Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Secular Sanctuaries

Church Turned Art Gallery 
For the past ten days I have wandered up and down streets first used by Roman soldiers and English villagers thousands of years ago. I have walked roads first trampled as paths by Constantine the Great and his men expanding the Roman Empire. I have seen churches that were  
established shortly after William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, and viewed stained glass windows that lit the chapels used by Henry the VIII on one of his many wedding days. I have stood in pulpits filled by John and Charles Wesley and upon ground where George Whitfield preached salvation to miners as they arose from the pit of darkness and found light for their souls. I have been on a pilgrimage to a place that shaped the souls of the world for hundreds of years but has now become soulless. One of my fellow pilgrims struck up a conversation in a pub and when asked about the spiritual life in England was told, “It just doesn’t matter.”

The cities, towns, and villages I visited are filled with houses of worship. These are places whose grandeur almost takes your breath away and they were once filled with those seeking to know God and be known by God. Now in a time when hope is desperately needed in our world so far from God, these buildings are nearly abandoned. On any given Sunday morning in England less than 4% of its population can be found in a house worship. Ancient buildings, once bathed with the prayers and praises of saints, have been decommissioned and turned into pubs, art galleries, and private homes. What happened? How did a country that once filled all of these churches abandon its spiritual heart?

The sacred has become secular. Faith has become a practice of older people, “proper Anglicans,” and those who are desperate. Both the British Methodist and the Anglican clergy I spoke to lament the lack of young people pursuing ministry as their primary vocation and the crisis their churches are facing due to lack of leadership. Like in America, clergy are no longer seen as community leaders in most places. They are viewed as relics, much like their churches, who have their place in society but are largely ornamental and rarely useful. To survive, every historic church we visited has a gift shop, most have cafés, and some even charge admission when worship services are not going on. Everywhere you go there are boxes soliciting contributions inviting spiritual pilgrims to keep the place alive.

When the sacred becomes secular, the secular becomes sacred. “Whoever says England isn’t an overtly religious country hasn’t considered the sports mania that’s descended here.” (Kindle loc. 286, Foder’s Travel: England 2014) Our souls seek solace. We desire something to believe in. In a country with a huge income disparity, a struggling economy, and a difficult political situation, where the churches no longer serve as the soul of the people they have turned to sports to fill in the holes in their souls. Much like games in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, sporting events in England are religious affairs with liturgy, vestments, and accepted practices. The teams battle on the court or field for the chance represent their region and bring hope to the masses. The sacramental drink is a nice pint of cask ale served cool, but not really cold. The chants and songs are sung lustfully and religious fervor is evident. The rivalries are fierce. The victories are sweet. The losses are crushing, but there is always hope that next time the victory will be yours.

In the midst of the decline of English spiritual life, there is hope.

Wesley Memorial Methodist, Epworth
I visited a thriving Methodist Church in Epworth where the pastor willing to do whatever it takes to reach his community with the gospel. He speaks of “full family worship” led by a band where
he preaches without a robe and not in the pulpit (gasp!) to almost 250 souls each week. In a three-hundred year old sanctuary, tucked behind a beautiful arch, is an electric screen that lowers to show words to praise songs and videos he uses each week during worship. They also have “messy church,” a place for parents and families to come together and learn the basic stories of God. This congregation in a tucked away corner of Christendom is doing dozens of adult baptisms a year. This radical pastor is quietly sowing the seeds for a new Methodist revival.

St. Martin’s in the Field, pastored by former Duke Dean of Chapel Sam Wells, is a historic Anglican church serving the heart of the city of London right in Trafalgar Square. It has community ministries that serve the least, last, and lost of London. There is a homeless shelter that houses and assists thousands every year. Tucked in the long abandoned basement crypt is a crowded café that provides income for ministry and food for the body. It breaks down the barrier some people have about coming into a “church” by providing a place of entry for them. The church sponsors some of the best classical music concerts in the city, utilizing the astounding acoustics of an ancient sanctuary as a backdrop for Mozart, Bach, and Handel. It is
Wesley Memorial, London
a community that serves the city with everything it has.

Not too far from St. Martin’s is a Methodist Church that sets the bar high for embracing diversity. Wesley Memorial Methodist Church, London, is embracing renewal through the intentional love for those immigrating into the UK. The thriving congregation has members from around the globe and there are at least twenty-five different native tongues spoken by its members. The singing is full, the people are passionate, and the atmosphere is infectious.  This anchor of British Methodism has emerged from the ashes of decline to become a vibrant and diverse congregation proving that urban churches can come alive again if they find ways to connect to the people right outside their doors.

John Wesley gave us a warning nearly three-hundred years ago when he wrote:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to
exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only
exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this
undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit,
and discipline with which they first set out.”

As we face decline in the mainline across the U.S. these words should ring in our ears. Let us hold fast and recommit ourselves to doing whatever it takes to reach our community, to connecting with people by selfless service, and by reaching those right outside our doors and embracing diversity. There is hope and we serve a God who gives us hope. That is why I am Methodist, and I remain:

Consumed by the Call,


No comments: