The church is not a building, the church is a people
Dear Father, as we journey through our lives, may we turn to You, looking to the future, seeking vision and hope, enabling us to make good decisions and choices. Amen.
Not very long before we went away on holiday, the devastating fire destroying the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was emblazoned across all news media and the grief of all Parisians, no matter whether Christians, people of other faiths or non – believers, was etched on all the faces, hearts broken when the steeple fell. But immediately the reaction of the people, represented by Emmanuel Macron, was of rebuilding, and in his words ‘even better than it was before.’ I remember when we used to take school parties of pupils to Paris and always visited Notre Dame, although probably their first thought was of the Disney film about the Hunchback, the reality did not disappoint – the wonderfully calm atmosphere steadied them and they marvelled at the stained glass windows, and the most memorable time was when a choir was practising in the chancel, the voices echoing as they soared heavenwards. There was something so special about the place.
And, so in the words of Ecclesiastes, ‘There is a time to tear down and a time to build up.’ But, should we rebuild a building exactly as it was before? The days when every pew in churches was filled every week have gone. The time when Sunday saw all shops and businesses were closed, when there were no professional sporting fixtures played, when no washing line was pegged with billowing laundry, when the normal routine for a family was to go to church then come home and spend time together, maybe with the Sunday Post quiz, eating a traditional Sunday dinner round the table, recharging batteries for the week ahead. But now life’s routines and rituals have moved on: for example, with many families split apart, a Sunday may be the only time when a parent has contact with their kids, so important for maintaining and nurturing relationships. Parents are often involved in ferrying children to their various sports / music / drama activities, more and more of which seem to be scheduled for a Sunday. Increasingly, people are having to work shifts, often as long as 12 hours at a time, so a Sunday may be their time for catching up on sleep or chores or visiting friends and family. There are so very many reasons why congregations on Sundays are shrinking and the average age of worshippers is advancing. So, if we’re thinking of rebuilding churches, shouldn’t we think of the future?
Shouldn’t we be courageous enough to embrace a new challenge, the chance to reach out and attract newcomers or welcome back folks who have stopped coming to church for whatever reason? And maybe, just maybe, we need to venture out of our comfort zone and accept a change of routine. Maybe offer different days/times for worship? Maybe now’s the time we need to think about a different, purpose-built venue which would offer resources for community fellowship? Food for thought, eh!
Now, I’m still a newcomer to Alva, even though we’ve lived here for 31 years! I have no memory of the St Serf’s church building standing as it did proudly looking over the town below, even though I live in Ochil Road. But what I do know, is that, like the people of Paris, many hearts in Alva were broken when the building where their family saw weddings, baptisms and funerals, was destroyed by fire.
But they still hold these precious memories in their hearts and possibly have photos too. I can relate to the St Serf’s folks, having gone through something similar. In 1975, while I was a student in Edinburgh, the church where I had been brought up was raised to the ground in a fire set by a 16 year old arsonist. It was a huge, graceful and Gothic structure, grey and solid. I remember as a wee girl in Sunday School, under the beady eye of the Minister’s very scary wife in her very smelly fur coat (the complete opposite of Roseanna!) looking up at the beautiful vaulted ceiling which seemed to stretch up to heaven. Then later, sitting in the gallery with my Mum and Dad, looking down at the rows of people sitting in the same pews they sat in every Sunday, feeling totally safe and secure. Although this photo doesn’t really do it justice, this is St John’s before the fire.
I heard about the fire from Mum in a phone call, but of course, I saw the images, like this one,
on the front pages of all the newspapers the following day. And just like the people of Paris, the community pulled together and vowed to rebuild St John’s. Until we were allowed access to the church halls, which luckily had suffered only smoke damage, worship was held in the canteen of a local carpet factory, (no, not linoleum as you might have expected!) In fact, that canteen was where I officially joined the church.
St John’s was rebuilt, but not exactly in the image of the original – they were sufficiently forward thinking to realise that a huge sanctuary with high ceilings which would cost a fortune to heat, was not what was required. So, a one-storey building accessible for those with mobility problems, was planned. Instead of huge stained-glass windows, many small windows with stained glass in the colours of the rainbow were included. And here is the result.
More recently, I think about 15 years ago, St John’s and its neighbouring church, went through the very difficult process of joining together in a union, and, of course, there was much debate about which building should be used and which should be sacrificed. The outcome was that the St John’s building was kept and the ensuing Bennochy Church is now thriving, being used throughout the week as a community hub by a whole range of groups including the Thursday ‘Olive Branch Café’ which gives sheltered work experience to people who would find it impossible to work in a fast-paced, busy environment and it caters too for folks living alone who relish a bit of company.
This ‘success story’ is very different from days gone by when because of disagreement and schism, or rivalry between competing factions, huge buildings were constructed, far too big and too inflexible for the smaller congregations we have today.
We all know that the Church of Scotland is going through a very difficult time and probably worse is to come. We all know how lucky we are in Alva to have a Minister like Jim – and I think I speak for us all in saying that there is definitely no other Minister quite like Jim!! As well as constantly taking us out of our comfort zone and challenging us, he has the gift of a wide, unbiased, forward – looking, all-embracing perspective and can see exactly where the Church of Scotland is heading. We all know, in our hearts, that we are going to have to evolve – does that sound better than ‘change’?? And, although our attachment to our own church building is powerful and very real, we must remember the phrase, in Hymn 204 that we sang earlier: ‘the church is not a building, the church is a people.’
So, maybe in the years to come we need to ‘rebuild’ for the future, but that’s really hard when we don’t actually know what the future looks like. It’s tempting to stick to what we know has worked in the past, but, just as the high street retailers are having to completely rethink the whole shopping experience, we need to plan how we will rebuild and reach out to the wider community around us. At the same time, however, we need to feel rooted and grounded here on earth as well as in heaven, and special places like home and our church help us to feel safe. What is frustrating, though, is the knowledge that, although we know we need to change NOW, the actual process of change will be riddled with hurdles to get over and legalities to observe which may take years.
So, if one day we need to move on, we need also to prepare for, and acknowledge, the grieving process we would go through. As we heard in the reading from Ezra: ‘Many of the older priests, Levites, and heads of clans had seen the first Temple, and as they watched the foundation of this Temple being laid, they cried and wailed. But the others who were there shouted for joy. No one could distinguish between the joyful shouts and the crying, because the noise they made was so loud that it could be heard for miles.’
Humans, with my limited Biological knowledge, are the only creatures on earth who cry to express emotions, whether tears of joy, or tears of sadness and it is my hope that, if and when we do move on, that we are prepared and ready to share the tears of sadness, consoling and reassuring each other while looking forward with hope in our hearts, secure in the knowledge that God’s love is eternal.
Let us pray:
We are living stones in the world. We are the building blocks. We are community. May we share God’s love day by day until all are welcomed home. Rekindle our love and our commitment, and in the meantime, accept whatever it is that we have been able to bring, and use it to rebuild your church, the living body of Jesus in our world today.
May we give thanks to the God of heaven, whose love for us all IS eternal.