Time to close church buildings, or time to cherish them?
It was Saint Valentine's day (almost a year ago as I write), that I came to visit the parishes of St Helens and Seaview and as part of a mutual process, to meet with and get to know the people and the buildings of each parish church.
St Valentine's day is often associated with the idea of 'falling-in-love' and on Valentine's day last year, I rounded a corner of a path and got my first proper sight of St Helen's Church. I gasped and got a deep sense of being called to this place and a sense of belonging. It was, if you like, a case of 'love at first-sight' and the feeling deepened when I stepped into the church, and it continues to deepen. Later that day I was at St Peter's, and similar feelings came to me as I participated in Evening Prayer in the Lady Chapel, and spoke with people from the community in St Peter's Hall. I know too, from my conversations over the past year, how widely St Helen's and St Peter's Churches are loved. Many people with family links in the parishes choose to marry at St Peter's or St Helen's, or have children baptised there, even though they themselves live elsewhere. Many returning visitors and second-home owners value St Peter's and St Helen's as their 'home-church'.
These buildings hold and trigger people's memories of life's 'big occasions' and along with the Churchyard are places where people come to remember loved ones or to sit and think, or to pray quietly by themselves. We are fortunate to be able to keep the buildings open during daylight hours, for anyone to visit. The buildings themselves seem to enable a sense of peace and comfort. I'd love to learn from more people, what St Helen's or St Peter's Churches or what St Catherine's Chapel mean for them.
Yet 'The Church' is a body of people not a building. The church is made up of people learning about God's love for them, and learning to share that love with others. It is the people God loves. The buildings are part of God's provision for us but the people who go in and out of the doors matter most.
All over Britain, Anglican Dioceses and individual parishes are asking whether their Church buildings can best serve the Gospel and Community by remaining open, or whether their demands upon human and financial sources are just too-great and the Church Commissioners would do better to 'sell-off' expensive-to-maintain buildings and use the money for other forms of mission.
We're not yet at that point in Saint Helen's or Seaview and my vision for the future sees both churches being increasingly used by individuals and groups from our community not just for weddings, funerals, Baptisms and Sunday/Weekday Worship. Yet if that vision is to become a reality we need the help of everyone who wishes the buildings to remain as places which serve the local Community - Christians and those of other faiths or no-faith, alike. The Church buildings, as Parish Churches are for everyone.
This year will see the start of major capital campaigns at both churches. St Peter's Seaview needs to raise something in the order of £100,000 for repairs to walls, the undercroft, and for windows, and St Helen's church is looking for something in the region of £280,000 for repairs, and for the addition of toilet facilities and space for children and other groups.
Alongside this we need to find more people who want to help us meet the needs of our communities by being part of our Parochial Church Council at each church. I'd also really value hearing the thoughts and feelings of people from Nettlestone, Seaview, and St Helens about how the churches (Buildings and People) can best serve both present and future communities in our villages.
Jesus, of course spent at least as much of his time preaching and teaching and healing outside the religious buildings of his community (Synagogue and Temple) as he did inside them, and the future for our parish churches must include what we do outside them.
I shall be spending a lot of time in thought, prayer and discussion on these matters over the coming weeks, and months. I welcome anyone, residents or visitors, young or old joining me in this process. I wish you and those you love every blessing and God's strength for the challenges you also may be facing this year.