Friday, 4 January 2013

A Sense of Place

Did any of you watch the programme in which Rowan Williams said Goodbye to Canterbury over the New Year? I think it was a BBC 2 production. In it, he took the viewer round Canterbury cathedral and spoke very movingly about what it had been like to live with the building over the past ten years. It is a place where you cannot but be conscious of history in the making, a place that reminds you that even the most seemingly permanent things change and a place of incessant pilgrimage. It looks two ways - inwards to Britain and outwards to mainland Europe and beyond. The most moving bit was, for me, when he spoke about what it does to you to have to preside at the eucharist in the place and on the date when one of your predecessors was brutally murdered. It must be difficult to live humbly and calmly with the spectre of Beckett's martyrdom yearly, if not daily before your eyes.

The programme set me thinking about what the buildings and places we worship in do to us. How do they shape what we focus on in worship, what we see as important (or perhaps don't see) and what we think about ourselves and our place in the order of things?  I was, for a number of years, Priest-in-Charge of St Patrick's church in Nuthall, Nottingham. Anne Ascough (of Fox's Martyrs fame) lived in the village for a while before her marriage. She espoused the Reformers' ideas and was said to have read scripture, in English, from the lectern in Lincoln cathedral.  She became a member of the Queen's court and a lay preacher but was eventually (aged around 24) tortured, tried and executed at the stake for her theological leanings in a plot that was really aimed to flush out Katherine Parr's Protestant sympathies and remove her from her position as Queen. Once I knew the story of Anne, I could never read from the lectern in Nuthall without thinking of her and what she and people like her had gone through so that we can read the Bible in our own language. I used to feel very ashamed of myself if I had not prepared my sermon properly in a way that I haven't quite done before or since. It seemed somehow deeply disrespectful to treat scripture lightly in the shadow of Anne's presence.

I think all the buildings I have worshipped in regularly over the years have had quite a profound influence on the person I have become. The fourth century foundation and early manuscripts of one church spoke inspirationally of the connection of our faith to its origins; the lack of imagery and the plain furniture and decor of another chapel focused me on the word, both scriptural and rational, and taught me not to leave my intellect behind when worshipping; the constant vandalism against the church buildng in another place focused the whole Christian family outwards to care beyond the bubble of church life and to campaign and work for social justice that was specific and tangible. My present job as an archdeacon means that I live the life of contrasts - one Sunday caught up in wonder by the possibilities of transcendence held out in the splendour of a vast building with a wonderful choir, another Sunday humbled and touched by the sincerity of a tiny gathering which materialises determinedly and courageously from the flood and fog-clad countryside. One Sunday, caught up suddenly in the realisation that about the same number of people would have been engaged in Prayer Book worship in that very church nearly 400 years ago, using the words we are using and sitting where we are sitting, gazing at the hills framed by the East window and a great oak tree. Another Sunday feeling the excitement of being part of a group worshipping together for the first time in a cricket club bar with the staff pulling pints and looking on in some puzzlement.

How does your church building challenge you and tangle with your life?  

1 comment:

  1. It was a very moving programme. I am constantly conscious of T S Eliot's phrase; a place where prayer has been valid - while also holding that prayer is always valid, everywhere.