Our freedom of movement was taken for granted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before March 2020, we were more likely to be concerned about being locked out than locked in, never mind locked down. The initial shock of the lockdown has given way to novel thinking about space and spaces, public and private. As we saw our churches shut and now rejoice in their openings, even with restrictions — mindful that a second wave of the dreaded virus may shut them again — we may ask: What’s all the fuss about churches? Christians may pray anywhere in public; they may let spaces to gather as congregations. Is it not Jesus who says that he is in the midst of any two or three gathered in his name (Matthew 18.20)? Christians may pray anywhere in private; they may pray at home. Is it not Jesus who recommends praying alone (Matthew 6.6)? We’ve all sorts of online worship now. Who needs churches?
We do. We need churches. We Christians need churches because churches provide fixed spaces for the sacred. They don’t preclude the sacred in other spaces, but the raison d’être of churches is the worship of God. Vital as our online worship is when gathering in churches is impossible for some or all of us, online worship typically streams from churches or chapels: we naturally worship in purpose-built sacred spaces, even when our worship is virtual. For over two millennia, we’ve been erecting churches to facilitate our worship. A dozen or so years ago, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a church in Rihab (Jordan) dating from between AD 33 and 70. Christianity and its churches are coeval.
I guess that’s why slogans to the effect that the church is open, even if its buildings are closed, rang hollow from the start; and by early June, when Bristol’s statue of Edward Colston was dumped in the harbour, they began to ring false. Why are people toppling statues? Because what we human beings build for ourselves conveys meaning, because architecture speaks. Our public spaces and their adornments matter. This is particularly true of churches for they mark our faith in God in a most tangible way.
The purpose of churches is not only to facilitate the worship of God by appealing to our senses during public prayer or to offer a consecrated space for private prayer, but to stand fast to commemorate the advent of the Christ and to stand tall as watchtowers for his coming again. Still, it’s not just Christians who need churches. Churches are testaments, witnesses, in brick and mortar, to Jesus, the world’s Saviour. Saints and sinners though we Christians may be, we perform a service to our sisters and brothers when we construct our churches. Churches are a part of our mission to proclaim Christ and to make him known to others.
After praying at home, and often alone, we’re elated to be back in our churches. Sometimes we human beings don’t appreciate things until they’re taken from us. Coming back to our churches is not only a moment to value them, to give thanks for them and to recall our responsibility to preserve our legacy of sacred spaces, but it’s an opportunity to recapture the enthusiasm of Jacob as he built a sanctuary at Bethel exclaiming, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28.17).