On 6 June 1973, someone — and we still do not know who — broke into the vestry of St Mary’s in Putney and started a fire. Within an hour, the whole building was ablaze. Fire trucks aimed water at the building all night, but to no avail. By morning, it was clear that the place was a complete ruin.
The ceiling had fallen in, and almost everything inside was destroyed — blackened and charred. There had been uninterrupted worship on the site for hundreds of years. But, the Sunday after the fire, the congregation had to go elsewhere.
For nearly nine years, the place remained a ruin, open to the elements. Children would break in and have adventures. It became a rather spooky place of shadows and memories. Some suggested that it should remain a ruin, or be sold off to developers. But, thankfully, that was not the way the decision-makers went. The new St Mary’s was re-opened in 1982, and since then has gone from strength to strength.
The truth is that, without the fire, we would not be half the church we are today. It is impossible to know precisely what would have happened if there had been no fire, but there would probably have been no re-ordered building, no new extension, no café, no exciting children’s facilities. All these things have allowed the place to flourish. Many people loved the old St Mary’s, but, in a way, the fire was one of the best things that ever happened to the church.
Of course, this is a resurrection story. The old has to be destroyed for the new to be reborn. It is the same story we tell at baptisms: the old self must be put to death for the new self to rise. This is exactly what St Paul was going on about at the beginning of Romans 6: “when we were baptised into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptised into his death . . . for if we have been identified with him in his death, we shall be identified with him in his resurrection.”
One of the great problems with the Church of England is its ingrained small-“c” conservatism, and its fear of change. Congregations who worship in old and beautiful buildings are especially prone to regard stopping change and preserving the past as if it were some great Christian imperative. Some fight even the tiniest innovation — new hymn books, new chairs, new lavatories, and so on — as if it were the Alamo.
I know that new is not always better. None the less, it sometimes seems as if our clinging to the past is a practical denial of the resurrection and of the possibility of new (church) life following the death of the old. We are just too Pevsner and not enough St Paul.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.