Churches as Sacraments

Churches as Sacraments Print Email

A shrine according to the dictionary is a “structure or place containing a revered or beautiful thing”, a place “of rich workmanship”, “that which encloses, enshrines or screens, or in which something dwells, “any holy place, especially one connected with pilgrimages”.

In the preface to English Churches and Visitors published by the English Tourist Board 20 years ago the Ven. Eric Evans— later Dean of St. Paul’s— wrote: “From the earliest times mankind has needed sacred places. Every generation from the dawn of history has established shrines, temples, tabernacles, churches. These buildings are natural to man; they are part of his search for God. . . Those of us who are in some way responsible for these priceless buildings know that they are not only part of our incredibly rich heritage, but are themselves sacramental; they are outward and visible signs that ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ “

window_st_mary_fimber.jpgThe idea that a church building can be a sacrament, linking earth and heaven, is also found in one of the most treasured books on my shelves: What to See in a Country Church by Lawrence Jones, long out of print but which can be bought for under a pound on www.abebooks.co.uk . In the introduction he writes: “There is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ church, for every old church is unique, though each has something in common— changing and growing through the centuries— of the need of man to look beyond himself to something greater. . . In each there is worship, the administration of the Sacraments and the atmosphere of devotion of hundreds of years, but even as silent witnesses they may be more eloquent than many sermons.” Cardinal Basil Hume said of churches that “whether we frequent them or not, churches are important silent witnesses. . . They remind passers-by of other values, the values of the spirit.”

While eminent church leaders are stressing the spiritual importance of church buildings, others in their own way are discovering their delights. According to English Tourist Board statistics, at least 10 million people a year visit churches outside the hours of public worship, not counting to 40,000 who ring their bells. Scholars, university students and schoolchildren find old churches a rich source of study and research; books and television programmes reach a wide audience, and who can calculate the readership of the church poems of Philip Larkin, John Betjeman, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas, and the influence of the church paintings of John Piper?

For me, as an architect, the shapes of old churches represent an attitude to life that transcends the periods in which they were built. “Love of nature”, said William Morris, “is the root of the Gothic art”. The people to whom church buildings are important, and who work to promote a wider understanding of their meaning, are not doing so out of a negative wish to put the clock back to a bygone age but from a determination to preserve the natural world and its historic buildings and treasures from the neglect threatened by 21st century materialism. In this task the historic churches of the East Riding have a pivotal role to play. Every tower, every spire, every distant roofline, every churchyard not only adds to the beauty of the East Yorkshire landscape, but reminds us of our membership of a democracy of plants, animals and minerals that embraces not just counties but continents, and that we live not only in villages and towns but are citizens of a miraculous, fragile, worldwide community— the Earth itself.

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