Your parish church is not an idol: it’s an icon

Church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross - Wikipedia
Holy Angels, Hoar Cross

The Twitter mantra seems so obviously true at first glance.

“Church is about people, not buildings.”

Yet since the Archbishop of Canterbury voiced the same view in support of keeping the buildings closed, many have marvelled at the ire it has provoked in some quarters, notably the lacier and ginnier ones. Few have managed to articulate their ire beyond a general sense of impropriety: that sacred spaces, hallowed by prayer, matter in some way.

This meets the by now stock response that prayer can happen wherever we want it to, and domestic worship is a worthy substitute. The Archbishop even alluded to the supposed practice of the Early Church. This in turn invites public soul-searching among the clergy about just what the priestly office is about, and among church wardens about why they have worked so hard to keep the proverbial rooves proverbially watertight. Is it, as some clergy aver, an idolatry of stone? 

At the heart of this, though, is a bifurcation not merely pragmatic, but thoroughly theological: one which is in no way new, but marks the ongoing tug-of-war which has been heaving away since the Reformation in England and since the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church. 

I am not, then, making a simple division between Catholic and Protestant instincts. Nor, indeed, between liberals and conservatives. It is closer to the clash of the aggiornamento and ressourcement parties of Vatican 2, those who sought reform by updating to modernity and those who sought it by a return to traditional sources re-read in their own light. Yet this is not quite it, either. Rather, it is a division between those who instinctively accept the claims of western modernity based on late mediaeval nominalism, and those who subscribe to the older, less dualistic Platonic model characteristic of the mediaeval Latin Church and the eastern churches to this day. 

The stripping of value

The older, Platonic mindset works from higher and invisible principles down to the lower ones of material world. Because God is good, his creation is fundamentally good, and absolutely so, regardless of what humans may or may not think about it. The goodness of creation does not depend on our perceptions and definitions. It reflects the goodness of the one who is, beyond all our conceptions of goodness, the Good par excellence. Along with the entire created order, we are participants in the pre-existent, transcendent and eternal goodness of God. When we contemplate natural order and beauty, we can see the reflection of God’s goodness. 

The more modern ‘nominalist’ mindset, stemming from the Late Franciscans Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, sees no intrinsic and absolute value to the world. Value is defined by the will, and the highest will is the will of God. The world is good if and only if God says so. The world is not so much a participation in the being of God as an entirely extrinsic creation of his will, and what is good is what God wills, however arbitrary or even wicked it may seem to us. This intellectual development paved the way to the Reformation, and Calvin’s recognition that even if we could discern something of the will of God by the fingerprints, as it were, that he leaves in his creation, our fallen intellect is so radically removed from the divine mind as to be quite unreliable. Divine revelation, Holy Scripture, is the only means for knowing what God wants, and that not by fallen reason, but by faith alone. Sundered from the world, God-given Scripture itself becomes the sole lens for its own interpretation.  

The Church’s sacramental system depended heavily on the older, more Platonic worldview, which is why it started to disintegrate late in the late Middle Ages and pushed the Reformers into theological contortions. Where the sacraments had been understood as vehicles for deepening our participation in the graced order of divine reality and so lifting us up by the hands of the angels to oneness with God, that participatory relationship of the whole of creation, visible and invisible, to the Creator was now at breaking point. What mattered instead was the submission of the individual human will to God’s. It is not coincidence that Luther’s priority of his own conscience over the collective mind of the Church was contemporaneous with the birth of the sola scriptura and sola fide doctrines. 

An exclusive church

In England, the reforming Archbishop Cranmer adopted the concomitant Calvinist teaching of receptionism: namely, the idea that Christ is present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist not objectively, but only for the individual believer who receives with true faith. The Eucharist, then, rather than being the vehicle by which Christ lifts all of creation into unity with God, becomes the locus of a personal, individual and ultimately private spiritual relationship. This causes two tensions which only now do we see reaching the extent of their resolution: first, a tension between communicant and non-communicants (including non-Christians), and second, a tension between humanity and the rest of the created order. 

