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Leader: A church definition

22 May 2015

PENTECOST is traditionally regarded as the Church's birthday. Perhaps this year our gift to the Holy Spirit might be an end to the distinction made between the church as a building and as a people. The lament is heard too often that this or that church is a burden to its congregation, who would thrive were it not for the pressure the edifice puts upon them. Most damaging is the notion that church buildings are so alien to the younger generations that it never occurs to them to set foot in one, and that the only solution is to adapt them for more general community use. There are half-truths here, but Michael Palin's address to the National Churches Trust, reproduced here, should give ecclesiaclasts pause. Mr Palin describes himself as "an agnostic with doubts", and thus cannot be dismissed as an insider - although he shares more common ground with insiders than he probably knows. His account is a reminder of how church buildings are woven into the biographies of far more people than either the Church or its critics realise.

One lesson that irregular churchgoers might perhaps teach habitual worshippers is the pleasure of an empty church. How many congregants are ever seen on their own inside their church (always assuming that the church has overcome the challenges posed by the need for security and supervision)? Mr Palin talks of retreating regularly inside churches in order to escape a tumult outside. Were congregations to appreciate the particular silence that can be found in a church, they would perhaps be less keen to break it, for example in the precious minutes before a service.

Just as church buildings ought to be thought of unashamedly as places where the Holy Spirit might most easily be found, so also should the people of God. The need for fellowship and friendliness is important, of course - more than a half-truth. But non-churchgoers usually have other sources of companionship. Mr Palin, for example, is probably not short of someone to take coffee with. The openness new visitors look for when they turn up at a church is more than chumminess. There is an ease and graciousness that accompanies holiness. Congregations, in their efforts to appear normal, must not lose sight of the call to be distinctive. The Church of England, as an Established Church, has attempted to instil that distinctiveness in the whole of society, but the effort has habitually dulled the radicalism that Christ calls forth. The standard set by St Peter and the first disciples - who held all things in common - might seem impossibly high; but many thousands of churchgoers already contribute sacrificially and quietly. There is a reason for this modesty: each of Christ's followers is to find his or her level of contribution not because of peer pressure but through prayer and reflection, in thankfulness for the Spirit's gifts. These gifts include both churches and the people found in them.

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