I shall never look at church buildings in quite the same way I used to.
I have been carefully following a series of programmes on BBC 4 “Churches: How to Read Them.” I know that many Christians are reluctant to think of church in terms of church buildings, but I like church buildings.
The presenter is an architect and looks at the buildings from an architectural standpoint. He looks at the details of the buildings that most of us don’t really see unless someone points it out to us, inside and out. So much of what Christians have believed in the past is incorporated into the actual architecture itself. It is not just a place where Christians meet and worship – like any community hall. Just as a painting might be displayed to better effect in a particular frame, the people of God can also be displayed to a better effect in a building that echoes their heart of worship.
I have a rich tapestry of church buildings in my faith history. One that sticks out in my mind is a small Methodist chapel in an equally small village called Middleton-One-Row. It is a two mile walk from Teeside Airport. The teacher training college I attended was Middleton-St-George just at the end of the runway.
I made my commitment to Christ at the age of 18, the summer before heading off the college. I wasn’t really planted and nurtured into any particular denomination and drifted for a while. I was beginning to really lose touch with God and decided I needed to act before my baby-faith died of starvation. I started to attend this little Methodist chapel in the village two miles away. My best friend at the chapel was a little old lady in her sixties or seventies – a real dot of a woman. She was a lovely woman of God and took me home to lunch every Sunday.
What I remember of the chapel was the front wall. There might have been windows on either side of a panel, but the focus of attention was on a mural from top to bottom. The memory isn’t what it should be so describing the picture is beyond me. I have seen murals since then and they all get mixed up in the brain. I’m fairly sure there wasn’t a cross. There might have been a dove. It was uplifting. It drew the eye and focussed the heart.
There is a sense in which worship should be stimulated not just by an inner mindset but by something on the outside too. I appreciate that there could be much on the outside that distracts and perhaps even takes the place of the One we worship – but that doesn’t have to be the case.
I am digressing. The presenter is working his way through the ages. He did the Reformation last week. He moved on to new buildings at the time being constructed to reflect the beliefs of different denominations.
He was in a Baptist Church and introducing the viewer to the baptistery – the space that gets filled with water for adult immersion. He is not a believer himself, but he said that he felt compelled to take off his shoes to go down the steps into the baptistery – empty at the time. While he was descending, he was explaining about the sense of the old nature being put to death and being buried. He explained the rising out of the water as embracing a new life, being a new creation. There was almost this sense of awe and wonder and mystery as he talked.
Too often I am surrounded by people who do not share my faith. Maybe it is because they are young people, but they don’t seem yet to have acquired the ability to see that even though they might not share my beliefs, they have value to me. There is often little respect shown for what they have labelled as superstitious nonsense.
I suppose it is a challenge to me too. It makes me consider how I would present a programme about mosques, or Hindu temples. Even though I may not share their beliefs, would I still demonstrate respect when talking about those beliefs and the people who hold them?
It was nice to watch the programme where the presenter, not a man of faith himself, wasn’t there to demolish and undermine a person’s faith. I found joy in all the little details of the different churches – because he passed on his joy in those things.