The government announced recently that places of worship may re-open for supervised private prayer. Naturally in these times of continuing pandemic and high risks to our health, we need to make special arrangements so that we minimise the risk of contaminating each other as we return to inhabit the buildings that we love, this will take a little while but look out for the notices around our villages. Having been somewhat detached from them for the past three months, I for one have had the opportunity to think about “church” and what it means. I have returned to part of my original academic study to look at our relationships with these beautiful old buildings and what it says about the God we worship, and in whose name and honour they were built.
I wonder how many of you realise that all of the churches in the Coker Ridge Benefice (comprising East Coker, Hardington, Closworth, Sutton Bingham, Pendomer, East Chinnock and West Coker) have their roots in the monastic heritage of this country. Some were planted by monasteries in northern France, some from Glastonbury and further north in this country. The common thread through all these roots is that they were originally and primarily, in their simple timber and thatch frames, houses of prayer. This is one of the things that attracts us to the buildings that have replaced those simple structures, that they have been places where our ancestors have been in conversation with God, and where God has formed and shaped them in His service.
Another attraction is the obvious beauty of the architecture and decoration. Many people hereabouts have family members going back generations who cut the stones, and made the glass, who repaired, replaced and built these structures. They did this not simply because it was their way of making a living, but also for the Glory of God. If you see A.M.D.G. inscribed somewhere inside a church this is what it means, and the beauty of our buildings is in a small way, our attempt at expressing the beauty, majesty and mystery of God.
We also love our church buildings because of the things that have happened in them. Week by week members of the Christian communities hereabouts have met together, sharing in the music and song, the reading and preaching, the bread and the wine of our regular worship. Each time developing a slightly deeper understanding of our God, building up over lifetimes of dedicated attendance and service to our current understanding of faith. But it is yet more than this. We also, in normal times, share in Christenings, Weddings and, of course, Funerals where our communities gather and give thanks for, grieve and remember those that make up our human family. This leaves footsteps in the memory that we can wander alongside when we visit the places where these events have happened.
In recent months we have been without this comfort and memory. We have gone “on-line” for our worship and while this has provided opportunity for those who usually do not join us when we gather together, the virtual world cannot match the joy that we have in greeting and hugging old friends, people with shared history and experience, who will understand without us having to explain.
Sadly, we will have to continue for a good while longer without these physical comforts, without the singing and sharing, if we are to keep the risk of infection to its lowest practical levels. But we have also seen in these past months that the church, or what we might call the Kingdom of God, is not restricted to the buildings that we love, and which help us so much. I believe that the love that I call God lives deep within all of us – this is the meaning of the lines from scripture I recite in the marriage service which say “God is Love and those who live in Love live in God and God lives in them”, and we have seen this love in action in all those who have helped another through the beginning of this
crisis. The shoppers, the carers, those who have put themselves at risk to carte for and treat those who are infected, and those who have gently and compassionately dealt with those who have died and whose families have had to mourn at this awful social distance. You will have many more examples of this kindness and humanity from those who would not claim the Christian faith. Those of other religions and none who find their own and individual ways of connecting with the power and energy that flows through each of us and the whole of creation.
While I hope that we will soon be able to use our churches in more ways than the current socially distanced prayer that is permitted, as we go forward I hope we will recognise that it truly is the people that make both our church and our wider communities and that the love that we might call the Kingdom of God has been present with us as we have loved, cared and shared with and for each other and I pray that now we have tapped into that stream of love we may journey more deeply into it.
Fr. Colin Simpson
Rector of the Coker Ridge Benefice