I have just returned from our tri-annual Salisbury Clergy Conference. 300 vicars spending 4 days together in Derbyshire. I’m not sure what George Herbert would have made of it, except that its title of 'Faith in an Age of Uncertainty' would have seemed just as apt in 1630 as it does today.
Today we have those who are pro-Europe and against, those who are striving to make our democracy work better, and governments who seem distant and often powerless and ineffective. Herbert faced religious polarisation between more Catholic and more Protestant (both coming from Europe, oddly!) and struggles over how this isle should be governed, and by what right. Herbert stood firmly for the middle way, the Anglican way - through scripture, tradition and reason. He had perhaps been burnt by his experience of high power court politics, so one might feel some sympathy with his distancing from what he achieved there.
What we discussed at our conference, 400 years later, was that the church (and the country) was always in crisis; we just often forget that fact! And that faith gives us hope and strength in these uncertain times. Not necessarily that it will all get better, or that we should do nothing, but that the truth we bear witness to is a light in the darkness and gives an eternal perspective to our short term minds. The prescription now, as in Herbert’s day, is for the church to do what it does best - be in the community, serving, caring, helping, being alongside, and being the presence or rumour of God in a world which still needs his love.
As someone trained in the architectural profession, I have a particular understanding and way of looking at buildings. Recently the Church of England commissioned a Church Building Review (it's so good at producing reports). It highlighted among other things our 16,000 parish churches, 78% of which are listed. I think its main point though was to emphasise how these buildings are not just empty shells from which to do mission or be church. They are part of the message and the means of the message. From stained glass windows telling stories (see Herbert's poem 'The Windows'), to open doors speaking of welcome, or ramps and toilets speaking of inclusivity and hospitality.
So I gave a talk on this to our Deanery, and many in Salisbury commented on how new glass doors or windows (for example at St. Thomas’s or St. Paul’s) had allowed a connection between those worshipping inside and the world outside which we are called to serve. I instantly thought of the little wooden leper squint in St. Andrew's - not a hole by which Herbert could see if his lunch was ready across the road, but a means of allowing the holy to spill out, or those who felt less worthy to join in. Maybe I’ll leave it open more often from now on!
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