Dedication of a Church 2012

From the Post-Communion Prayer: “Your church on earth is a sign of heavenly peace, an image of the new and eternal Jerusalem”

That word image is the word ikon, and I want to reflect a little on the role of the church building as an ikon. You will all know my liking for the religious art of the Eastern Church, which has become very popular in the West. If you have ever visited a church in Greece or Russia, or an orthodox church here, you will know that they are filled with pictures, ikons. These play a very important part in orthodox Christian life, and there is an interesting theology associated with them.

Firstly, the ikons have a teaching and preaching role, as Christian art has always had in the West. Every Sunday, every feast day, has its own particular picture, showing as a rule the gospel event of the day. Everyone entering the church for Liturgy will stop to visit the ikon of the day and kiss it. In an illiterate time this really was Bible for everyone; and the ikons are so traditional and sophisticated, there is a wealth of theology and spirituality here for those who know how to see it.  The orthodox believer worships surrounded by pictures of all the events in the life of Jesus: he is immersed in the mysteries of the faith.

Secondly, the ikons are understood to have a sort of sacramental role; mediating the presence of the unseen realities which they represent. At the Eucharist we acknowledge that we are joined in worship by “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”; for the Orthodox, the saints and angels are present through their ikons. They give a visible form to the heavenly realm; they bring God and his saints close.

Lastly, being connections between earth and heaven, they invite us to approach God, to pray, to adore. So in an Orthodox home, there will be a corner with an icon or two, which will be the natural place to say one’s prayers. Orthodoxy of course recognizes that we can pray anywhere, and that the deepest prayer is imageless; but nonetheless places a great value on these beautiful windows into the holy.

I want to suggest that the church building itself can be considered to have the function of an ikon. Traditionally the very layout of the interior has lots to teach us, from the font at the door – the way in – to the altar in the sanctuary, the sign of heaven. But the very fact that here is a building set apart from ordinary buildings for the worship of God is itself an unspoken testimony to the faith. That is particularly so when the building is clearly loved, maintained, and used by a community. In Christian thought, it is very hard to separate the function of the building from the church that meets in it. Everything that goes on here is testimony to Jesus Christ, for better or worse.

Like the holy pictures, the church building is not merely witness, but it has a role in mediating unseen reality. God is present everywhere, we may feel that reality most intensely in certain places, such as places of natural beauty; but this building is set apart specifically to be a place where God’s reality comes close; where heaven takes on visible form. And again that will apply to the worship that is performed by the community that uses the building.

And again, the whole point of God drawing near is that we should come close to God, in prayer and through sacrament. And though we can draw close to God anywhere, there are some places that make it easier for us; churches really are a gracious gift to help us approach the Holy One.

What can we do to make sure that our church building functions well as an ikon – declaring the faith, mediating the unseen, drawing us to God? The Easterns fill their buildings with pictures. The western catholic tradition uses the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a similar way. In our reformed traditions we have in general abandoned reservation and have reduced the function of art to ornament and possibly teaching. Our greatest success in mediating the unseen perhaps has been in the generally high level of attention, decorum and participation during the actual services. But can we do even better?

There is a church I like to go into when I am down the country; it is the chapel of Bolton Abbey, a Cistercian community near Timolin. It is not a particularly beautiful building; modern, well-built, but decidedly functional, and plain enough in its wooden furnishings that it could almost be a protestant church. But it has the most intense silence in it. Whether that has to do with the shape and proportions, or being out in the middle of nowhere, or because few words are ever spoken there apart from the prayer and praise of the liturgy, I don’t know. Now there is a church building which really mediates the presence of the holy, and invites prayer.

We really could do with more stillness and silence in our churches – I am speaking to myself as much as to anybody else. It is one of the deficiencies of our present church practice – a lack of silence and reverence. I’m sure it’s not quite deliberate. It’s partly because we feel at home in church, in our small intimate community, we like to be friendly and chat together. None of us want to present ourselves as holier-than-thou or ostentatiously pious – I’d say we tend to understate our actual religious sensibilities. But it does mean that we lose out on the power of silence. “The church is a sign of heavenly peace?” – well, not often! There is a saying: “Before service, talk to God; during service, listen to God; after service, talk to each other”.

Moments of stillness do allow the service to breathe. I know some people have a habit of galloping through the prayers without listening either to the minister or to the other people. It really helps when we can find a common, moderate rhythm in which to recite the liturgy. Helpful, too, if we are not trying to shout each other down. Saying the prayers is not the same as ordinary speech; and very often it is the shorter pieces that need more time taken over them. “Holy, holy, holy Lord” is a case in point, where space and breath help the words to perform their iconic function of mediating holiness and inviting response.

Do you think it might be possible for us together to explore ways of developing stillness in our church, so that it may truly perform its function in bringing God near to those who enter, and helping us to draw near to God?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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