Last week I began a series of reflections on the lockdown by exploring what I feel I have learned about the painful privilege of prayer. This week, I continue the series with some thoughts about the importance of places and objects in our spiritual lives.
In response to the national RE curriculum, I have delivered a school assembly a few times on the subject of ‘features of a church building’. For this assembly I gathered together a large number of photographs and put them together into a slide show: the altar; the font; the pulpit… My final slide, though, was a picture of a congregation. The church, I said, isn’t the building, or the things that are in it. The church is the people.
These last few months have shown me how true that is, and how false. It’s true because at its heart the church is the ‘assembly of the faithful’. Church is the coming together of the people of God, and church buildings are only churches at all in so far as they are specifically dedicated to that purpose. In better times than these, we need frequent reminding of this, lest we become so fixated on maintaining the church building that we forget what the building is for.
Among the more glib responses to the Covid lockdown, however, have been those that have over-stressed this, speaking as if the places and objects that populate our spiritual lives have no importance at all. This is a bit like saying that a family doesn’t stop being a family just because someone steals all their possessions and demolishes the house that they live in. It’s true, but not much comfort if you find yourself in that predicament. A house is not a family, and a building is not a church, but places and objects carry much of the weight of our collective identity, and without them we are genuinely impoverished.
It is also perfectly true that we can pray anywhere, worship anywhere, that God can make Godself known to us wherever and whenever God pleases. Nevertheless, the mainstream of Christian teaching has always recognised that certain objects, certain places, certain procedures even, have a special role in helping us to pray, to worship, to encounter the presence of God. To recognise this is not to impose limits on what God can do, but rather to recognise the limits on what we can do, and God’s gracious ordering of the world to help us.
The faces of those who have been coming forward to receive the sacrament in these last two weeks have been proof positive of all of this. The church is not a building; the church is the people, but there is a spiritual reality that comes into focus when we gather together in a consecrated place to engage in sacramental worship that nothing can supplant.
May God bless you all,