I love church buildings. It has become a bit of a hobby – trailing round churches when I’m on holiday and visiting somewhere new, or gazing up or around at new and familiar buildings. And if you haven’t read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett then please do now. It will transform how you view cathedrals in the future.
My Lent reading today was from Michael Mayne’s Lent book Pray, Love, Remember which is his personal account of this time as Dean of Westminster. The building itself features heavily as inspiration, as an invocation of stories and memories and memorials. And that made me think of buildings in which I have worshipped and become familiar with throughout my ministry.
My home church of St Michael & All Saints is a beautiful wee church where the stones just reek of incense and a million prayers. It is the church where I first learned about God and heard the stories, and steeped myself in high-church liturgy. I have my favourite pews, and a host of colourful images to contemplate if I need to think on higher things. It is a church of the senses and if I think carefully now I can see the light coming in that window and creating ‘angel ladders’ down to the sanctuary floor where the smoke of the incense can be seen swirling and moving like the Holy Spirit.
Then there is St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth where I was ordained and did my curacy. Standing at the altar underneath the most grand baldacchino and the people in the pews far off in the distance, was a terrifying prospect at first. Daily Prayer in the Lady Chapel with beautiful stained glass of the Annunciation where I said my prayers just before Ordination. It was the first cathedral built in Scotland after the Reformation and I remember it being absolutely transformed at Easter with flowers galore, and smell the damp greenery now if I try.
From there I went to be Priest in Charge of two little churches but both with a delightful character. St Peter’s in Linlithgow is one of the smallest churches anywhere but is made to the grandest design with dome and pillars and about 50 seats all crammed in among them. They used to say you came in the door and almost tripped over the altar, it is so small. I loved the shape and proportions and the fact that everybody had to sit next to someone because there were no spare seats. It was painted hideous colours when I first went there but was re-done in my time in delightful shades of lilac and white. (This has since been remedied! but I loved it.) It was only 75 years old but looked much older and was terribly cramped that everything had to be curtailed to fit the space, including celebrating mass. And then there was St Columba’s in Bathgate, a warm church with (glory of glories) loads of toilets. Oh how I loved that church and its toilets. It was beautifully looked after with lots of polished pine and comfy chairs, and a little meeting room adjacent which was well used. When the pews were removed someone at Falkirk made a font out of the old wood so the past became part of the present. It was a family church with many generations of the same family in attendance, and each was proud of that little building and its beautifully kept gardens.
Then I moved to St Mark’s Portobello which was a strange church architecturally. Strange because from the outside it looked like a large Georgian house with a carriage driveway and the story was that it had been built like that in case it didn’t last as a church and could be transformed into a house. As a result it was wider than it was long, which made for a very different feel. The sanctuary was a beautiful big space so I could stretch out my hands orans as much as I liked. There was some nice stained glass, including the rather racy David and Jonathan. And it was there that I learned, after I had my cataracts removed, that the rather dirty grey glass above the altar was in fact shades of lovely lilac! Downstairs there is a crypt chapel which was used for mid-week services and was a lovely intimate space with a very prayerful feeling. But the church itself could be transformed into so many different worship spaces because of its size. Outside in the garden in front of the church stood a tall wooden cross with a bench in front of it which looked down to the sea, and a graveyard surrounding the building. At Easter the cross was covered in daffodils. I once had a dream that we planted daffodil bulbs in the grass in front of the cross which would appear at Easter like a shadow of the wooden cross. I told my secret dream to one of the Junior Church leaders and they planted the bulbs but we told no-one. The next year shoots appeared and what popped up? Not daffodils at first, they came later, but a host of purple crocuses which made me cry.
Christ Church Falkirk was different again, designed by the same architect as my home church, it felt almost familiar in a way. It was a dark church, with wooden paneling all the way round and some lovely stained glass. My favourite window was the one opposite my chair with the Blessed Virgin Mary stamping on a snake with stars round her head. There was a rood screen and a wonderful sense of moving up into a holy place when you came to the altar. All of this could be transformed with candles all around the wood panelling and fairy lights on the rood screen at Festival times and it always took my breath away. Below the church was another crypt chapel which was in a great state of disrepair so we renovated it, painted it white, acquired an altar and chairs from a church which had just closed down, and it became a lovely intimate place for worship and prayer.
And now we come to St Fillan’s. Home for me for the past 21/2 years and more to come. It is not Westminster Abbey by any means. It is a small simple church, white outside, and like a community hall inside. And it is used by the community all week from morning to evening by every group imaginable. Because of this it is not in an immaculate state of decoration. It has some wooden panelling scuffed by footballs and plastic chairs knocking against it, with primrose walls and a sort of brown colour behind the altar. There are heavy tapestry curtains which screen off the altar space during the week, and at the west end of church to keep the draughts out. Four simple walls, no lovely statues or pricket stands or stained glass for they would all be damaged during the week. The chairs are old grey plastic bucket seats which are light for stacking and that’s important but they are cold and uncomfortable. There are some comfy ones with padding for the elderly and infirm and they are much sought after. One lovely tapestry is brought out on Sundays, but is taken down and hidden away after the service, as is everything else behind the curtains. It doesn’t often feel like a sacred space to me.
Yesterday we had a guest preacher who had once been the rector here at St Fillan’s many years ago. As he preached I was listening and looking around the church. That’s when I realised this church is not about the beautiful building but about the beautiful people. I rearranged the chairs during Lent so that we are facing one another instead of the backs of heads. I brought a wee table in to use as a nave altar so we could be closer to the ‘action’ at the Eucharist. It is not a gorgeous table, not a beautifully carved altar, but it allows us to be close to seeing the bread and wine – the most important things. The building really belongs to the community, to the groups who use it, the children who play and learn in it. And all of the people who come on Sundays have in the past been part of those groups, have led them, have taken their children to them. Children now grown up and far away around the world. But the people who come to St Fillan’s belong not just to this church, but to one another. They are close to each other because they’ve come for such a long time, some since the building was first put up. It is in the people that I encounter God, not in the architecture. Of course, this is true in every church I’ve worshipped in, but even more so here because there is no other gorgeous architectural feature to distract.
So this Lent I am giving thanks for the beautiful architecture which points to God, but also for the people of God. Both can inspire and bring me closer to God. Pay attention to what is around you and pay heed to where God is.