Let us take the second tension first. Here we have a great divide between humans as potential eucharistic recipients and everything else, animal, plant and mineral, which cannot receive. The older participatory metaphysics, far from an excursion into unbiblical philosophising,  echoed the sentiments of, say, Psalm 19, where all of creation sings wordlessly to God’s glory and is vehicle of his saving will. This was echoed in the early and mediaeval western church by the devotional use in preparation to celebrate the Eucharist of the canticle Benedicite amnia opera, where every aspect of creation, from the stars and planets through seas, woods, animals and finally – finally! – humans take their part in the cosmic hymn of praise. Its use was evidently so honoured that, despite being taken from the Apocrypha, it survived in the daily office of the Church of the England’s Book of Common Prayer.

Nor is this a case of an Old Testament trope being overthrown by the New. The liturgies of the early Church show that the Incarnation of Christ is understood as blessing and bringing to fruition the non-human works of creation in God’s salvific order. Take, for instance, the prayer of the Didache, written while the New Testament was still in formation, which brings the wind and rain which nourish the grain and grapes into the eucharistic action. There is a clear understanding in fathers such as S John of Damascus that it is precisely through matter, including but not limited to the wood of the Cross, that matter is redeemed. Wood and stone are never ‘just’ tools, given value by humans for human use. They are co-participants in God’s salvific will. Hence, John wrote against the iconoclasts who presaged the western Reformers in their destruction of religious images in churches, it is not only appropriate but right to venerate the carpenter who worked in wood and died on wood through the wood of icons.

Later, in the West, St Francis of Assissi would famously recognise that even inanimate things are our siblings, and to be treated with due reverence, for rather than idolatrously blocking our gaze from God, they can draw it through themselves into God’s love for the world, and especially for those who have the least material wealth. Taking his name, Pope Francis rightly draws together the themes of ecological care and care for our fellow humans. The thought he expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’ relies on this participatory Platonic metaphysics.

The national church versus the community of recipients

From the first tension arises a second: the political tension between the Church as community of baptised/confirmed believers, and as the national religion. In a pre-industrial age, the people who had sown and harvested the wheat, tended the vines, ground the flour, crushed the grapes, built the churches, gave money to the local poor, were quite clearly “participating” in the Eucharist – no matter how infrequently they received Communion, or even if they did not receive at all. There was, without doubt, more intimate and higher participation in Communion itself; but participation was seen on a scale. The doctrine of receptionism transformed the scale instantly into a binary. The removal of offertory processions and the deliberate implication that participation is by Communion alone made for a two-tier Christendom, if indeed the non-communicants could now really be regarded as Christians at all. The Reformed Church was to be the gathered body of convinced individuals. The only way that this could be a national church was to insist that everyone in the country at least pretended to subscribe to its tenets and, ideally, received Communion, even if only once a year.  

The gospel of utility

So where does this leave us today?

In the first case, our separation from the rest of the natural world leaves us with an anthropocentric utilitarianism which sees matter as value-neutral, to be defined solely in terms of its use to us, which segues naturally into the rival materialistic systems of redistribution of free-market capitalism and state socialism.

In the second, the Church is left as a minority of the entirely convinced which excludes wider participation in its spiritual life and has effectively cut the majority of our people off from even the mildest sense of identity with Christ and his work.

The clergy who say that our church buildings are just ‘tools’ for the propagation of the Gospel are complicit with precisely this utilitarian, exclusive trajectory. They rubbish the work of former generations, and of the laity who tend their buildings and the fabric of the churches to this day. The gospel they preach is one of exclusion: exclusion of non-communicants, non-Christians, and the entire non-human world.

If this seems a gospel remarkably convenient to the forces of secular modernity and atheism which would love to reduce religion to the private sphere, that is because it is their gospel, too. To resist it, we need to embrace the stones as brothers: and as St Francis teaches us, the stones, which can own nothing and say nothing, can teach us all the better to love the voiceless and the poor. 

