Archbishop of Armagh speaks of journey of faith and witness in today’s world
The sun shone brightly on the ‘Hill of Armagh’ as members of the Diocesan Synod made their way into St Patrick’s Cathedral last week (22nd October), to attend a service of Holy Communion prior to commencing the business of the day in the Alexander Synod Hall. Archbishop Richard Clarke, in his presidential address, spoke on the themes of confidence, courage, creativity and compassion in the journey of Christian faith and witness to the world – a world that he said seemed to have “lost its compass, its bearings”. He suggested that there were different ‘compasses’ to which Christians are called:
- • a moral compass, which provides an understanding of right and wrong;
- • a spiritual compass, which enables one to follow the call of God; and
- • a compass of the mind, which enables discernment and understanding of complexity and of subtlety.
There is no doubt that church buildings, especially cathedrals and parish churches, are a major feature of our countryside, towns and cities. They add immensely to the national landscape – urban and rural – and they remind the public at large of the spiritual dimension of life. Once entered, purely as buildings, they can awaken some degree of faith in those who have perhaps left faith behind in their lives. For regular churchgoers, they provide a sense of ‘spiritual home’.
Yet, at a more mundane level, churches and cathedrals can be a veritable headache when it comes to maintenance issues. Vast amounts of time, energy and money are frequently expended on simply keeping them in reasonable repair. So often, it is down to relatively small, local parishes to look after a large and elderly church, the fabric of which needs constant attention. That is, no doubt, a burden, however willingly shouldered. Yet, things are not going to get any easier, for our church buildings, like ourselves, are always getting older and consequently are going to be increasingly in need of attention.
Earlier this month, the Church of England published a report and launched a consultation on proposals to improve the support for its 16,000 church buildings, including the suggestion that some might only be used on major festivals, such as Christmas and Easter. A statement indicated that the report came from the Church Buildings review group, chaired by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, and constituted “the first attempt in many years to undertake a comprehensive review of the Church of England’s stewardship of its church buildings”.
The report is based on certain principles, which include the need for more flexibility as to how church buildings are used, specifically relating that use to diocesan priorities for mission and ministry. Also,
the report highlights how the management of church buildings needs to be less burdensome on laity and clergy. For example, the review notes that “more than three-quarters of the Church of England’s churches are listed, and the Church of England is responsible for nearly half of the grade I listed buildings in England”. On top of this, the fact that more than half of churches are in rural areas, which constitute only 17 per cent of the population, with more than 90 per cent of those being listed, makes the problem all the clearer.
Bishop Inge commented: “Our 16,000 church buildings are a visible sign of ongoing Christian faith in communities throughout England as well as being an unparalleled part of our country’s heritage … We believe that, apart from growing the Church, there is no single solution to the challenges posed by our extensive responsibility for part of the nation’s heritage.”
However, it is hardly surprising that the report has recommended that “Church and Government representatives should explore ways in which more assured financial support for listed cathedrals and church buildings can be provided for in the long term” and has proposed the establishment of a new statutory Commission “to take an oversight of the Church of England’s stewardship of its church buildings and enable a more strategic view to be taken of priorities and resource allocation”.
It would be good if government in both parts of Ireland recognised more clearly that, just as in England, our church buildings are an important part of the national heritage. Having to apply for grants here, there and everywhere is a very complex, time-consuming and draining experience and, not least for that reason, the State needs to help in more direct and assured ways with the preservation and good maintenance of what without doubt are national spiritual treasures.
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