When Is A Church Not A Church? | Pushing the Wave

When Is A Church Not A Church?

When its doors are shut

Opinion, 6 January 2023
by L.A. Davenport
A Locked Church Door
A Locked Church Door
While I was up in the mountains over Christmas, we took a long and winding car journey through village after village dating back into the 19th century and beyond. In each of those villages we saw the usual suspects of a farm house or two, several rows of small cottages, the odd hotel, a shop and a church, the latter typically on a prominent rise in the landscape, similar a castle.

The churches themselves were all rather similar and fairly austere, built with the kind of rough, great blocks of stone that characterise the region. With minimal decoration and few windows of which to speak, they seemed a little forbidding. Yet I would have stoped off and explored one if not all of them save for one crucial fact: the door of every one of them was locked shut.

This is common in most European places outside of Italy, I have found, and I personally find it frustrating, not only because I would like to see inside but also it leads me to question the church’s role in a community if its means of engaging with it is closed for six out of seven days a week.

I remarked on the churches being shut to one of our fellow travellers, and she replied simply that there are lots of thieves, as if that easy explanation and rather dim view of humanity was all one needed to know.

But it isn’t as straightforward as that. The first question that came to mind was: Do thieves target churches specifically? No, or course not; they go after anything of value that it is insufficiently protected.

My second question to myself was: How could a church with its doors open be sufficiently protected? The simple answer is if someone, ideally more than one person, was inside all the time, taking care of it. I don’t mean a security guard, or some sort of bouncer on the door, or even a network of CCTV cameras and someone to look at what they record. I mean some going about cleaning and looking after the space, taking care of the flowers and the candles, making sure all is in good order.

As I pondered over all of this, it occurred to me that the contrast with a Muslim place of worship is stark. Every time I have visited a mosque, I have been struck by just how many people there are inside, not necessarily praying or performing religious acts, but just being there, taking care of it and creating a sense of place and connection.

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the church, in most of western Europe at least, has retreated from the community it is ostensibly meant to serve. How can a church that is shut for most of the week possibly minister adequately to the people who live around it? After all, people do not need spiritual and pastoral support only on a Sunday morning. What happens if they have a crisis or wish to pray, or simply be in their church, on a Tuesday afternoon or Thursday evening?

There is a lot of hand-ringing over the decrease in congregations and the reductions in the number of people identifying as Christian, but is it any wonder when every time they pass their local church all they see is a locked door? They are hardly likely to stir themselves out of their weekend slumber to attend Sunday mass if they never, and can never, go to their church, outside of weddings and funerals. How could they feel comfortable even crossing the threshold if they are unfamiliar with what they will find inside, and are doubtless expecting to be lectured on their lack of attendance by a priest desperate to fill the pews?

And how can that priest even know their congregation when they are looking after three or four parishes, appearing once a week at each church to conduct mass before heading off to the next one, having hardly a moment to talk to their parishioners, let alone understand the complex needs of the wider community?

I have thought many times about the lack of spiritual and pastoral guidance in modern life and the impact that has had on people’s sense of self and place in the world, both on an individual and societal basis. Is it any wonder that there is such an overwhelming need for counseling and psychological support when there are so few avenues in which people can hear and ponder over moral lessons, and discuss issues beyond the price of fish, so to speak, without having a pint of beer or glass of wine in their hand?

We all, every one of us, struggle with many aspects of daily life and its wider meaning, and yet where are we to go if we want to find help with that struggle? I am not in any way suggesting that the Christian church, whether catholic, protestant or otherwise, or indeed any religion is the solution, but I am saying that the utter lack of presence of the church in supposedly Christian communities across this and many other counties adds up to a gross neglect of duty by those who have supposedly dedicated their lives to carrying out Christ’s mission.

Or does it? Why are there so few volunteers to help tend to the upkeep of a church? Why don’t people go to their local church if they identify as Christian? After all, one doesn’t have to go there just for prayer or to attend mass. Most priests I am sure would love to have some help in reaching out into their community, especially in these difficult times. And many churches and Christian charities are already doing amazing yet largely unsung work here and abroad for many, many people.

It is clear, however, that the unseen threads and ties that bound us and maintained a sense of connection, and would have allowed us to see this work, have been coming undone for a long time; yet so slowly that we didn’t notice it happening until the effect was all-too obvious. This separation has been been accelerated by the intrusion of smartphones and the internet further and further into our lives. We don’t regard the people around us in the same way any more, if we even look at all. The virtual is more real to us than reality; the here and now has, for many people, no meaning. And we think that giving money to a charity appeal from time to time is enough to give us a sense of engagement.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t do anything of consequence to engage with my local community, but I should, especially if I want to enjoy what it has to offer. And that includes the church. Perhaps, in the end, all the churches are shut because we don’t go in them any more. Maybe we should bite the bullet and drop by sometime, without feeling guilty about not attending mass, and see what we find. We might be pleasantly surprised.
After writing all that, I don’t really feel like talking about movies I have watched or music I have listened to this week. However, I have been pondering something that has been niggling at me for some time.

Through this site, I inevitably receive a lot of spam. It’s a fact of life, like gin or the fluff in one’s belly button. And of that spam, the vast majority is sent to me under the name of Eric Jones. I don’t mind it, as it’s all fairly innocuous stuff, but I can sometimes receive up to 15 emails a day from this fellow. It does make it easier to identify and delete spam when it’s all from the one sender, but it does get a little boring seeing the same name all the time.

So this is an appeal for, well, a bit of variety, in the name of the sender at least (I don’t ever read the content, so no need to exert any effort on that front). And I do have some suggestions. Over the past few years, I have been coming up with character names that authors could use in their stories, novellas and novels, arranged in easily digestible tranches of five. They were intended to offer inspiration for all types of character types, but maybe they would be a good start for all that spam. Felicity Duck or Everard Kink, anyone?
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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When Is A Church Not A Church? | Pushing the Wave