Letter from John Spiers, Associate Priest - June 2018
At the time I am writing this letter Holy Trinity Minchinhampton have just had a service of rededication. Then two days later there was a meeting at Holy Trinity Amberley to give the congregation the opportunity to review the pro-posed plans for a shop at the rear of the church.
When you read this article the congregation of Holy Trinity Minchinhampton will be exploring how to use what is now a beautiful warm flexible space for more than regular worship. I am unsure where the conversation concerning the shop at Holy Trinity Amberley will have got to but I hope and pray that it will have been conducted with respect for differing views.
These two projects do raise a question in my mind. What is church? The Diocese of Gloucester alone has care of 390 church buildings, ancient buildings with Saxon origins, great ‘Wool’ churches built on the wealth of the wool trade which abound in the Cotswolds and much more modern buildings such as St Barnabas in Box which was completed in 1952.
It took two hundred years for the first churches to be built. The oldest is to be found in Syria and dates from 235 AD. Up until that point the early Christians met in each other’s homes. Indeed in the very early church, Christians met in the same place as their fellow Jews, the synagogue. But the number of Christians grew and so they created spaces dedicated to gathering together where they could worship God in relative safety.
Jesus only speaks about church twice in the Gospels. He uses the Greek word meaning an assembly of people from which we have the French ‘eglise’. The English word church has another root meaning belonging to the Lord. But Jesus is quite clear, for him church is an assembly of people. This is re-enforced in Paul’s letters where he uses the same word to describe the Christian communities that grew up around his teaching.
So what would Jesus, the founder of our faith, and Paul, who spread the faith to the non-Jewish world, have made of the 390 churches in Gloucester Diocese?
I think that they would have been comfortable with them as long as they were not seen to be a distraction from the command Jesus gave his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. The communities that gather in the many churches of this world do need to keep their buildings in good order so that they are there for future generations to worship together. But we only worship together to give thanks to God for all the love he bestows on us and to be renewed, each week, ready for the task of proclaiming the Gospel.
A friend, who is now the priest in the rural church where I was curate, summed up this task very well when preaching on Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Rachael writes: 'Do we want to be ‘good’? Do we want to be beautiful? Do we want to be shepherds, shepherds who welcome all-comers to the fold? Do we want to listen to the voice of Jesus, the voice of truth, the voice of love?’
Her answer is as follows: ‘Collectively we need to listen to how Jesus wants us to care for his flock, to look at the neighbouring ‘folds’ or parishes, to see where they need help to do the same, or where they might be able to help us. And what about the other sheep, those that walk past the church in the sunshine, ride down the lane into the forest, stand at the school gate, sit at home and knit, sew or garden, and use the village shop and pubs? They need to know that Jesus is attractive, beautiful and good too, and that can only be done through what we say, and do. Jesus had a two-fold vocation: to save the sheep currently in his care, and to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (John10:16). That vocation is ours, because we already know Jesus. Our responsibility now, is to listen to his voice, so that we know where and how to seek the other sheep that he wants brought into his fold.’
So, yes our buildings are important to us, rightly so, but only if they are seen to be places from where we go out to welcome our friends and neighbours who are unsure about God and the Christian faith.
This is summed up by the Diocese of Gloucester’s vision:
‘We commit to go out and share the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that people may know life in all its fullness.’
Reverend John Spiers