THIS past year, most church buildings have been closed. At the outset, there were plenty of voices to suggest that this might be no bad thing; that here was a reminder that Christianity resides in people, not in stone.
I recall our Archbishops, in one of several letters to clergy in which advice was couched in imperative if not threatening terms, expressing such a view (News, 27 March 2020). We were being recalled to a supposed better time, before church buildings, when Christians met together simply and faithfully in one another’s homes, as we were about to do, albeit via Zoom.
I won’t presume to speak about the Early Church, although I believe that sacred places were set apart for Christian worship almost as soon as synagogues were not. Instead, I plead a different lesson to be learned from the past 14 months: let us open the doors of our church buildings whenever and however we can.
Since my ordination in 1984, my ministry had always taken place in parishes where the churches were left unlocked: first, in the (then) mining town of Pontefract, followed by the market town of Wantage and its satellite estate of Charlton, and then in a large but still rural Dorset village. In each of those varied contexts, the open church was a place of prayer, a refuge for those with troubles, a meeting place — and, perhaps most of all, an architectural parable: the open doors a vivid and practical symbol of Christ’s arms opened wide for us in life and in death.
My present ministry is exercised in an urban area of Poole, and it was, on arriving in 2017, my first experience of having a church that was locked, except for services or other occasional uses. Opening the doors was the most significant change that I was able to initiate during my first 12 months; its effect has been profound and positive.
TO PRAY daily in church is the great bonus for a priest who lives close by, but locking the door afterwards felt like a denial of the words of the Angelus with which I concluded. How can a church’s closed doors proclaim that the Word dwells among us? Now, leaving the doors open as I leave, my usually solitary morning prayers are but the overture to the day’s quiet symphony of intercession, made by people of all kinds, most of them not regular worshippers, and many perhaps unable to articulate why they come.
Prayer requests, always heartfelt and sometimes deeply moving, are left, now more than ever, and I share these with two reliable, wise souls. We promise to remember all of them each day for a month. Thus, intercession has become a daily work of the church. Most passers-by, as may be expected, do not enter, but still they notice. When asked which is my church and I describe it, people now are as likely to exclaim, “Ah, the one with the ‘Open for Prayer’ sign!” as they used to with the realisation, “Oh, that place opposite Lidl’s, I always wondered what it was.”
Opening the doors has also profoundly affected the congregation. I had noticed, before, two distinct groups — those who (for current or historic reasons) had keys, and those who did not. Now, all have equal access. I attribute to that, and their sense of renewed pride in the building and its benefits for others, both an improved atmosphere when we gather for worship and a much greater willingness to help improve the fabric and the church grounds.
THERE will, naturally, be worries about theft, rough-sleepers, and vandalism; and, in a very few individuals, a holy place can provoke a macabre or unpleasant response.
Against that, consider the insurance companies’ advice that a locked church, in which an intruder is safe from disturbance, is less safe than one that is open and often visited. Note, also, that donations by visitors more than compensate for occasional damage. Making discreet use of CCTV (or placing signs suggestive of it) may help. Have a clear-out of the vestry to make secure space for precious items. Advertise that the church is open, so that both more will visit and the local community to whom you are entrusting the church will rally to help if “their church” is abused.
Some readers will, none the less, consider it impossible to open the churches to which they belong. They may be correct, but all I plead is that opening the doors should be seen as the norm and keeping them locked as a reluctant decision made only after exploring every alternative option.
As England emerges from a period of indescribable trauma and untimely death for so many, our closed buildings convey the message that our parishioners are on their own: God has retreated and may, at best, be encountered via Zoom. Oh, that our church buildings might proclaim a different, more welcoming, inclusive, and hopeful assurance: these doors are open as a sign that Christ’s arms are open for you!
The Revd Pip Martin is the Vicar of St Aldhelm’s, Branksome, in the diocese of Salisbury.