Sunday, July 13, 2008

Church Buildings

July 13, 2008 (2)

I was privileged to have dinner at the Paris home of a friend who has spent the past fourteen years restoring a Marais building to something like its former glory while making it a wonderful family home. When not being a banker, his passion is for the preservation and restoration of English Churches. He is concerned that many , if not most, English clergy see the heritage of wonderful old buildings as being a problem and burden on their ministries rather than a resource and possibility. I have a very limited understanding of the real workings of the C of E but hope there can be a way to allow these buildings to be an opportunity. When properly kept, they are in themselves a call to prayer and a witness to community. I suspect that part of the problem is not money per se but the ‘ownership’ and direction of ministry. ‘Parish shares’ for diocesan coffers and ministries seem excessive and are experienced as a tax. The rigmarole of the approval procedures for getting anything done (and being allowed to raise and spend money) appears to this long distance observer to be ridiculously cumbersome. The church is still an ’it’ and not and ‘us’ in most instances, and that has to be a problem.

Another part of our conversation was about ‘cleanliness’ which on reflection was less about the absence of dirt than it was the absence of clutter. Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey with the darkness inside the buildings, the thousands of tourists, the tombs and art, the bits and pieces, the equipment that goes with constant restoration and so on, make them a bit busy. I was disappointed to se that the church in which I worshipped in Cambridge at the end of the 70s is no longer led and cared for by a community of Anglican Franciscans and now has been ‘junked up’ to some extent with a n area set aside for chair storage, children’s toys and other bits and pieces that have a regular place. This is all separated by a plastic partition rather than something thought through and suggesting that someone cares about how the place looks. St. Paul’s Cathedral was so packed that we decided that we would not go in.

The contrast came with St. Severin, the University of Paris church. This was a great discovery for me with an extraordinary pillar that looked as though it had been twisted. Really extraordinary. I enjoyed St. Pierre in Montmartre again, -probably for the same reason that it seemed to have been ‘de-cluttered’. Perhaps the greatest find was St. Gervais which was immediately striking as a house of prayer. It soon became evident why. This church is the home of one of the monastic and lay Communities of Jerusalem, ( the same group who make the incomparable Vezelay ( their home. Their literature says their vocation has five distinctive characteristics. They are city dwellers. They rent their housing avoiding becoming too settled and accumulating property. They are wage-earners but work only part time as a way of expressing solidarity and challenge to the workplace and keeping them from succeeding on an economic or social level. They are part of a diocesan church and have no cloister. I wonder if there couldn’t be something in this for a ministry centered on All Saints’.

I realize that this awareness of clutter has been moving in my spirit in a number of ways. I seem to be going through one of those periods in which I do not find allot of physical movement in worship (bowing, making the sign of the cross and so on) terribly helpful. I have been thinking about how to keep the altar from being too ‘busy’ for example. These are not earth shaking changes in me but seem to be about returning to what is essential for me and for us and our strategic planning group goes about its work.

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