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).

Photos that didn’t make it

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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

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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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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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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.

Thursday 27th March

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Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is a small rise on the edge of East Jerusalem with a great drop from the 1000m height of the city towards the Dead Sea further east and 400m below sea level. You can see the Dead Sea from the top. The mount also has a commanding view of the city if you look west. Presumably it was once full of olive trees. Now it is 50% cemetery.

Our group of Christians and Muslims took to an olive grove near the crest of the ridge to reflect on the past few days. It was clear that we were still not ready to ask really difficult questions of each other but that relationships had grown with a deeper understanding and respect. Perhaps reaching out across the faiths is after all about relationships before anything else. In Jerusalem it is clear that there is a deep level of interfaith friendship between Christian and Muslim (at least in some sectors of society) that could be a real example to the world. Our group had mainly been exposed to Palestinians that the British would think of as the middle classes and it would be interesting to test out how relationships work at other levels of society here another time. But this is a nation that is anxious and fearful. And the fearfulness draws a hard boundary between Jew and Arab that very few yet seem to be reaching across. It is difficult to see hope where there is an imbalance of power and force, but the relationships that the Christians and Muslims we met have forged is somewhere that hope can be found here. I pray that this is a source of spreading hope and not one that will be extinguished. It is a delicate flower and, as Arab Christians flee the land, it only becomes more fragile.

Pictures above:

  • Top: The Mount of Olives as seen from the Muslim Cemetery just below Haram al-Sharif
  • Triptych
    Left: Poppies growing in an olive grove
    Middle: The Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, now part of a Mosque complex (see the minaret in the background) but open for Christians to worship here – a powerful example of a shared worship space
    Right: The modern and Islamic influenced Church of the Agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane
  • The golden onions of the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene with the Islamic Cemetery in the background.

Thursday 27th March

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The Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children
This morning’s visit to The Mount of Olives began with a stop at the Princess Basma Centre for Children with Disabilities. This is a hospital run by the Diocese of Jerusalem seeing mainly out-patients from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The hospital helps children with a wide range of disabilities and their families learn to lead full lives.

  • Physical rehabilitation
  • inclusive education for children with disabilities
  • Empowerment of the children and parents
  • Raising awareness
  • Building capacity to act as a national resource
  • Capacity building and job creation for people with disabilities

It currently runs at a deficit with some voluntary funding and some from the Palestinian Authority (PA). The hospital used to receive money from the American Government but since American disagreement with the PA this has stopped.

If you want to know more visit their web site:

You cannot help but be impressed at what this small diocese does running thirty five institutions, of which this is only one, making a material difference to the lives of Palestinians. In the UK we are used to the idea of running schools but we gave up running hospitals very quickly after the state took responsibility. The Diocese of Jerusalem seems to run on a knife edge. Governance of its institutions is a huge responsibility for senior members of the diocese and the risks are significant. Muslim colleagues said it was difficult to see the same sense of social responsibility turning into action among Islamic societies.

I wonder why that is? I wonder too why we would struggle to find an English diocese running a hospital and yet we have so many schools?

Wednesday 26th March

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I have limited myself to just one picture of shopping in Jerusalem Market. That wasn’t difficult. There has not been much time to stop there. Here, frankincense burning and many other forms of incense for sale. (Pic copyright © Tim Stratford 2014)

Wednesday 26th March

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A fantastic afternoon today with 15 year old pupils and their English teacher from St George’s School, one of many institutions run by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem. The students at the school are approximately 10% Christian and 90% Muslim. They told us that they see themselves primarily as Palestinians together, not divided by religion. Many make best friends with others of a different faith. We talked much about marriage and future educational and employment prospects. For a Muslim girl to marry a Christian boy would be difficult. The students tend not to proselytise one another, but sometimes young adults change faith for the sake of marriage if they have to.

Most Palestinians cannot hold an Israeli passport. For foreign travel they sometimes obtain one from Jordan. But without Israeli citizenship they cannot serve in the Israeli Army and this hinders their futures. They are also limited in their education beyond the school and told they will be barred from restricted professions such as being a pilot or working as a nuclear scientist.

For these young men English was their second language, yet they spoke with eloquence, passion, hope and intelligence about their faith, their nation and their futures.

Wednesday 26th March

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Images of the western Wall
Top to Bottom:

  • The corner of the wall beyond the plaza created for prayer. The al-Asqa Mosque sits above this wall, and only a small length from where you can see the city ground level rising from the ruins is set aside for prayer. Within this walled mount Jews believe the Foundation of the World to be. A holy place against which to pour out your soul in prayer.
  • Two pictures of the division between men and women with their separate entrances and separate areas of prayer. Women stand at the fence and peep over or take photographs. Men pray against that part of the wall closer to the Foundation Stone.
  • Fountain for ritual ablutions.

When you visit this place you can be left in no doubt that this is a part of God’s earth that matters.