Saturday, 22 October 2011

Locking up the church

©National Portrait Gallery
When I was ordained my late godfather passed on to me an engraving by an unknown artist of the Cambridge priest and don, Charles Simeon (1759-1836), who came to real faith through the process of examining his conscience before taking communion as a student at King's. It used to hang above my desk as a reminder, among other things, of the cost of being faithful to the Christian gospel.  

After graduation he was ordained and appointed as curate-in-charge of Holy Trinity Church in the centre of Cambridge. The congregation was none too pleased to have an enthusiastic preacher to challenge their comfortableness: "They showed their displeasure toward Simeon by not attending and locking the small doors of their pews (which most churches had at the time). At times, they even locked the doors of the church to prevent Simeon from holding additional services. Simeon persevered, however, and remained rector of the parish for 54 years, gradually winning over his parishioners and making a great impact that reached well beyond Cambridge" (Anglican Library).
Another of my heroes is the obscure Welsh curate, Daniel Rowlands (1713-1790), whom I first came across on a TEAR Fund study week in West Wales. He discovered the good news of a loving welcoming God while he was curate to his brother in Llangeitho, a village between Aberaeron and Aberystwyth. It completely radicalised his life and his preaching, to hear which people came flocking in their thousands from all over Wales. Oddly the church authorities did not approve, not least because he didn't care where he preached. After a few years the Bishop of St Davids revoked his licence on a Sunday as he began to preach. Rowlands took the congregation out to the churchyard and preached his sermon there. However, "the deed was done. Rowlands was shut out of the Church of England, and an immense number of his people all over Wales followed him. A breach was made in the walls of the Established Church which will probably never be healed. As long as the world stands, the Church of England in Wales will never get over the injury done to it by the preposterous and stupid revocation of Daniel Rowlands' licence" (Bishop J C Ryle, 1869).

So what are we to make of a church today locking its doors? Of course I'm thinking of St Paul's Cathedral, which has been presented with a real conundrum. As the Dean, Graeme Knowles, announces on its website:
"Welcome to St Paul's Cathedral
We welcome all those who come through our doors - as worshippers and pilgrims, or as visitors and sightseers from London, the United Kingdom and the whole world.
The Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral"
It's an important building and a huge tourist attraction. Its description on Google reads "St Paul's is a lasting monument to the glory of God and a symbol of the hope, resilience and strength of the city of London and the United Kingdom." My friends in London are divided about the rights and wrongs of locking the doors. 

The Dean and Chapter (Cathedral clergy)'s official statement seems based round this paragraph: "The Health, Safety and Fire officers have pointed out that access to and from the Cathedral is seriously limited. With so many stoves and fires and lots of different types of fuel around, there is a clear fire hazard. Then there is the public health aspect which speaks for itself. The dangers relate not just to Cathedral staff and visitors but are a potential hazard to those encamped themselves." Under John Humphrys' cross-examination, their spokesman, the Rev Rob Marshall, (Listen here: Today programme), was remarkably unconvincing. "You do seem to be dodging around"(JH). Looking at the pictures it does seem that the main steps to the west where everyone goes in and out are not in the least impeded by the encampment. 

The conundrum of course is deeper than health and safety. Does the cathedral give the appearance of approval to the protest by tolerating it, or does it express solidarity with the "city" businesses where it ministers by pressurizing for it to end? Incidentally, as Humphrys was quick to point out, St Paul's is a major business itself. It seems to have chosen the latter. I'm sad that the decision has been dressed up in the disguise of Health and Safety, which is hardly convincing. 

It's a shame that the protest has been dubbed as "anti-capitalist", and to a degree that's how the "Occupy Wall Street" movement regards itself. However, it seems to me that the St Paul's grouping includes a major strand of protest against inequality, the 99% suffering because of the decisions of the immune 1%. The notion that polite conversations between clerics and city financiers and politicians might change things is a trifle naïve. 

As for locking a church, it's certainly far from unknown round the country, on the grounds of security and the fear of theft and vandalism. I think it's a shame. Certainly in our parish we had one church open 24 hours a day and another during the hours of daylight. Yes, we had men of the road sleeping in church premises; and yes, we had occasional acts of vandalism, but the symbolism of having open doors outweighed all that. I have to admit we didn't have priceless treasures on show. As for closing the doors and abandoning services, that seems to me exceptionally sad. What was that about "a symbol of ... hope, resilience and strength"? What about the glory of God? However, a friend of mine who's spent time there has reminded me, "God probably doesn't mind doing without the evensong in St Paul's for a while. He is busy mixing and mingling in the conversations outside."

Ironically, in his recent visit to Harare where he met and challenged the powers that be in the person of Robert Mugabe, before 15,000 Africans packed into a stadium, Archbishop Rowan Williams said, "You know very well, dear brothers and sisters, what it means to have doors locked in your faces by those who claim the names of Christians and Anglicans. But... the Lord proclaims that he has set before us an open door that no-one can shut. It is the door of his promise, the door of his mercy, and the door into the feast of his kingdom." (Archbishop's sermon in Zimbabwe) Yes! That is the most important statement we can make with a church door.

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