“GOD is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in St John’s Gospel reinforce the view that the world of Christianity is an intangible one. In much the same way as Radio 4 listeners have needed to be convinced that telling the history of the world in 100 objects works on radio, so believers struggle with the concept that religion can be embodied in some way. Yet, as any churchwarden can attest, there is a discrepancy between theory (or theology) and practice. God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in churches. The material trappings of religion, most notably the buildings, whether a glory or a millstone, are prominent in the minds of the faithful.
Religious ephemera tend to be preserved, partly because they are generally well made, and partly because succeeding generations recognise the care and sincerity that they embody. Periods of iconoclasm, such as in the 16th and 17th centuries, are rare. Instead, the British approach the churches they inherit in the same way as they occupy their parents’ houses: the furniture of the previous generation might not be exactly to their taste, but, as long as they can add a few sticks of their own, they will give it houseroom, and perhaps come to like it. The “coming to like it” is such an integral process in the journey of faith that the losses of the past are often keenly felt. This is not an argument in favour of religious clutter, but a reminder that the most disregarded objects can retain a spiritual significance. Saxon crosses, Romanesque wall paintings, Tudor screens, Victorian stained glass, early-20th-century Stations — all can hold fresh meaning for worshippers who are far removed from the context in which they were created.
The use of objects merely to recall the observer to religious attentiveness is consonant with faith in a numinous God. It is a modest purpose, and can be accomplished by the slightest object, such as a teapot or an enamel badge. It will be interesting to see whether exposure to Orthodox theology will one day encourage a deeper relationship with holy objects: icons facilitate an encounter, a place where the believer and the divine reach out to each other. Relics are at yet another point on the scale, focuses of much veneration and occasional silliness.
Objects can, of course, be a distraction, particularly the more ornate, and the more difficult to insure. But some of the richest spiritual benefit comes from the humblest of things: a simple carving, perhaps even a stone. Telling their story can often reveal the intensity of a person’s faith.