Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Keep the Furniture Too

"They kept the furniture, we kept the faith." That is an amusing way to encapsulate the struggle of congregations who have been forced out of their historic buildings. When compelled to choose, do take the latter. Both, however, are to be preferred. Furniture and faith, it seems to be, can be strangely connected. Sound suspect? Blame Psalm 48 (and notice that startling use of the word "is" in verse 14 which puzzles me greatly).

The faith-furniture fusion, of course, should not be taken too far. But for an intriguing example of the phenomenon, consider Simon Jenkins, who records his experience of writing the superb book, England's Thousand Best Churches:
Many people have asked me whether I, not a practising Christian, really see a church as no more than that, a museum building in which a few people choose to worship. Are these churches just so many historic buildings? Could I not sympathise with Eliot's poem "Little Gidding:" "You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid"? Could I not understand Iveson Croome's cry, on his memorial in North Cerney (Gloucester): "Lord I have loved the habitation of Thy house and the place where honour dwelleth"?

I would once have given a simple answer, no. I could not understand the meaning of these words. I could not see in a church that quality believers call holiness. I could respect and honour it, but not share it. Now at the end of my journey, my response is more muted.
Jenkins goes on to describe how England's churches worked on him over time. At the conclusion of his survey, he admits that it is
through the churches of England that we learn who we were and thus who we are and might become. Lose that learning and we lose the collective memory that is the essence of human society. We must remember.
True, Jenkins is no convert; he will, I hope, one day come around to seeking not only the "essence of human society," but God. Still, the architectural heritage of Christian culture - which Jenkins notes he does not feel in auditoriums or most contemporary churches - has gripped him, drawing him closer to God than he might otherwise be. It's something that Christians who excoriate Christian culture, who rejoice in the demise of Christendom, and who denigrate material Christianity in favor of mere interiority, might keep in mind.