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.