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Today, I Have Mostly Been Thinking About Buildings …

… because two issues have been on my mind. The first is that a major upgrade to our church hall should be finished in time for rededication on Sunday. We have spent a lot of money bringing it more than up to scratch for disabled access, and implementing some necessary refurbishments at the same time. We shall have good reason to say a public thank-you to the man who has seen the scheme through from vision to completion.

But finding a form of words to use for rededication is difficult. There is an order of service in the Methodist Worship Book for the dedication of a new church building, but it doesn’t fit what we need here. (Not that the denomination should provide a liturgy for absolutely everything.) Even if that service did have some resonances, much of the wording assumes that church = building. And I don’t think so.

The second also revolves around some joyful news. I have been asked to conduct a wedding. However, the couple requested they have a low-key informal wedding in a country house or similar property. The trouble is, English and Welsh law won’t allow that. As an ‘Authorised Person’, I can only conduct Christian weddings in registered religious buildings. The law that allowed weddings in public places other than register offices and places of worship specifically limited those ceremonies to civil weddings, that is secular ones where no religious content is allowed. I’m fairly sure that’s because the Church of England saw the move as a threat to their ‘business’, but it means I’ve had to disappoint the couple concerned. As far as they were concerned, if their Christian friends were present, then wherever they were, they were ‘in church’, because church = the people.

Before the last General Election there was a White Paper before Parliament proposing changes to marriage laws, where the deciding factor would not be registered buildings but registered celebrants. As a minister in a mainstream denomination, I would have become a celebrant, and if I deemed a venue suitable (and it met certain otehr minimum criteria), then I could have conducted a wedding there, rather like the Scottish system. The White Paper died at the election, and hasn’t been resurrected. We are thus left with a church = buildings assumption built into the marriage law of the land.

None of this is to deny the necessity of buildings, or to romanticise the church = people equation. I know of churches planted in Uganda that have been desperate for their own buildings for the pragmatic reason that they needed to get their people out of the intense heat. And just as I know what a burden it can be in an historic denomination to have to maintain a building, I also know of issues with ‘new churches’ that find  the hiring of buildings difficult. Lugging equipment in and out of a school every Sunday can be a drain. That isn’t viable with the predominantly elderly congregations I serve – although neither is it easy for them to find enough able-bodied people to take care of everyday maintenance.

The other side of the coin, is of course, the idolisation of buildings. I have seen church communities so devoted to their bricks and mortar that you wondered who or what was being worshipped.

And maybe worship is the issue. Buildings are not masters but servants. Where we worship them, God is not worshipped – whatever religious activities we conduct within them. When we recognise them as servants, they are in their proper place. Treating buildings as servants becomes a healthy framework for our decisions about them. Is what we are proposing to do a way in which the building is used to serve God and serve other people?

Even then, we have to watch our hearts for additional or ulterior motives. There is no doubt on Sunday morning that when we rededicate our church hall there will be a major element of service about that. It is used by many community groups. At the same time, the fact that it is brings in necessary income for us. I like to presume that the offering to the community takes predecence in our thinking over our need to raise money. (We have invited our hirers to the service, and we shall pray God’s blessing on them – the dancers, the pre-school, the silver band and all the others.)

For if it were to be the latter motive of balancing the books, then we would need to think seriously about our motives. If our overall aim was about our finances, then I’d start thinking of Jesus’ words in Mark 8 that those who want to save their lives will lose them. I don’t see why they can’t be applied corporately, to churches, not just individually. Many churches are obsessed with self-preservation, and how they view their buildings can be one sign of this sickness. However, those aiming for self-preservation, and whose reasons for using their building reflect this, are the churches most likely, according to Jesus here, not to be preserved at all.

So by all means let’s have buildings. We need them. Let’s ensure they are our servants, not our masters. And when they are used as inanimate servants, let’s be careful to watch our motives. May God search our hearts.

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on August 28, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I must say I find it sad that you had to disappoint this couple, simply due to the current law of the land. I find that law decidedly outdated, and concur with your thought that the C of E probably didn’t want to lose business. Please don’t be mad at me for saying this, but I feel a strong dislike for whoever it was that decided that mere money should be more important! Makes me wonder if that doesn’t hurt their witness somewhat, and I agree with your Mark 8 reference there. But please correct me if I’m simply being to strong – may God search my heart about that.

    Hmmmm…….what if you could find a low-key country church?? Or, are most of the “registered religious buildings” within towns and cities? Just musing……

    And obviously congratulations are in order, on the completion of the upgrades to your building! The church we left when we moved had just completed an entire new wing – they had grown to where they needed more classroom and meeting space – the little church basement just wasn’t big enough anymore.

    May God give you words for the rededication!

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    • Thanks, Owen. I’m sure we’ll find a solution for the wedding couple. It might be along the lines you suggest. There is an added complication in English and Welsh marriage law, in that if it is a church building outside my location, we shall need the permission of the local minister for the service, and s/he will need to be present to register the wedding, even if I conduct the ceremony. We’ll see. The date has not yet been set for the marriage, and it is likely quite a while off yet.

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      • I agree that the law is an ass on this wedding matter. Could you not conduct a wedding elsewhere with a special licence? I know this can be used for chapels etc which are not regularly licensed for weddings.

        Alternatively, Braxted Park, not far from Chelmsford, might fit the bill, because it offers

        a church service or civil ceremony it is all catered for at Braxted Park. The elegant country house is a licensed wedding venue as well as having a Parish Church situated within the parkland.

        There may be other, more “low-key informal” venues which can offer the same combination, a church next to the country house.

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        • Peter,

          That is a lovely and kind suggestion. However, the couple are not local (I won’t divulge any identifying comments on the web) and as a Methodist minister I cannot legally take a wedding in an Anglican church. Were I an Anglican priest, this would no doubt be the solution.

          I hope your own plans are going well.

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  2. And of course there is the option of a civil ceremony to get the legal bit out of the way, then a service as they want where they want led by whoever they want. A bit of a pain having to do two bits, but it does solve the problem.

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  3. Dave, I’m am painfully ignorant of British custom and law, so I will have to leave the discussion of wedding locations to you and your countrymen, but I wanted to let you know I thoroughly enjoyed the discourse on the church building. This is true in America. I call them, the “Last Castles” because it seems like Christians in America revere their church buildings and congregate in them every Sunday like they might act as a refuge from the invading world. This is too bad. Our churches should attract the world in, not make a place to serve as our pride.

    I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but it’s a developing thought in my head.

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    • Dan,

      The ‘last castles’ – that’s a great, vivid image, and one which captures exactly how I have found some Christians think about church buildings. I have witnessed prayers before a service that have been precisely about leaving the world outside – so much for mission and intercessory prayer!

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