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Angela Tilby: Buildings are no obstacle to mission  

16 February 2024

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IT HAS become a widely held view that church buildings are an obstacle to the mission of the Church — a constant drain on resources because of their obvious need for maintenance and repair. The Church of England has been trying for years to make it easier to close and sell church buildings, even where there are viable congregations.

The Church of Scotland has plans to close up to 400 of its buildings over the next few years. Methodists and Baptists sell to the highest bidder, which is why it is hard to find a Methodist or Baptist church on the high street these days, although the architecture of the new dance venue or games emporium tells its own melancholy tale.

For years, I have felt assaulted by the oft repeated little chant “The Church is the people, not the building.” It is true that the New Testament says nothing about church buildings, but it has quite a lot to say about people as a building, a temple, built on Christ. A streak of terror in the Protestant soul suggests that it is idolatry to become over-attached to anything so worldly and material as a building. But Christianity is a historical religion, and the impetus to gather in places of communal memory resulted in shrines to martyrs long before the church-building programme made possible by Constantine’s conversion.

Churches are signs of the holiness of God manifested in particular places, histories, memories. Yet the familiar condemnation of any over-attachment to buildings is so strong that it is only quite recently that I have dared to frame the thought that “The Church is the people, not the building,” is simply wrong.

There are good reasons that church buildings should be loved and preserved. After all, it is the building that bears witness to those who have lived and died in a particular place, and also signals continuity to those who have not yet been born. This is why couples often want to marry and have their children baptised in the churches in which they grew up rather than where they happen to live now. A church building is the gospel in wood, glass, and stone. It witnesses to the risk of the incarnation: that God chose to dwell with us in a real time and a real place.

People and place matter. Christianity is not just a religion of the Spirit. Christmas and Calvary come before Pentecost. To abandon a church is to close down the memory of Christian presence. This does not mean that there are times when there is no alternative; when it comes to mission, however, church buildings, far from being seen as an obstacle, should be celebrated for what they are: the threshold of faith. “O how awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

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