In an article in the Telegraph for Monday 21 April, Sir Barney White-Spunner, a Catholic and executive chairman of the Countryside Alliance, made an appeal to re-think how village churches are utilised. As everyone knows, a huge number of these are pre-Reformation, and thus were once Catholic churches. Now they are kept going – just – by a devoted but dwindling band of Anglicans. Our own village church is one of them. The interior was “modernised” by the Victorians but the stonework is largely medieval, as are the stone carvings around the doors, and the baptismal font. I can never enter churches like these without feeling a sense of sadness and loss. One can only imagine what they were like when they were centres of Catholic worship.
Sir Barney thinks that “in too many villages we restrict the use of our churches to infrequent Anglican services”. He believes they are becoming irrelevant to the communities they once served and he suggests that to arrest this decline we can do two things: “we can encourage all faiths to worship in the same building” and “we can use our churches as real centres of our village communities.” This, he argues, would reinvigorate “the spiritual heart of village communities.”
These two ideas have been argued before. Indeed, the Anglican church in our local town buzzes with activity every day of the week: a coffee shop, drop-in centre, craft and icon classes, regular concerts and so on. Everyone who uses it, including myself, likes the “feel” of the place. Everyone is friendly and the atmosphere is more restful than an ordinary cafe. But along the way it stopped being a spiritual centre; it doesn’t feel as if you are entering a church.
I once saw a foreign film set during the war. I can’t recall the title (and would be delighted if a reader could enlighten me) but remember that a village had been bombed and an old lady was wandering about distractedly, struggling to get her bearings. Several roads led in different directions but she couldn’t locate any familiar landmark, especially the village church. She ended up exclaiming pitifully, “Where is this road leading, if it does not lead to a church?” The question still haunts me; what is the point of travelling anywhere if the road you are on is not leading you to an encounter with God in the sacred space we call a church?
And of course, a church implies a Real Presence within it. As someone once said to me, “In Anglican churches there is a Real Absence” (especially the pre-Reformation ones, I would add.) Where does this leave Sir Barney’s argument? I can sympathise with his plea to make the parish church the centre of village life and even for it to be shared by different denominations. But I would also plead for a Lady Chapel in such a church, where the Blessed Sacrament could be permanently reserved for Catholic worship and which could be strictly cordoned off from the rest of the church as a place of quiet prayer.
Westminster Cathedral, which has a constant crowd of tourists wandering up and down the aisles and side-chapels, does this with its chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Sir Barney wants village churches to be “the spiritual heart” of their communities. But this implies prayer; and prayer implies adoration; and adoration requires a tabernacle where the Host is reserved. The danger of all faiths worshipping in the same building is that they would then all be perceived as of equal value. Catholicism is different; not just one church among many but the Church. So yes, let’s cherish our ancient churches and re-think how to do so – but also return them to a sense of what they once were: places where we could encounter the supernatural in the person of Jesus himself.