O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
Serve the lord with gladness
Know that the Lord is God it is he that has made us we are his;
We are his people and the sheep of his pasture
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
Give thanks to him and bless his name
For the Lord is gracious, his steadfast love is everlasting;
And his faithfulness endures from generation to generation.
From Monday we are at last allowed to enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. That is to say that our churches shall be open for private prayer. Actually this phrase is a bit of a puzzle; Archbishop Rowan Williams in a seminar, or I should say webinar the other day began by saying “There is no such thing as private prayer.” It is always good of course to grab attention at the start by a controversial line. As well as this the trade journal this week (I mean the Church of England Newspaper) has much ink devoted to telling us that we do not need church buildings at all and expounding on how many like to watch big services with bishops on line. Now both of these are right, I suppose, but at the same time I do hope that both of them are wrong.
Archbishop Rowan is talking in view of the Holy Spirit who in that Pentecost arrival revealed the permeating, unifying power of God’s presence and love. To this extent we never pray on our own but are joined in our current prayer with those who are praying everywhere now, to those who have prayed before and those wo will pray in the future. This is a big idea, distinctively Christian, that we are all in the body of Christ but which perfectly allows us to pray alone. Times have changed since Julian of Norwich was immured, but in medieval times every town of consequence wanted to have at least one solitary, anchorite or anchoress, for the town regarded this as part of its welfare services. They were worth maintaining for the spiritual good derived from their prayers and penances. Mother Julian may have prayed on her own but her prayers and revelations sere for us all. Nothing private about that even if in private.
So to the question, do we need churches, should we bother opening them at all particularly just now when we offer no collective worship? We might stay at home guided by prayers on Facebook or Twitter or simply sit quietly in our armchairs. Some or many of you no doubt will do this but for others including me the sacred space has meaning and purpose, the framing of prayer time a value. Firstly there is the going. I know it is not possible for everyone but I like to walk to the church; it is a wonderful aspect of parishes that you can see people on a usual Sunday morning walking up the church path, hopefully not rushing but mentally steadying themselves. Then through the door into a place where countless have come before to bring their hopes and fears a time set apart to talk with God, praying (in the words of the Prayerbook) as well for others as themselves. A church engages multiple senses, the acoustic, the visual, a sense of smell and touch all of which contribute to the way we feel. I am sure we need them.
From Monday then we will carefully open our churches for you to come and pray in them, to give thanks and to bless his name” to be both apart and yet together in the mystery that is now, has been, and shall be for ever.