3 thoughts on “Your parish church is not an idol: it’s an icon”

  1. There are several ramifications of what has happened – the first being that the people in the Parish who are not Church goers don’t usually know where the Rectory/Vicarage is – never mind the fact that the incumbent is streaming worship from the kitchen table. If they hear the bell ring from the church however, they a) know where the Church is, because normally it’s hard to miss, and b) they know that something is going on there on their behalf.
    Secondly, certainly in the Parish I’m in, it’s thrown up the lack of Prayerbooks at home. I suspect the last time a considerable proportion of the congregation had a personal prayerbook was when the (appalling) Alternative Service Book was produced. CW, being SO flexible, there’s no point in many people actually owning any sort of prayerbook. The times of every worshipper having their own cherished copy of any prayerbook, seems to be long gone. We seem to have lost that uniformity in worship and in personal devotions that marked previous ages and I don’t know how we get it back….

  2. This is one of the best pieces I have seen on this vexed topic. Essentially I see this as a sort of proxy war between church parties (i.e., between two radically different understandings of what church is/means). However, I am afraid that it is the evangelicals who are likely win this context.

    The reason for this is that not only a significant part of the ‘soft middle’ but also a decisive proportion of those in authority may see the crisis as an opportunity. Everyone knows that the whole institution is in a death spiral. The evangelicals see the rest as holding them back (because their critical parish share subventions are spread around the rest, amounting to what they perceive as a tax on their ‘success’). The rest are hoping that R&R will somehow reverse the spiral, but really – in their hearts – know that this is not a practical solution.

    So, since the virus has effectively accelerated the collapse, it gives the authorities the perfect cover/excuse to propose a radical rationalisation of the stock of churches. The Wigan project is a portent of what is to come (as is the Radical Action Plan of the Kirk). The laity and the wider public are therefore being softened up for this. This is one of the reasons why a number of ‘establishment’ types in the Church or their acolytes are celebrating the turn to ‘virtual church’. However, there are two problems with the radical rationalisation of the stock (aside from the pastoral issues that it will cause at a grass roots level). The first is that there would have to be a glut of fire sales in a market that is already heavily discounted (i.e., selling the Church’s birthright for a mess of pottage). The second is that the disappointing sales proceeds will be devoured in double quick time.

    Essentially, it is not the buildings that are the problem. The problem is the cost of the stipendiaries. A priest and bishop in France costs about £800 a month in stipend; his equivalent in Italy gets about £950 a month. A parson in England on the national minimum gets £2,064 a month in 2020. A rural priest in France will often cover up to 30 parishes/communes. The CEFPS scheme is a non-contributory, index-linked, final salary defined benefit arrangement plus a lump sum (even the infamous civil service scheme is contributory, and the contributions have lately increased significantly). This is vastly better than almost any other pension scheme, and the great majority of the laity in paid employment will be on pretty terrible defined contribution schemes. In addition, stipends and pensions are funded out of the parish share on a pay as you go basis. The lockdown has effectively destroyed the parish share, and the dioceses have done little to make up the shortfall (there should have been a major campaign from the outset); in France, many priests have gone on the dole whilst continuing to work full hours.

    On this basis, therefore, English stipendiaries are really rather pampered. The paid professionals (which, of course, include all of the bishops – whose incomes are covered by the Commissioners rather than parish share), will presumably fight to retain their entitlements. Therefore, it seems likely that church buildings will be the victims of this zero sum game. This is really what the argument is about, although calling this out is, of course, not done in polite company.

    So unless those opposed to the evangelical perspective on church buildings are themselves prepared to take practical economic steps to render the buildings less vulnerable (i.e., by accepting or offering reductions in stipends and/or a haircut on pension entitlements) they are basically providing ammunition to the ‘steampunk’ tendency within the evangelical party that would happily let all the stock go.

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