Thursday 15 October 2015

In the Theological Rain Shelter

Giles Fraser, turbulent priest du jour, has written a piece in The Guardian proclaiming that the Church of England would be better off - indeed revived and refreshed and stronger than before - if all its historic churches were demolished. 'Theologically,' he declares, 'they are little more than rain shelters.' An interesting notion, that - theological rain shelters... Best not to be provoked by these things, better sigh (not for the first time) 'God save the Church of England from the true believers.'
 In these times, it seems to take a non-believer to see the true beauty and meaning of our native Church and its great, still numinous built legacy - a legacy that belongs to us all, not only to the true believers. A non-believer, or indeed an avowed atheist like Larkin...

'A serious house on serious earth it is, 
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, 
Are recognised and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete, 
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious 
And gravitating with it to this ground 
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in, 
If only that so many dead lie round.'


  1. I am not an Anglican, and can't say what that church needs. I can say that its local (Washington, DC) diocese would be in better shape financially without the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, otherwise National Cathedral, a large church on a large property, requiring expensive upkeep, even before the earthquake did some damage in 2011.

    The Roman Catholic church in the US quite ruthlessly closes old beloved parishes when it thinks it necessary. Typically these churches are not especially old, measured on a European scale; yet enough have a family or two with a grandparent baptized, married, and buried out of the church. The chancery closes them anyway.

    I am with Fraser right up to the end: a clergyman of any church should know that there is a wide ground between idolatry and iconoclasm. And he should recognize the place that imagery and associations have in disposing the mind to worship.

  2. Yes, the ferocity of Fraser's puritanism is really quite chilling, though I suspect a good deal of it is deliberate provocation (his stock in trade).
    As you suggest, it's hard to compare the situation in the US - where the very oldest churches are young by European standards - with the UK, where medieval parish churches are so numerous as to be standard. And many have pre-medieval origins - a degree of historical continuity that is surely something very precious, however under-used the building itself might be. Their upkeep is of course a huge expense, and should be spread more evenly, not left to the parishes. If only the Blair government had marked the millennium by setting up a fund to restore and maintain our old churches and cathedrals, instead of ploughing vast sums of money into the imbecilic Millennium Dome business.
    Of course, if the Islamisation of Europe picks up speed, this might all be rather academic...

    1. One could argue that bringing not peace but a sword has sound precedents. I don't know Fraser's ordinary form, though.

      On his terms, the question is not of cultural preservation but of the health of the Church of England. And assuming that he is not employed by the British Trust, I think he is right in his choice of terms. Whether his prescription is sound or pure snake oil I can't say. Drastic remedies do seem to be popular among the theologians these days, though the specifics differ even by church--Pope Francis's notion of a tonic seems very different from his predecessor's. Demolition aside, I can imagine that a consolidated parish with forty families might get along better than four parishes of ten.

      As for cultural preservation, by all means, let monuments be preserved. But why not hand that off to the appropriate agency?

  3. When Islamic State blew up a temple to Baal in Syria, there was an outcry. When Syrians turn up at our doorstep fleeing death, we snootily turn them away. Methinks Fraser would make an excellent archbishop, or a Jesuit. The Scottish borders are peppered with fine, extremely old churches, a good number of them having the long buried returning to the surface. Selling them off (invariably for 'conversion') would be a sad loss of our heritage, some of them are built over sites of pre-Christian worship.