THE church was locked. I had heard that the church had some connection with the north-east, and had made a complicated detour to see it. The first gate into the churchyard was bolted, and the second was chained with a very large padlock; thankfully, a third was open! Once I was in the churchyard, a new hazard was the dire message on the church door, warning of severe consequences should I venture inside. I had hoped to go in. I settled for prayer in the churchyard.
When you are on holiday, the menus of worship on church noticeboards can be daunting and complicated. One church was surprisingly open on a Friday, but firmly shut on Sunday. Another offered a monthly possibility, but not on a Sunday soon. This church was also locked.
In fact, of ten churches that I visited recently, seven were locked. Of the three that were open, one was staffed at particular times; a second was a “shrine” church, one associated with a saintly person; and the third was redundant — although, none the less, it was open and a space in which one could offer prayer.
While all this was awkward, indeed comic, when examining the possibilities, it was, for the passer-through, a not very serious problem. But it is different for the community in which the church is set.
What is it saying to that community? That the congregation prefers to keep the building to itself? That there are fears that it might be vandalised? That does happen from time to time, but I remember that, in my last charge, the one time that it did happen, it was late in the evening when the church was locked for the night. The offenders knew that they might be disturbed during the day. On this occasion, some lads had got in through a forgotten door, and had had a sword fight with the churchwardens’ wands. Does such an event mean that everyone else has to be kept out?
A CHURCH anywhere is a sign of the presence of God in a community, and a sign that most people, whether worshippers or not, value very much — and would hope to keep in their community. But what use is it to them if it is always locked?
We tend to think that a main reason for keeping any church open is so that tourists can appreciate its architecture and history. That will be one reason, but there are many more. Sir Simon Jenkins has written several books about the churches of our land, and clearly loves visiting and appreciating them, despite not being a believer himself. Philip Larkin, an avowed atheist, used to do the same. There are many, especially the highly educated, who seem able to engage in a real spiritual search only if they have first made clear that they do not believe anything of the faith. They still visit our churches. This means that our churches become part of our wider evangelistic outreach.
Far more important than all this, though, is the resource that any church is to its community. The church is its oasis of peace and quiet in the midst of a noisy world: a deep resource, especially for anyone who is unhappy and who needs the peace. Other people may be struggling with mental illness, or coping with intractable problems that they cannot resolve. To go into their church and find the stillness in the place where “prayer has been valid” is beyond value. They might not know Christ themselves. They are, none the less, with him in the prayerful quiet.
MANY years ago, in her book The Man who Listens (Collins, 1963), Taylor Caldwell wrote about just such a space, and of the people who came to pour out their troubles to the someone behind the veil. They did not know who it was. They still came.
They still do today, to our churches — if they are open, of course. And they, too, find their hearts naturally turning towards the One who is there.
Our churches remain significant resources for our mission. They do not need to have many services — the occasional offices, perhaps; and there might be someone prepared to say a daily office.
Even if there are scarcely any formal services, they remain places of prayer, and, if well stocked with resources for meditation and aids for prayer, they can be even more helpful. Who knows? Those who come may become aware that they are being embraced in the love of God.
The Revd David Goodacre is a retired priest in Newcastle diocese. His book, Morning Prayer in Urumqi: Preparing petitions when praying for the world is published by Sacristy Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-78959-261-0 (Books, 26 May).