We have visited a lot of churches here in England during our sabbatical. But we’ve only been to a minute fraction of the 16,000 Church of England churches that are dotted throughout a country smaller than the state of Illinois. And that number of churches doesn’t include those of any other denominations. More than 75% of them are listed for special architectural or historical interest. They range in size from tiny churches where just a few people gather every other Sunday for worship (St. Aidan’s,Thockrington) to the largest Gothic cathedral in all of Northern Europe (York Minister). I put together a little video montage of some of the churches we have visited during the past weeks. Most of these churches were painstakingly built by hand in the 12th and 13th centuries, but many contain older elements like the crypt of Hexham Abbey that dates from 674.
One of the most amazing features of these churches is not their age (old!), their beauty (spectacular!), or their history (rich!). It is that they are open all the time. All of the churches we have visited are open to visitors during the day and some are open 24/7. Even if no one is there. And they are designed with the pilgrim in mind.
The churches we have visited here in England are set up for people to stop in as visitors. The large, famous, churches like York and Salisbury are almost museum like. At these great cathedrals visitors are charged an entrance fee (although York did allow us in for free because we are ministers). They are filled with incredible relics like old clocks, the graves of famous people, cases filled with communion chalices, and displays detailing the history of these grand cathedrals. They always have a gift shop. Although I am not a big fan of the commercialization of the church I do appreciate that they are designed for visitors and pilgrims in mind. There are staff members and volunteers on hand to provide interesting commentary on the features of these large churches and most of them have a chaplain available to speak with pilgrims about their spiritual needs.
But it is the smaller churches that I am most intrigued by. I have stopped in a number of churches way off the beaten path when I come across them riding my bike and found the door unlocked, fresh flowers on the altar, and welcoming information set up in some corner of the church. There is never anyone else there. No church office. No custodian. No sign on the door with open and closed hours. Yet these churches are open day and night. They are open for pilgrims, even if we don’t know we are pilgrims, to come in and find a quiet place to sit with God.
Like in the United States, the past decades have marked a significant decline in the number of people attending “mainline” churches regularly. But I don’t believe that a decrease in church worship attendance necessarily means people are less interested in exploring important questions of meaning and seeking connection with God. Over lunch with the Rector of Hexham Abbey we learned that Church of England churches function differently in the community than most churches in the United States. The church here remains the church for all people in the parish (the local catchment area) no matter what. Even if the people don’t attend. Even if they don’t believe. The church is there for all of them. When they need somewhere to be married, the church is there for them. When they need somewhere to be buried, the church is there for them. When they wander in not sure what they are looking for, but perhaps mulling on the divine, the church is there for them. Next Hexham Abbey is hosting a picnic for the entire town to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
I am a believer in the separation of church and state that makes the relationship between a church and community different in America. But I am drawn to the image of a church being there for its community no matter what.
In some ways I feel that this is the role Pres House has to play in the middle of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. We don’t actually have membership in any traditional sense. We are not officially connected with the university in any way. But we sit right in the center of the heart of campus and our “parish” is all 40,000 students who call UW home for a few years.
The buildings of Pres House are infants compared to the age of churches and buildings here in England (about 80 years old for our chapel and just 5 years old for our apartments). One of the bells I have been ringing in Hexham Abbey was cast before the United States even existed as a nation! Pres House doesn’t have the bones of any famous saints buried on-site (at least that I know of) or thousand-year-old holy relics. But because of our location, and the beauty of our buildings, people do stop in regularly. Sometimes it is just to look around. Sometimes it is to pray. Sometimes it is to study. Often, I believe, people come in to Pres House without really knowing what they are looking for. And I’ve been wondering if there are ways we could be more welcoming of these pilgrims.
Throughout my visits I’ve noticed a few things in particular that make the space of churches more welcoming to pilgrims. Perhaps we might try to incorporate some of these into the life and ministry of Pres House.
- A description of history prominently displayed: We should have an easier time of this since our entire history would be one tiny part of the timeline of a typical English church. But the history of a place informs its present and future. God’s work through past “saints” fills us with courage to do our work today. And that we have at Pres House.
- Bibles available with tips on finding words of scripture for our lives: At one church we found a number of Bibles out with bookmarks in them at places where God speaks words of encouragement, hope, or peace for those who come in needing to hear such a word as such a time as this.
- Prayer request boards: At one church there is a beautiful wooden board that stands in the sanctuary inviting visitors to jot down anonymous prayer requests and put them on the elastic of the board so that members of the congregation can pray for them.
- A description of what the different spaces inside are for: This seems silly but after visiting churches that are architecturally different from what I am familiar with (which would be all churches for someone who may not attend) I realize it is helpful to know what the various spaces are for and what I as a visitor am invited to do there. Simply explaining that lounge space is for studying and fellowship and chapel space is for quiet relection clarifies and invites visitors to use those spaces in those ways.
- A description of what the church is: Again this might seem self-evident. A church is a church, right? But I’ve read some very good summaries in churches that are designed to help visitors understand what they have walked into. Not a statement of belief to warn people off, but a description to help them envision what happens there at different times of the week and year, how it is important, and how they might join in the pilgrimage with others who are a part of the church community.
- Music: Whenever I have wandered into a church and heard a choir rehearsing or the organist playing it fills the space with an added depth of experience. When appropriate, visitors to churches here are allowed to sit and be touched by such rehearsals.
- Tea rooms: Hexham Abbey is currently raising money to expand their ministry of hospitality to the community with new facilities. One of the parts of their renovated space will be a tea room to welcome visitors and pilgrims. Some of the staff at Pres House have thought of this idea already and have made use of their exemplary cooking skills to welcome Badger pilgrims with food. I’ll be bringing back a recipe for English scones to add to the menu!
- Pastors and others to talk to: Smaller churches here are usually empty when I’ve stopped in but the larger ones usually have a sign prominently displayed saying that a pastor or chaplain is available to speak with visitors if they would like to talk about anything on their mind. Since I know there are pastors at Pres House who are happy to speak with pilgrims who wander in, maybe all we need is to put up a sign…
“Buildings do not make a church, a church.” That is said a lot, at least in America. And it is true. A community of people is what makes a particular building one of God’s churches. And yet buildings can be special places that the community of people uses to welcome the pilgrim whatever they are looking for and whoever they are.