A sermon on our Dedication Festival, commemorating St Faith of Aquittaine and Agen (our 'patron saint)
Readings: 1 Kings 8.22–30 & Matthew 21.12–16
There are many so called holy places in the world. They are those places where, somehow, the veil between our mortal world and the spiritual world seems more fragile. Some people call then ‘touching places’, or ‘thin places’ – places, that is, where one seems to be able to reach out and almost touch the out-stretched hand of God.
Attributions of holiness have been given to many places over the millennia. Stonehenge was once considered holy by its builders – as far as we know. Great cathedrals and churches were considered holy, thin places, because they often contained the bones of great saints. For devotees of our patron Saint, Faith of Agen, the abbey-church of Conques, France is one such place. There are laid the bones of the young martyr – cruelly murdered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, because she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ. Ask Bishop John and Janet Hind for their account of the place – for they visited it only a couple of years ago.
And yet there is a danger, isn’t there, in investing all our energy into buildings. Anyone who has toured the ruins of great churches around the UK should know that faith is not kept alive by holy places alone. They, like all physical things, must pass. For as King Solomon prayed at the building of his great temple, ‘…will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’ Where is that great Temple of Solomon now? Gone. Just a few stones which comprise the so-called ‘Wailing Wall’ remain.
In fact, if we are honest, holy buildings can sometimes get in the way. In the Jerusalem temple, for example, human priests created a holy of holies – a place in which God was said to actually dwell. It was a place so holy, that the High Priest could only go into it on one day of the year, after elaborate rites of purification. The New Testament tells us that the curtain of that ‘holy of holies’ was torn down at the death of Jesus. It was not a helpful picture of God. It had to go.
Even our own beautiful building has some challenges – in terms of the story it tells about God. For example, the way that the whole focus of the church is fixed on the High Altar, could suggest that God is distant from us….that he is far away, and only to be approached on bended knee, in front of a Sanctuary that ordinary people dare not enter. That is not, I think, the picture of God that Jesus offers us. He wanted us to understand God as our heavenly parent – the father who cares for his children and who walks alongside us. Jesus taught us to expect to find God’s spirit along us, leading us into all truth, dwelling within us. These are not images of a distant God. A church which has its altar in the centre of the people might well be a much more accurate picture.
Some of our images of Jesus – in this beautiful building – are rather problematic. The blond, bearded man on the cross in our East Window looks nothing like the probably clean-shaven, dark-haired Jewish man who died for us. What picture of God does this building convey? It’s a picture of God as an Englishman – a blond one at that! That kind of image undermines all that Jesus and his followers taught us about being one family of humankind, in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, black nor white.
And yet, as those who steward and care-for this church throughout the week will testify, the building has immense value to all those who enter its doors throughout the week, seeking solace, peace, or a place to seek God. That is why, for all its theological confusion, I think that our continuing efforts to refurbish this place are worthwhile. Its very age and architectural idiosyncrasies are precisely what draw in those seekers of a thin place, a touching place.
But at the same time, we must not forget that this building is not ‘the Church’. It is only a shell…at the end of the day, a shelter from the rain in which the actual church can gather. Fundamentally it is no different from the church of St Nicholas in the parish of Nswam, Ghana – which I visited in 2015. A few palm branches, spread over a frame. Just a shelter from the elements.
For, as St Peter says, we are “living stones…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”. We are the church – not these stones. We could – if the Diocese would let us! – tear this whole place down – leaving a pile of rubble in the middle of Havant. That would not mean that the church was gone. The people who make up the church would still be here (if a little damp, when it rains!).
We have perhaps learned the truth of this even more during the COVID pandemic. We have discovered that we are still the church, even when the building is locked and bolted against infection. Through the internet, through phone calls, through loving and caring for each other and our community, the church has continued, without its building at all.
Next week we will focus on our plans for the future, during our Annual Meeting – plans which will certainly include the ongoing care and development of this beautiful building. But also plans which will aim to build up the living stones of our congregation, as we seek, after the example of St Faith, to Live, Pray and Serve as followers of Jesus Christ.