What is an effective church?
Robert Ashton wonders how essential our church premises are for our churches to function successfully.
Last night I attended a meeting of the Building Management Committee of my Quaker Meeting. We talked about the challenges of re-opening our premises, not just for worship, but to the 80 or more voluntary and community groups that regularly meet there. There were ten Friends at the meeting, and yes, that meeting took place online using Zoom.
It seemed somehow paradoxical that we met online to discuss how we would, as a worshipping community, return to meeting physically. So much volunteer time is taken up by building matters, especially in Norfolk where so many churches are medieval, listed and at risk. I left the meeting reflecting on why I became a Quaker, which certainly was not to spend time fundraising for building work, although that is something I have successfully and willingly done.
I thought further about the bigger question; what is a church? The true definition of the word goes far beyond just a building in which worship takes place. The phrase Church of England for example, embraces places, both ordained and lay people, and somehow something of the very essence of Englishness that differentiates us from other Europeans.
Tradition and an ageing worshipping community make inertia more likely than innovation, yet this past few months have seen a surprising number of congregations adapting well to meeting online. Online worship is wonderfully inclusive and accessible; we’ve been joined by people who have not been able to travel regularly to attend our Meeting for some time. That is something we must be careful not to lose when life returns to what commentators are calling a ‘new normal.’
Finally, I reflected on the relative importance of living a good life, making space for meditation and helping others, and attending Sunday Meetings for Worship. Is a good Quaker one who attends regularly, or one who strives to lead positive social change in whatever way she or he can? Everything we do is seen by God, whether or not we show up on a Sunday morning, and it is He, not our peers who will finally judge us.
Today, I’m beginning to think of our buildings as little more than comfort blankets, to which we are all clinging to for years after they have ceased to be really needed. Do you agree?
The image above of the Quaker Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane in Norwich is the copyright of Evelyn Simak - geograph.org.uk/p/5829735.
Robert Ashton is an author, publisher, social entrepreneur and Quaker. He has recently published a book exploring the subject of homelessness, called Any Spare Change?: One man's quest to understand rough sleeping.
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