Bishop calls for open 'flexible' churches in keynote Cathedral lecture

Bishop of Worcester says church buildings have a ‘vital role’ as he launches a new St Wilfrid Lecture series at Ripon Cathedral

The Bishop of Worcester has launched a new series of St Wilfrid Lectures at Ripon Cathedral with a plea for churches to remain open throughout the week and flexible, as signs of the Christian faith and places of both worship and community service.

In a wide ranging talk (on Thursday February 26) called 'The Rural Church in Place', Bishop John Inge who has a longstanding interest in rural affairs told the Cathedral audience that churches were a vital part of national spiritual life.

 “Christian churches are absolutely crucial to the scheme of things, “ he said. “Their very  existence is, literally, significant. If the heavens declare the glory of God as the psalmist says, then our skyline of our country is dotted with the towers and spires of our churches which point heavenwards to the witness to the fact that this world is not a ‘system closed to itself’.”

The Bishop added, “If the majority of our churches was to be closed the message sent out to our society would be a disastrous one as far as the Gospel is concerned. It would be to suggest that the Christian faith had had its day.”

A need for more flexible use of buildings

With 16,000 Church of England churches needing continual upkeep, Bishop Inge addressed the challenges facing those with responsibility for churches and he advocated the need for open churches, serving the community, and flexible in their use.

“Part of the answer must lie in being more flexible with our buildings,” said Bishop Inge. “That is a theological as well as a practical point. The trouble is that we have gone wrong sometimes by forgetting that both parts of our Lords 'summary of the law' have repercussions for churches just as they do for disciples.

“The first purpose of churches, as with human beings, is to worship God… but when it comes to the second, 'loving our neighbour', which I would suggest should apply to churches as well as to people, churches do rather less well. Churches should be vibrant centres of service to our community and the record there is not always so good. Traditionally our rural parish churches were at the heart of the community in which they stand in both a human and geographical sense. The trouble is that over the years a pietism has crept in which has excluded all activities apart from worship from them, all other activities being transferred to other places.”

He added, “Far too many churches still remain locked and stand like mausoleums except when open for worship making them almost completely marginal to the communities they are intended to serve.”

Bishop Inge gave examples of imaginative use for churches which he said “had breathed new life into them”. He concluded, “My hope and my prayer is that our churches might truly embody our faith.. and so help our country to recover its spiritual moorings by embodying a real and deep commitment to God and to neighbour”.

Other speakers in the series will include Prof Nigel Curry, (For they know not what they do: reflections on a lifetime of rural policy) April 23; A panel discussion with the Rt Revd James Bell, Julian Smith MP and representatives of the rural community- June 17;  the Revd Canon Jeremy Martineau, (Applying Industrial Mission Theology in a remote rural context: lessons from the Celtic fringe) September 17; and Poul Christensen, CBE: (Young Farmers’ Clubs – fighting back for Rural Communities) October 15. All lectures start at 7.30pm.

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