Not the building...
'The church is the people, not the building' is an oft-used phrase in non-conformist circles. But is there more to it than that, asks Richard Littledale?
Having been in and around non-conformist churches for over 30 years, there are certain phrases which are part of my involuntary theological vocabulary. One of them is that 'the church is the people, not the building'. A former colleague of mine used to say that church buildings mattered only insofar as they 'kept the rain off', and that the rest was just window dressing. Whilst I do not disagree, I think there may be more to it than that. Does that make me a bad Baptist, I wonder?
Buildings steeped in years of prayer and worship are indeed special places. Buildings whose lines sweep upwards to the glory of God and whose pews bear the shine of the hands (and bottoms) of the people of God are surely more than four walls and a roof?
For the past five years, I have been travelling at least once each year to the little town of Aberystwtyth in the West of Wales. The last 40 miles or so of the journey wind through spectacular mountain scenery with marbled skies, majestic slopes and craggy outcrops riven here and there by tiny waterfalls. In short - it is spectacular.
Almost at journey's end, as the road takes one of its final curves before plunging down the valley to the sea, is the tiny hamlet of Goginan. On a particularly sharp bend in the road is an old chapel. Built in 1871 as a mission outpost from a nearby village, it is in the most spectacular location. Worshippers in years gone by could have paused at the church doorway on their way into worship to breathe deeply of the sweet mountain air and to drink in the sight of the tree lined valley cascading away below them. How they must have sung of their creator!
The voices have long fallen silent, though. Windows are broken, tiles are slipping off, and inside the pulpit lies on its side as if tipped over by some outsize rambunctious toddler. Someone has bought it now, and they are 'converting' it into a residential dwelling.
Am I alone in feeling a pang of sadness at that description, I wonder?
Richard Littledale is the Minister of Teddington Baptist Church as well as an author and broadcaster. He is a regular contributor to Pause for Thought on BBC radio 2 and has written for St Andrew Press. He is currently working on a book for Paternoster Press on journey and discipleship. You can find him at richardlittledale.me.uk