I am not one for visiting churches, but I do love to see a church that is open, rather than closed. There are various reasons why churches are closed (and communities deprived of what should be public spaces). Some are afraid of the security risks (even though, according to the Open Churches Trust churches that are open have a lower risk). Sometimes the gatekeepers are forbidding in their attitudes so people feel they have to be qualified to enter – the “good enough” test. At other times people have been priced out. I am delighted to see that the price barrier at Chester Cathedral has been dropped, and that the Cathedral is now open and free to enter.
In his book, Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of faith and doubt, Richard Holloway speaks of his love of Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh, particularly when it was empty. Old St Paul’s is a church that is kept open so that people can drift in. Holloway has this to say:
Churches that stay open unclose themselves to the sorrows of humanity and alchemise them into consolation. And not a cheap consolation. Just as artists reconcile us to our ills by the way they notice and record them, so open churches console us by the way they accept the unreconciled aspects of our natures.
They are a haven for the homeless woman whose destitution is obvious, muttering to herself over there in the back pew; but they also accept the moral destitution of the confident man sitting in the dark chapel, gazing at the white star of the sanctuary lamp, heavy with the knowledge of the compulsions that have dominated his life and refuse to leave him.
There is no reproach. Churches do not speak; they listen. Clergy speak, unstoppably. They are ‘randy’ to change, challenge or shame people into successful living. Church buildings that stay open to all know better. They understand helplessness and the weariness of failure, and have for centuries absorbed them into the mercy of their silence. This is grace.
I like the story told by Jesus from the open “church”. It is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector and their respective prayers in Luke 18:9-14. You’d expect the Pharisee to be “there”. He is the religious one, who spends his life “there” saying his prayers and paying his tithes. He would be an approved key-holder. It’s the other one, the “tax collector” who has stolen in because the place is open. His prayer is the prayer of the people, including the prayer of the destitute woman and morally destitute high achiever referred to by Holloway. The qualification for being a tax collector was to have money for bribes, and the willingness to bribe. These were the people prepared to do the dirty deeds of the day. The building hears his confession and the cornerstone reorders his life.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
This photo, of Chester Cathedral, is by Xavier de Jauréguiberry.
The photo, “locked away” is by Kicki.
The title of this post is taken from the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin.