Part of my job as Rural Dean involves visiting local churches for ‘stocktaking’. I’ve been church crawling since I was about 13 and have seen most large churches and many small ones in England, Scotland and Ireland. I’ve seen more than a few in France and some in Germany.
The great churches of the Cotswolds, Norfolk and Somerset tend to be open. Likewise in France and Germany. They show signs of being used by the community, often with evidence of activities that wouldn’t be regarded as ‘churchy’. People drop in throughout the day. The churches are certainly treasured.
Local churches here are treasured too. But in the main the ‘treasuring’ takes a different form. It seems that the focus is on preservation—as if people are saying ‘churches must remain as they were when I was young. The last thing we should do is share these buildings with outsiders.’
Many of them are pretty much as they would have been 100 years ago, apart from electricity and nasty carpets (they ruin the acoustics—chuck ‘em out). One of the Laois churches seems not to have changed a jot since 1750. I can’t decide whether this is charming or sad. I don’t need to decide: it’s both charming and sad. But everything is about looking back, and nothing about looking forward.
I drive to Limerick and see signs advertising 1000 (I think) years of history in Roscrea. Soon after that there’s the sign near Moneygall advertising ‘President Obama’s ancestral village’. It’s all about the past. Does this matter?
If people and places and churches fix their eyes on the past, looking back like Lot’s wife, they risk becoming pillars of salt. Much as I like salt, it’s not a fate that appeals to me. Is this obsession with the past one of the reasons that young people emigrate?
One thing I’ve picked up from my peregrinations is thankfulness for the three churches I go to week by week. They’re clean and bright. There are some signs of present and future.