The “Wow!” factor
A FEW weeks ago, as the congregation was dispersing after the Sunday eucharist, a stranger came in. He walked through the doorway, stopped dead, and gasped.
It turned out that his visit was expected, and that he was an architect with a passion for beautiful and historic churches. Ours was the latest on his list, and the reality exceeded his expectations. He walked slowly round it, conferring excitedly with our own church historian, took photographs of everything, and delayed the churchwardens’ return to their midday meals.
We who worship every week in one of the “Thousand Best Churches” can easily take it for granted. We are often more aware of the building’s disadvantages: the awkward shape, the obstructed sightlines, the crowded and dominating monuments, the expensive heating that never seems to warm the air, the uncomfortable pews, the continual need for repairs, the lack of facilities, and the near-impossibility of obtaining permission for alterations to make it more user-friendly. (It took 26 years of planning and pleading to get a lavatory, and that is some distance from the church.)
Even the medieval stained-glass windows — booty from a dissolved monastery — are likely to bring to mind the worry of maintenance at least as readily as the marvel of their construction.
AND yet the village is proud of its church. The residents are aware that it is a famous building, even if they never attend it, and would be appalled to see it closed. When there is an emergency appeal for work on the building, the villagers respond.
Those who do worship there love it, and will put up with all the inconvenience for the sake of an experience they clearly value. Every Sunday, lay people take home the coffee cups (there is nowhere in the church to wash them), and the altar vessels (there is nowhere in the church to store them). They prefer to be uncomfortable in a beautiful space full of history, prayed in for centuries, than enjoy the benefits of a well-appointed modern building.
But the Church of God does not exist to be the curator of ancient buildings. Somehow, we must learn how to give more people the experience of living worship, and how to use the widespread fascination with “heritage” to further God’s mission in our time.
WHEN I started at secondary school in 1956, I met a scripture teacher named Joan Taylor. I was a fervent and well-instructed Baptist, and Miss Taylor, I knew, attended an Anglo-Catholic church so high that it outdid the Roman Catholics.
I appreciated that my faith was likely to be put to the test by the superstition and idolatry with which hers was bound to be contaminated, but I was ready for her. I do not suppose that she ever had a pupil who listened to her teaching with such close attention, as I examined her pronouncements with a witchfinder’s zeal.
Her subject was scripture — not RE or RS or morality — and scripture was what she taught us. I knew that she was well-qualified and learned in her field, but it still amazed me that her love of the Bible, and her passionate interest in it, was no less than that found in my own church. Try as I might, I could detect no Romish corruption in her teaching.
There was one thing, though: where our church referred to “Jesus”, she invariably said “our Lord”. Aha! I thought — here it is: this is the alien intruder. “But, hang on; do we not believe that Jesus is our Lord? How then could it be wrong to name him so?” I capitulated completely.
Leading the way
I FELT the first intimations of a religious vocation when I was 14. This was puzzling, because the Baptists not only did not have religious communities, but actively disapproved of them. I said nothing to anyone. Then, at the end of term, Miss Taylor departed, and we were told later that she had gone to enter the convent in Burford. For me, it felt as though a tune had been playing in my head, and then a voice had begun to sing it.
The Benedictine community she entered seemed very traditional in culture. But, some years later, there was innovation of a startling kind. With Sister Mary Bernard (as she now was) as its Superior, the community admitted men. I felt dubious about this, but I am happy to say that I was completely wrong. The community has flourished, and has moved into a smaller, beautiful, environmentally friendly home at Mucknell Abbey. Unlike many communities, it still attracts newcomers.
As her age advanced, the leadership passed to others, but her mind remained lively and interested. Miss Taylor’s reception into the community had been delayed because it was doubtful whether her health would stand the rigours of the life; she died in February, aged 91.
RIP, Sister Mary Bernard, and thank you.
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.