June 2018

What makes a church a church

I was recently asked to preach at the Cathedral on the Feast of the Cathedral’s Consecration. It has set my mind pondering on the question, ‘What makes a church a church?’ It is a pertinent question at a time when many churches are developing their role in the community by acting as cafes, libraries, post offices, shops, pubs and other functions, while still remaining churches. As a point of historical fact, this is returning churches to their original purpose which was to be the house of God and to act as the community centre. What is crucial is that, whatever other functions the church may perform, what makes it a church is that it is a house of prayer.

People recognise is whenever they enter a church - and it does not matter whether the church is a grand cathedral or a humble country church. They recognise that what makes a church special is that it is built on the thousands of prayers offered there over the centuries. That is what really consecrates a church - not some ceremony performed years and years ago, but the fact that the prayers offered there are as much part of its fabric as stone, wood and glass. Churches are organic: they grow and change physically - unless they wish to be simply a museum piece - and they grow and change through the prayers offered there - unless they wish to become a mausoleum. 

But, of course, life is very different now from the time when most of our churches were built: then the overwhelming majority own people were familiar with churches, were used to worship and knew helpful prayers. That is no longer the case, and it can often be the case that people feel the need to pray and might go to church to try to do so. What might they find? Well, in some cases, they might find that the church is locked. There might be all sorts of reasons for this, but the simple truth is that, if a church is locked, people cannot pray there: and if they cannot pray, then I feel it is simply not a church. Assuming the church is open, what might they find when they enter. Do they see a sign welcoming visitors and hoping that they find in the church peace and tranquility? Do they - and this is not flying in the face of reality - find a booklet helping them to pray and guiding them in ways which they might find helpful? Or do they find a notice telling them that it costs a fortune to keep the church going and expecting them to get their cheque books out and start writing? I can think of few ways in which people can be more discouraged from using churches as a place to pray, except, perhaps, there being no notice at all, making it seem as if people are not remotely bothered if others use their church or not.

We hold in our churches precious gems built on the prayers of earlier generations. Physically, thanks to the outstanding work done by a comparatively small group of people, our churches are in a better state and better cared for than has been the case for many a long year. That is wonderful and we must all be very grateful to them. But what makes them churches is that they places in which people pray, and I hope that, over the next few months, we can focus our attention on ways in which we can help them to grow as houses of prayer.