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Jan McFarlane: Buildings can speak of the good news  

25 August 2023


Lichfield Cathedral

Lichfield Cathedral

I WATCHED the video for the Church of England’s “Leading in Evangelism” course with real interest — not least because it begins with those powerful verses from Romans 10 which propelled me to explore ordained ministry, more than 30 years ago. St Paul asks how anyone can come to faith unless someone tells them the good news, and how that can happen only if they are sent.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Adviser on Evangelism and Witness, Canon Chris Russell, is characteristically engaging and confident. The words “We are convinced . . .” are uttered often. We are left in no doubt that this is a resource that a hesitant Church needs: a teaching course to enable us to be bold in spreading the gospel to the people around us.

But, just the day before, I had heard of a new report from one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. It is seeking to increase the sale of commodities such as jeans and baked beans not by confidently telling people what to buy, and the great benefit that their purchase will make to their lives, but by appealing to something that people are truly longing for today: a sense of awe and wonder. Not proclamation, but inspiration. Not a confident sell, but a contemplative “What if . . . ?”

The advertising company has looked at the world with fresh and enquiring eyes. It has talked to its potential consumers. And it has discovered that, in a post-pandemic world, rocked with political turmoil, a war in Europe, a cost-of-living crisis, and the uncertain implications of artificial intelligence, what is missing from people’s lives is awe and wonder — the uplifting, the inspiring, the “magical”. And the two emotions they most wish their advertising to evoke are joy and hope.

Surely, this means that we have the greatest “sales pitch” imaginable. We are not trying desperately to say that lives will be transformed by a new brand of chocolate digestive. We can point to the one who truly has the words of eternal life — and not for a fleeting moment, post-purchase, but for ever and ever.

We must, of course, be those with “beautiful feet” who speak about the good news, as St Paul encourages us to. But perhaps, too, our church buildings could speak even more eloquently to those who are seeking a more contemplative path — provided, of course, that we dared to leave them open.

Perhaps, while recognising that it is more complicated for those with aesthetically challenging buildings, we should be clearing out the clutter (yes, hoarders of old service sheets and the camel from six nativities ago, I’m looking at you), giving them a dust and polish, and seeing our buildings through fresh eyes, as sacred stones that do what an advertising agency devising a campaign for baked beans could never do: point those who live in a rational, explained world to the one who is, in their very being, mystery, awe, and wonder.

The Rt Revd Jan McFarlane is Interim Dean of Lichfield Cathedral.

Angela Tilby is away.

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