A few days ago I visited what is acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful parish churches in England. I was horrified by what the philistines of the Church of England had done to its interior.
I won't mention which church it was, for it was by no means the first church I had seen so aesthetically vandalised and I am criticising a mentality rather than any individuals.
The church was a fine example of the Perpendicular style. It hardly needs me to extol the exquisite proportions of the building, the beauty of the carving of choir stalls or of the stained glass windows that had miraculously survived the various waves of iconoclasm and vandalism that have overtaken this country. There were plentiful well-preserved tombs both mediaeval and Elizabethan. Yet the Church of England had seen fit to treat the interior as if it were no better or more special than a Nissen hut. The Soviets, with their Museums of Religion and theism, could hardly have done worse. A place of repose and serenity had been tuned into a visual nightmare to arouse the ire of anyone of the faintest aesthetic sensibility.
There were several stacks off modern red-seated, metalled-framed chairs piled in the nave; horrible, crudely-coloured notices had been posted everywhere; many dreadful modern cloth hangings, as horribly designed as they were badly executed, were suspended from every pillar. On every step had been affixed with sellotape a warning to mind the step, health and safety long since having replaced faith and hope in the doctrine of the C of E.
Worst of all was a partition erected in the north aisle that would not have been out of place at Stansted Airport, being of grey glass and stainless steel. Inside the partition was a kitchenette, no doubt to provide communicants with a nice cup of tea after services. It was worst because, unlike the notices, the hangings or the piles of chairs, it was intended as a permanent fixture, the twentieth or twenty-first century's contribution to church architecture.
It is obvious that the Church of England ought to be destituted of its ecclesiastical buildings and compensated with Nissen huts and Portakabins which by now it would probably by now much prefer in any case for ideological reasons. As a firm believer in ecclesiastical hierarchy, I think a Bishop's Portakabin ought to be slightly larger than a vicar's, possibly with an indoor lavatory, and all Anglican services ought by law to take place Nissen huts.
First published in Salisbury Review.
Churches are not meant primarily to be "places of repose and serenity" for connoisseurs of medieval architecture who like to visit when there's nobody else around and who wouldn't be seen dead actually turning up for a service (especially if the congregation included, say, a slew of young parents with small children).
They are places for Christians to meet God and also deal with each other; where people are supposed to do such unfashionable things as publicly acknowledge and repent of their sins and cry out to God for help to amend their lives (which activities both in the middle ages and nowadays, can sometimes be attended by unseemly displays of distress and tears, even if that isn't usual in the average Anglican church). And worship may be quietly contemplative, but worship can and should also be, at times, noisily celebratory (read Psalm 150 and ask yourself where, today, the joyful wielders of "really loud cymbals" are to be found, among worshippers of the Biblical God).
Churches that are empty and quiet and are no longer churches but merely National Monuments For the Convenient and Quiet Contemplation of the Long Ago, where YHWH cannot possibly interrupt and ask anybody to do anything - are worse, as far as I am concerned, than any number of rather untidy and grubby old buildings that are still "lived-in" and that are perfectly capable of surviving any number of changes of fashion...plastic stackable chairs have been around since the 70s, certainly, but one day they will be replaced by something else. They don't bother me. If extra chairs are needed - which suggests that there may be more people coming to worship, or to other church-related activities such as a midweek bible study - than fit in the available pews - that is a good thing, isn't it?
In the middle ages and renaissance those churches were many of them painted all over, inside, in very loud colours - far more bright than most modern aesthetes would find tolerable - and people like margery kempe routinely indulged in displays of emotionalism that would not be out of place in a modern pentecostal congregation somewhere in Africa. No medieval Christian would be shocked by a few colourful but rather unprofessional banners (just how "professional", in modern terms, was your average bunch of medieval parishioners dressing up for the mystery play in the high street?).
What matters about banners is that somebody went to the trouble of making them. If they are new and colourful and shiny, that means that the somebodies are still around. What also matters is what the banners represent. If they are in the liturgical colours, somebody has done their homework. If they are keyed to central Christian doctrines, ditto; or if they are the "parade banners" of assorted church organisations. Was there an MU (Mothers Union) banner? If so, that's a good sign; I don't care whether it met your standards of artistic perfection.
If there's a place for people to get a hot cup of tea, that means the place is inhabited.
Was there a large box anywhere in evidence, with "quiet" toys (that is: things that under-threes can safely occupy themselves with, without making noise)? If so, that would indicate a congregation with young children; which as far as I am concerned, would be a good sign, a sign of life.
Were there fresh flowers and/ or greenery in vases?
Final thought: if visiting a church, the thing to do is to prowl round and find the place at the back where most churches keep copies of last weeks pewsheets and a noticeboard and the shelf where one finds leaflets and brochures of the organisations the congregation supports - e.g. Church Missionary Society. Find out what is going on. If there are regular midweek or vigil services, if there is an active Mothers' Union group (or other similar sort of group whether for young or old), if there are bible studies and prayer groups and evangelism going on, and if one finds, say, The Barnabas Fund leaflets and booklets, and leaflets produced by Anglican Friends of Israel, I frankly couldn't care less if the congregation were a bit aesthetically challenged.