Sacred Space

One of the most startling effects of the restrictions over the past three months has been the closure of Church buildings, and, as they slowly emerge from their lockdown, first for private prayer, and shortly for public worship, the debate is well underway as to the residual importance of the buildings, when for many the accessing of Church from one’s own home has been an encouragement.

There will be studies undertaken to ascertain how it is that large numbers of people have accessed on-line service, but are not connected with the building, and the reasons for this will be debated, but what of our churches?  Do they resonate as sacred spaces in the way they once did? Are they important simply as reservoirs of memory, or places of silence?

If it was important to the Medieval mind to build costly buildings to the glory of God, overlaying them with treasures, of carving and colour and gold; with screens and hidden corners and the attention to detail, even in areas never seen without a high ladder, or even scaffolding, what does it say of the possession and treasuring of such a place today?

So, what is it that draws many of us to worship in churches, when we acknowledge that we can pray anywhere?  Why do we continue to adorn the sanctuary, and are distressed when the doors are locked and we can no longer sit and kneel in our own familiar spot?  Our church isn’t just any building to which access has been denied, it is a place of sacred association, if not consciously recognised as sacred space - though it may be that too.

Ideas of changed about where we anticipate a Burning Bush moment, or a Jacob’s Ladder, or, indeed, a Mount Sinai.  Seats are set at beauty spots and places of inspiring views; flowers are laid, and ashes scattered at the significant corner, or height, or bend in the path of a loved-one’s life.  What once was held by stained-glass or wall plaque or effigy-laden tomb, is now a broad-leafed sapling, memorial stone or patch of favourite flowers.  This change is real and evidenced by new-made sacred spots.

Yet we have been upset at locking churches.  We do miss not just the singing and the fellowship, but the singing and the fellowship in a particular place and at a special time; the lighting of a candle; the prayer in a place made for it.  All of these things may be done elsewhere and experienced through a computer screen, phone or tablet - as others join us in the same venture and with the same intent.  But we have missed the churches, and though we may be accused of compromising our apprehension of the holy with our nostalgia for a particular place and and its associations, we shall, nonetheless, find our hearts skipping a beat and our minds happily singing familiar tunes, as our fingers turn the door handle and our eyes behold that place in which we, and countless others, have worshiped God in all moods, from the anguish of distress to the deepest ecstasy of love.  

John Mann