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Welby gives honey-pot caution

16 October 2015

PETER AARON OTTO/ROBERT A. M. STERN ARCHITECTS

Blue-sky projection: Immanuel Chapel. The ruins of the 1881 building that was destroyed by fire are now a memorial garden (foreground)

Blue-sky projection: Immanuel Chapel. The ruins of the 1881 building that was destroyed by fire are now a memorial garden (foreground)

BY WAY of Winnie the Pooh, the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to explain the Church’s “addiction” to buildings in a sermon.

He was preaching at the consecration of Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary in the United States, the original chapel, built in 1881, having been ravaged by fire in 2010.

“Why is it that we are so addicted to buildings?” he asked. “What is it about this space, this building on a holy hill, that enables us to feel a sense of exultation and beauty as we come in?”

The story of Winnie the Pooh seeking to ride to safety on a honey pot during a flood — “sometimes Pooh was on the honey pot, and sometimes the honey pot was on Pooh” — shed light on the question, he suggested. “Sometimes they [buildings] are the servants of the Church, and sometimes they are on top, her tyrant. . .

“This building is on top of us when we serve it, and becomes the servant of the people of God when it points to Jesus Christ, and where confronted by that mystery and love we fall in worship, find ourselves reorientated through the liturgy, are captivated by God’s holiness, and sent out to do his will.”

He was clear about the limitations of bricks and mortar. The Church of England’s 15,000 buildings were “not always by every parish priest seen as a blessing”, he said, to laughter.

“Buildings in themselves promise nothing,” he warned. A chapel was a meeting-place for “untidy, often chaotic” pilgrims: “Holiness is never tidy; it cannot be boxed into a building.” Turning to the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, the Very Revd Ian S. Markham, he warned: “Let this place never, Mr Dean, be a place that seeks to tidy people up.” Churches must be places of “transformation and daily conversion”.

He went on: “We will only endure — this building will only be what it should be — if we are built on Jesus. There is no compromise with that message. Without it, this is a museum of interesting social anthropology. With Jesus as its focus and centre, it is a channel of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God.” The “untidy pilgrims” who entered a church should leave “with new heart and hope to transform a world in which otherwise darkness seems to extinguish light”.

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