CHURCHES are “so much more than worship”, the US author Bill Bryson said this week. Non-churchgoers such as he were able to enjoy them “without feeling the least bit hypocritical”.
Mr Bryson was speaking at a reception after an evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral attended by supporters of the National Churches Trust, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Incorporated Church Building Society (ICBS), which it absorbed in 2013.
The ICBS was set up after the Napoleonic wars to address the shift of the British population away from rural areas, where churches were plentiful, to towns and cities, where there were few. In its first 40 years, it contributed to the building of more than 500 churches and the enlarging of 1500 more.
Over its 200-year lifetime, it has given grants to more than 14,000 churches and chapels in the UK, of any denomination.
Mr Bryson spoke of the “strange, almost inexpressible connectedness” that he felt to church buildings. They provided far more than just spiritual refreshment. He said that had gone into his village church in Hampshire (where he is on the churchyard-mowing rota) simply to “sit quietly and think — not conventional prayer, but something like it”. A church as “absolutely the place for it”.
A similar point was made by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, in his sermon at the evensong. Churches were a natural focus for the community, he said.
“In many communities, the church is the building around which the community has been formed. In Salisbury, in the wake of the poisoning of the Skripals and the violation of the city, the cathedral and the churches have been the places of gathering and have given stability. Similar happened in Southwark and Manchester, as after every public atrocity.”
Neil MacGregor compared the foundation of the ICBS to the drive that created the National Gallery, of which he was director until recently. The ICBS had led the campaign against pew rents, arguing for free seats for all. Both bodies had championed what Mr MacGregor called “an embracing society”.
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