It’s amazing what you can find on the web. Today I found a site about nearly 2000 railways stations which have disappeared over the years. Now I am not an enthusiast for some lost nostalgic age of steam. The railways of the 1950s were often slow, unreliable and uneconomical, and about the only two things I love about old railways are the architecture and the smell of steam. But the story of the stations and the lines they served is a fascinating window into the social and cultural development of the nation. And as I’ve already said, knowing the stories of the past is important for an understanding of the present.
I am not sure there is a similar list of disused churches on the website. (By the way, if you are looking to buy a disused church, you always check out the list of what’s for sale from the Church Commissioners). I guess many churches closed for the same reasons as stations – poor location, lack of use, victims of bombing and unsympathetic development. And as with a station, whenever a church closes, we lose a little of our social and cultural history.
So should we try and preserve old church buildings? To a certain extent, it depends on the amount of history that the church contains. If it is an ancient building with some unique feature, then I guess there is often a very good case for preserving it.
But preserving church buildings for historical reasons is not necessarily the task of the gathered congregation. Too many, especially rural, congregations are burdened with buildings that take away time and energy and resources from the proclamation of the gospel. Whether they like it or not, one way or another they are forced to become the ecclesiastical equivalent of the railway preservation society. It’s not really that surprising, therefore, that so many people see the church as the building, and consider it really is just another cultural landmark like the station or the local pub in the first place.
Somehow we need to get beyond the bricks and mortar and tell the stories of the faith that led these churches to be built, and use them as inspiration to proclaim the gospel afresh in this present generation. Sometimes by preserving what we have, sometimes by moving on and moving out, and leaving others to the task of preservation. After all, those who built our places of worship in the first place were pioneers and saw what they built only as a means to a greater end. And it is that pioneer vision that I suggest we need to recapture today, even if on occasions it means hard decisions about our buildings, and maybe challenging perceptions of what the church is really all about.