Rev Lucy Winkett
As people and as a society we need church buildings. Up until the COVID-19 lockdown I'd taken it for granted. Being able to be in St James's Piccadilly, my church building, to do my job. But in March 2020 not only was I asked to close the church building to the congregation, I was also asked not to enter the church building myself, even to practise my new found skills in live-streaming.
Encouragingly, large numbers of people found us online who had never found us before. I learned to preach to a tiny dot at the top of a laptop, imagining the faces of the people watching. And as the months have gone on, after successful applications for funding to install AV equipment to ensure we can live stream, well almost everything, we are now bound to ask: what use are the buildings themselves if we can gather online and do all that we were able to do when we were there?
Tear down the temple
It's an irony that although church buildings are built for one purpose, the worship of God, it is often the people who do the worshipping who have the most ambivalent attitude towards them. Because of the emphasis in Christian theology on spiritual presence and connection, the stones of our temples are regarded with anything from guilty pleasure to downright suspicion by congregations that listen to Christ's teaching which constantly privileged people over property, actions over architecture. It's the 'tear this temple down in three days' kind of teaching that leaves some congregations wanting to sit lightly in relation to the inheritance of the buildings themselves.
But many people who do not darken the doors of a church when it's hosting what it's meant to host – worship – feel differently. For these visitors, purposely visiting at any time other than a Sunday morning, there seems to be often less ambivalence about the art and architecture and time to enjoy the space and the peace.
Therein lies a clue to the future of church buildings. They are the original 'multi-purpose-spaces'. That they are still being used for their original purpose after hundreds of years or more, that generation after generation have brought their deepest griefs, their profoundest loves and their bravest hopes to a church building in funerals, weddings and christenings, is important, alongside the daily, weekly or monthly round of services that still punctuate life for many.
As well as timetabled services and worship, perhaps even more importantly, are the in-between times, and the in-between spaces that enrich and ennoble a human life that has a church building on its routes and in its heart.
As one of those people who is there on a Sunday, I believe that by continuing to use the building for its original purpose of worship, I help to hold a space for those who will never come then but do come when they're ready, in their own time. In theological terms, church buildings are 'penultimate': that is, bricks and mortar that point to a reality that is eternal, beyond themselves. But you don't have to sign up to that theology to appreciate the value and inspiration of a church building.
A rolling scroll of generations
A historic and beautiful church building reminds you that you are part of a bigger story than your own life, one that spans the centuries. It places you within a rolling scroll of generations whose life stories offer you the opportunity to learn, to find peace, to face the reality of death itself, to consider what you might leave behind.
And all church buildings, ancient or modern serve as a gateway to wider society, through the other people and organisations who use the place, bringing other voices and perspectives to their lives and a sense of hope and connection.
As we emerge through the pandemic, I have been interested to see the question of whether church buildings have a future being debated in a way that is not the case for other buildings such as theatres, pubs, concert halls or schools. The people who use and run these buildings are not saying that live performance and in-person experience can be replicated online; rather they can't wait for them to reopen.
We need church buildings
The truth is that as people and as a society we need church buildings. At their best, they are public spaces with low barriers to entry (thresholds), that are open just because they're open, free and easy to enter, inclusive, adaptable, beautiful, with a strong tradition of connection across time and space. For a population exhausted by isolation, tired of looking at screens, confined very often to a small flat or a room; the spacious high-roof of a church building can elevate the spirits as much as the much-needed green spaces did when we were confined to one walk a day.
Of course, some Church of England buildings are in the wrong places for a population that has been moving since the Industrial Revolution, with people leaving behind small towns and villages. But post-Covid, the word is that people are moving out of cities again. If that proves to be a lasting change let's seize the challenge; as well as bringing new people into these churches for worship, church buildings can be used for live music, for good conversation, for debate or for learning and could provide the centre for a community where the post office or pub closedlong ago.
Church buildings tell stories about our lives and our society, and stories matter. To tell the histories of these islands in such a way that commits to a just society in the present. To lead on creating environmentally friendly spaces, to help our society face the contested history of our past, a vital and urgent task. Maya Angelou wrote that 'history despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again'. A manifesto for the opening, interpretation and welcoming of visitors to every historic church building in the land.
For many church buildings, to be the welcoming clear-eyed story tellers that they can be in a community, what is actually needed is quite simple: volunteers, good toilets, decent heating and a roof that doesn't leak, together with a vision that proclaims that these buildings matter, not just to the Church but to the society they serve. To make our churches the multi-purpose public spaces they can be in a hurting world that has never needed them more, those considerations are a great place to start.
Lucy Winkett has been the Rector of St James's Church, Piccadilly since 2010. Her early ordained ministry was spent at St Paul's Cathedral, London, where she was a minor canon and chaplain and the canon precentor. She is a Trustee of the National Churches Trust.