Friday, August 22, 2008

Holy Places

There has been much controversy lately surrounding the decision - to be enacted this weekend - to close a number of churches in the Diocese of Leeds. (See for example, this article in the Yorkshire Post). This is a painful process, but not one unique to Leeds, nor indeed to the UK. Throughout the western world the combination of fewer vocations and even fewer worshippers has hit all Christian groups. Throughout England and Wales (and I guess, Scotland too) there are innumerable former Methodist chapels converted into attractive dwellings, and 'The Old Rectory' hotels and nursing homes. The round of closures has come a little later, perhaps, to the Catholic Church, and our situation is a little different in many instances because so many of our churches are simple constructions, thrown up rapidly in the two decades after the Second World War, which like many buildings of the austerity 50s and iconoclastic 60s, lack the antiquity and the elegance of many redundant anglican places of worship.

So what is the best thing to do with an unneeded post war building? In many cases it is much easier to demolish and rebuild than to renovate and adapt. And that is what is happening.

We rarely regret the closure of a shop, or pub in anything like the same way (though there are notable exceptions). And even for some denominations, the use to which a building may be put after sale matters little. Catholics in England and Wales have not been used to seeing their former churches put to other uses - so in very many cases demolition has been the preferred option.

In the past couple of weeks, two events have given me occasion to reflect more widely on the nature of the holy place.

Firstly, there has been a rather devastating fire in one of the churches in the deanery. It seems that it was caused by intruders. Perhaps they didn’t mean to cause as much damage as they did - but nevertheless the church is now gutted, the interior effectively destroyed, all vestments and hangings gone. For the community who worship there it is particularly devastating.This is one of half dozen churches in the deanery which is ‘under review’, and a decision has to be taken within three years whether to close it or for it to remain open. The fire hardly helps the community as they try to keep their building open for worship – and how can it now survive? And if the diocese decide to close it, how tragic that this may be the end to a place which for decades has been a place of faith and worship.

And then, in rather stark contrast, I have, during this past weekend had the enormous privilege of conducting a wedding, then the next day celebrating mass, in a chapel 2000m above sea level on top of the mount Rigi in Switzerland. The setting could not be more breathtakingly beautiful, overlooking Lake Lucern with the snow topped alps in the further distance. I was amazed to find myself there. The groom was a young man who I had taught and known through my six years as a secondary teacher, and who now lives and works in Switzerland. To be invited to conduct these celebrations was a wonderful surprise and a great adventure, and such a privilege. It was a wonderful privilege to be in such a beautiful place, to share an occasion with these two families, and to celebrate the sacraments in such a lovely location.

These two places – the burnt out Church in North Stafforshire and the mountain-top chapel in Switzerland – so different – yet hold something so important in common. As places of prayer and worship, and for the celebration of the sacraments, they are places which share human memories, moments of joy and sorrow, celebrations of hope and commitment. The place dwells with the people just as Christ walks with us on our journeys. Of course we can worship anywhere. We may sometimes have to see churches close, and not every wedding will be on a mountain top, but for our incarnational faith, places and buildings do matter, not only as the backdrop for memories, but also as the bearers of the grace of a loving God.

1 comment:

Convenor said...

We’d be very glad if you could (a) post about the new blog and (b) link to it.

In particular, we’d be glad if you could bring to the attention of your readers the news that there will be a Traditional Latin Mass for the Holy Year of St. Paul in St. Paul’s Church, Emo, Co. Laois, Ireland, on Saturday, 30th August, 2008, for which the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin has granted, under the usual conditions, the Plenary Indulgence for the Pauline Holy Year.

Another post that might be interested is a report of our recent walking pilgrimage for vocations:

God bless you!

St. Conleth’s Catholic Heritage Association