • Triptych left: Excavated Herodian foundations just below the western ramparts.
  • Triptych middle: A cafe culture square in the Jewish Quarter on the western side of the Old City.
  • Triptych right: A market street in the Jewish quarter. Its glass fronted shops, carefully manicured stone work, expensive goods and open space is in strong contrast with the Arab Quarter. This was a more pleasant experience, but there seemed so much more life and vibrancy amid the corded and messy streets on the east side.

I am left wondering why it is that Jewish streets and Arab streets are so different. Is it because of an imbalance in power advantaging Hebrew culture or is it because Arab society doesn’t care about building the city? My inner city experience in the UK suggests to me there is much more of the former than the latter.

Thursday 27th March

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This was a demanding eight days. It has been a stretch to get my head around some of the complexities of this contended city in a contended land and I feel I have only just begun. My admiration for the way that Palestinian Christians and Muslims are able to share space and friendships has only developed and grown since I have been here. And my fear for the way that anxious Judaism and a fearful Israeli state raise tension and provoke anger is new to me too. I need to reflect on this more.

I have also made new and deeper friendships with those I have spent time with here – both Christian and Muslim. I hope that something of what we have found in the adversity of this Holy Land we can bring back to the comfort of our UK lives.

Thursday 27th March

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Well, we have just had our final meal.  Here is Dr Mustafa Abu Sway with the Bishop of Kingston who organised the course. I hope +Richard can get his new scarf through airport security – there can be no guarantees.