I stumbled across a tiny chapel in the middle of a field the other week. A display board nearby indicated that this medieval structure had originally served as a chapel for a long since disappeared manor home, the ruts and furrows of the field the only remaining evidence that something else used to stand here. The chapel apparently fell into a state of disrepair until a group of walkers took responsibility for it in the 1930s, and while it remains rustic and simple inside, it is now looked after and cared for. The occasional service is held in the chapel, but it functions primarily as a place of peace and pilgrimage for those passing by.
One of the most intriguing features of the chapel was its guestbook, which, aside from the usual boxes given to indicate your name and where you are from, asks why you have come to visit. Alongside the standard responses, a few people took the opportunity to confess despair and bitterness at life, and to publicly wrestle with its seeming meaninglessness. To those few comments it was lovely to see others writing follow-up comments asking if these people needed help or someone to talk to. This served as yet another reminder of the benefits of open churches, and the gifts they are to our communities. They remain one of the very few places people can find calm in a frenzied world, and feel enabled to confront the pain in their lives in an open and honest way.
With this in mind, just a few days later, my copy of Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches arrived, a book I have been meaning to add to my collection for some time as I make a more regular habit of exploring the architectural riches of our ecclesial heritage. I was intrigued to see Jenkins address the issue of access to churches in his introduction:
Accessibility is the single most vexing topic among church enthusiasts. Nothing is more infuriating after a long drive or even longer walk than to feel the cold, unyielding iron of the handle of a locked door…
The customary excuse for locking a church is the threat of vandalism and the cost of insurance. Vandalism can be most distressing for those victimised. Fortification may be justified in a few inner city churches, though even they capitulate to vandalism far too easily. Most insurers do not insist on churches being locked, only on their being periodically supervised. In my experience, the chief difference between an accessible and a shut church is not its location or the value of its contents but the attitude of the vicar and churchwardens. Some are true enthusiasts who rightly regard the opening of their church as a pastoral and community obligation… To a minority of vicars, sadly a substantial one, I and therefore the general public was a nuisance to be kept at bay.
To close a church is not to forestall trouble – closed churches are almost as vulnerable as open ones – but to let the vandal win… No security is as effective as a regular flow of welcomed visitors. A parish church is a church open to all. A church shut except for services is the private meeting house of a sect (xxxii-xxxiv).
While Jenkins writes mostly from the perspective of an architectural enthusiast and historian, his points are important. He rightly dismisses the often over-stressed practical concerns of security. More significantly, he is exactly right about the role of a parish church: we are there for everyone.
In the nearly two years I have spent at my current church, which is open every day, I have seen countless instances of the fact that open doors are significant opportunities for ministry, as people come in to seek peace, prayer, or find a listening ear. And while I do not subscribe to a particularly nuanced theology of sacred spaces (mostly because I have not given it enough thought), people in our communities, even if they don’t articulate it as such, hope to encounter the presence of God in a unique way within the walls of a church. Though we know God’s presence is not confined to such places, we do these people – and, indeed, the gospel – a massive disservice if we close off the places where they willingly and expectantly come to seek him.
Jenkins is right: ‘A parish church is a church open to all.’ There simply is no justification for locking our doors. We rob our communities of far more spiritually when our doors are closed than we could ever lose materially when they are open.