Tuesday, 5 March 2013

When religion stops us seeing clearly...

I spent a few minutes after morning prayer on Saturday wandering around the church building, enjoying the silence. I also had a look at the stained glass windows - most of which are Victorian. It's something I don't get to do very often because I'm too busy. My favourite window in our church building is very recent, only three years old, and is a brightly coloured rendition of Jesus welcoming children to himself. It is in the baptistry, an appropriate place for welcoming children into the family of God.

I discovered another window today too, which I've never really noticed before - something that surprised me because ours is not an overly large building. It is a large plain window, with clear glass. You can see straight through it to the outside world: across the grave yard to the A-road that runs through the middle of the parish, and on to the homes beyond. I stood for a while watching people heading to the shops, the saturday morning traffic held up by the changing lights at the pedestrian crossing, and the folk gardening around the houses opposite.

It was a strange experience being inside a church building watching the outside world 'happen'. On a busy saturday morning everything in the church was calm and peaceful, quiet and prayerful: outside everything was on the go. Such a visual contrast left an impression. I've been trying to get my head around why it impressed me, and has stayed with me. These are some tentative thoughts:

- the stained glass has the function of depicting important biblical stories, moments in the life of Jesus, important Saints, even figures from the history of our churches. There is good historical and social reasoning behind this: until recently literacy levels were lower and depicting stories made them accessible and understandable. This is still true even in a society where literacy levels are much improved. BUT, the images and stories they represent have another function too: reflecting back to us our identity as inheritors of these stories, and as transmitters of them. They may function to give us Christian ideals around which to organize our common life, or virtues to acquire for ourselves.

- the reflecting function of the stained glass is reinforced when you consider that, in our church at least, the images can only be seen from the inside: you have to be part of the worshipping community to get it. This is nothing new. Church furniture usually (!) has some meaning or other, and this can only be appreciated from inside, so saying that the glass only works this way round fits the general pattern.

- What this means however is that unlike other windows - the purpose of which is to allow in light and let us see what's outside - church windows keep our vision limited to the edges of our buildings. We are physically unable to see beyond the walls of church, and beyond the boundaries of our own community. Any minister can tell you this happens in church communities from time to time (!), but I found it a powerful image of what sometimes happens to us even for the best intentions. The stained glass helps to reflect and form our sense of Christian identity, but prevents us physically seeing the world beyond. So we can come together in the church building, and the rest of the world happens around us: they can't see us, and we can't see them.

- I think what strikes me about this is the way in which we often inadvertently organize ourselves as church in a way that cuts us off from everyone else. Sometimes the services we use, the language we speak, etc. is the issue. At other times the building. And this certainly was never the intention. But it is what happens when the surrounding culture changes, and the churches in which we worship fail to be culturally appropriate.

Seeing through the windows, beyond the building, into the community in which I live and serve and worship touched me deeply on Saturday, especially in the context of prayer (which is what I was dong). Having one clear window in church reminded me of that other aspect of my Christian identity so easily forgotten in church buildings: we are God's people who exist for the good of all people - blessed to be a blessing beyond the boundaries of our buildings.

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