As he watched pictures of Notre-Dame burning, the 11-year-old son of a friend asked: “Mum, is this worse than Grenfell?”
Sharply expressed but nonetheless, a strand of reaction that had a lot of traction, even while rolling news reports showed crowds weeping in the streets. Even while breathless news correspondents searched for vocabulary that would sacralise the fire for a secular audience without mentioning God: the soul of Paris, the heart of France; or as President Macron put it on the night “part of us is burning”.
How much did it matter that a historic building was falling down in front of our eyes? Nothing like as much as the loss of people.
Yet Father Jean-Marc Fournier became a hero. He ran into the burning cathedral to rescue the “true crown of thorns” donated to the cathedral in 1239. That action excited a variety of reactions from incredulity to lionisation. I found myself somewhere in between until I realised that he was the priest who ran into the Bataclan concert hall on 13 November 2015 to pray with the dying and the dead. He is clearly someone who runs towards burning places to save what he can. As a fellow priest, I can say that I love him for doing both.
The bees made it too, although we didn’t know that until a few days later. Soon, especially since the two towers were still standing, some began to wonder if the whole thing hadn’t been an overreaction. The speed with which almost €1bn was raised from entrepreneurs eager to compete with one another not just in fashion but in philanthropy has left some as angry as others were secretly impressed.
What are we to make of all this, especially after Sri Lankan church buildings witnessed slaughter on a terrifying scale? Unlike the projected five year-long reconstruction of Notre Dame, the rebuilding of those shattered lives will simply not happen.
In the UK there are more church buildings than pubs, supermarkets, post offices or banks. They’re on high streets, tucked away down country lanes, at the top of hills, down muddy paths. At the last count, there were about 40,300, distinctive features in our landscape, their names part of our everyday language. Turn left by St Mary’s. It’s the road opposite St Gabriel’s.
Not all church buildings are historic or even beautiful. Some are lively multi-use community centres, mission huts or converted cinemas. To offer public space to local communities churches now sometimes house soft play areas, after-school clubs, post offices, or host farmers’ markets or Friday night pubs when the village local has closed down.
Even for those who think professing faith in a divine being is like believing in a magical land accessible only through the back of a wardrobe, something evokes a feeling almost of belovedness, belonging, reassurance, when a Norman church comes into view unexpectedly amid the tower blocks, or a spire on the horizon orientates a Sunday afternoon bike ride or a trip in the car.
The location of many church buildings reflects an outdated population distribution. Therein lies the challenge. The rural population of England is only 9.2 million, but 10,000 church buildings are in rural areas. That’s one for every 1,000 people, whatever their faith or background; much higher than in cities. Country churches necessarily have smaller congregations but are often much loved and defended by people who never go inside.
Although church buildings are built to connect us with the divine, it seems to me that it’s their very humanity which resonates just as strongly with a society less inclined to turn up to pray. Church buildings are a visual reminder that we humans are at our best when connected to our memory and our imagination.
I once preached a sermon written by the 17th-century priest-poet John Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was Dean. His complex sentence construction, classical and theological allusions, sheer stamina (it took 45 minutes to read) were all of a bygone religious age.
Yet somehow the spiritual and intellectual hinterland that produced his poetic theology and the classical sensibilities of Christopher Wren, who was rebuilding St Paul’s 40 years later, came alive by hearing 17th-century words echo in 17th-century architecture. And I understood again the search for reason, reticence and pragmatism that was so characteristic of the English religious settlement after a century of bloody and collective hysteria that had sent catholic priests into holes and priests of all sides to the stake. Those faultlines are still visible in our public religious conversations today.
And in our imagination. Looking down on Ludgate Hill over the great west front of St Paul’s, is a frieze of St Paul himself on the road to Damascus. He is riding a horse that is rearing up in the face of blinding light. It is barely visible from the street. But go up close (only possible on scaffolding during cleaning, for example) and you can see that the stone carver has given the horse beautiful fetlocks. Knowing it will never be seen, the detail is carved anyway, for the glory of God and the sheer exuberance of artistic expression, not to mention professional pride.
It’s not just cultural history and imagination that is quickened by a church building. The Portland stone from which St Paul’s is built contains fossils from the last Ice Age. The only thing that happened to that stone in the 17th century was that it was quarried and made into the work of art we see today. Post-moderns walk past those ancient stones every day.
The old joke goes that a man was marooned on a desert island. After decades he was rescued. The crew of the ship asked him why he had built two churches, one on each of the hills on the island.
“That’s my church,” he pointed to one.
“And the other one”?
“Oh, that’s the church I don’t go to.”
Inasmuch as most of us can describe the God we don’t believe in, we also think we know about the church we don’t go to. Church buildings are not just there for the faithful. They communicate to whoever ambles past at any time of day or night – about the reason they were built, but also as a reminder to look up, to look back, to look in.
And so, while stopping short of a church tax which is common in other European countries, nervousness about the use of public funds in a multi-faith society should not stop us using public money to repair and celebrate the astonishing heritage of church buildings. We can’t leave it all to philanthropists.
Because the public benefit of church buildings is not always easy to describe but it is irreducible in the physical landscapes and cityscapes of the UK. And curiously but stubbornly meaningful, too, in the hearts and minds of a secularised nation, perhaps now more conflicted about its identity than it has ever been.
- Church Going by Philip Larkin, read by the author
- The Revd Giles Fraser makes the case for the Church of England doing ‘a Beeching for the churches’ (Richard Beeching was the man, famously, responsible for slashing the underused branch lines of Britain’s railways).
- Simon Jenkins’s book England’s 1000 Best Churches is a labour of love dedicated to what he describes as a “gallery of vernacular art unequalled in the world”.
- Here, Jenkins argues for the “renationalisation” of churches so that they can be run by local authorities, and paid for by local taxes. There’s nothing controversial about this, he argues – they do it in Germany, Italy and large parts of Scandinavia.
- The Discover Churches section of the National Churches Trust website has some wonderful photo galleries of exteriors, interiors and art in British churches.
- How To Read A Church by the Vice-President of the National Churches Trust, Richard Taylor, is a guide to buildings which were built to be read through images and symbols, in a language which is now lost to many of us.