As the minister of the established church (church and state loosely linked together), I have a legal duty to perform the baptism, wedding and funeral of any parish resident. I may not say ‘no’. I’m always honoured to be a part of these events, and welcome people without reservation. Many of the weddings and baptisms are for people who don’t live in the parishes. Some have family connexions, but some choose these churches simply because there’s something about them that attracts. Why do people who’ve no tradition of church attendance, and intend to have none, still want to come to church for these events? The cynic might say that it’s simply that churches make attractive settings for photographs, as is indeed the case. But I think there’s more to it than that.
There’s something about the need for a solemn marking of rites of passage. Something about the need to take yourself away to a special place on a special day; something about using words and rituals that are unlike those used everyday. A setting apart. The words used in church language for this are sacred and consecrate, and the words consecrate is related to secret—secret not in the sense not hidden, but of special.
There’s something deeply human about all this: a setting apart in deed and word of important events. It reaches back to the origins of our evolution. Look at animal behaviour—and we are animals. Look at brain biology: such events become set apart in our memories, carefully tidied away in a part of the brain that is peculiarly resistant to the diseases of memory that afflict many of us as we get older. Memories secreted away.
The wish to have special events marked by sacred rituals in sacred spaces means that some wedding couples are prepared to attend services regularly for at least 6 months in order to fulfil the legal requirements if they have no other connexion to the parish. This is quite a commitment. Some of them must like what they find, because they come again, and sometimes again and again. In our regular church services we do things that are set apart from ordinary life. We move in certain ways, we wear symbolic clothes, we use symbolic gestures and language, we light candles, we make the place smell good (flowers, incense). We aim for beauty and a sense of otherness. Many of us want the things we do in church to be different from what we encounter day by day in order to remind ourselves that there is more to human experience than just what meets the eye. There is ‘what we feel’ as well as ‘what we do’. We are human beings. Many people have a longing for something ‘other’, as shown by the interest in spirits, ghosts and ghoulies.
The availability of the church to all that live in the parish, or have connexions with it, is part of the gracious ministry of the Church. I’m delighted to help people recognise this by providing sacred experiences in sacred spaces for sacred events. I’m delighted to help point people to the divine otherness that envelops us and penetrates us.