Thursday, 8 November 2018

Buildings and the Benedict Option: can our physical heritage help save the faith?

(This post is a slightly amended version of a piece originally published in 2016 on another website, now defunct.)


Within a day’s hike of the house in which I grew up, and in which my parents still live, there are at least four ruined or abandoned churches. A short walk into town from that house takes you past a high flint wall that was once part of a medieval abbey, and over the road from that is the site of a church demolished in the sixteenth century. My father—a retired Anglican priest who likes to keep his hand in—takes a regular service in a church that dates back eight centuries. An hour’s drive across the county brings you to the spectacular remains of St Mary’s Reculver, which was begun almost 1400 years ago after St Augustine converted the Kentish kings at the start of his mission to the Anglo-Saxons.
When I lived in Oxford, it took barely an hour to stroll out along the Thames to the ruins of Godstow Abbey, a nunnery dissolved by Henry VIII which has been gradually falling down for four hundred years since being badly damaged in the Civil War. In the very centre of the city, at St Michael at the Northgate, you could drink coffee and browse books at the foot of a church tower that was completed before the Norman Conquest.

Christianity has left a powerful mark in the British landscape, just as it has in our laws and culture. Whether or not we approve of or believe in the faith is irrelevant. Its physical legacy in our countryside and towns is a fact. Even non-Christians feel the draw of locations “where prayer has been valid”, as Eliot puts it in Little Gidding. If you doubt this, consider the vast crowds who visit cathedrals each year, and perhaps more significantly the steady stream of visitors to even the most humble of parish churches. It’s not uncommon when perusing the visitor book in such churches to come across phrases like “such a peaceful, prayerful spot” or “a wonderful place to just sit and be still”. The feeling of reverence that doubters and sceptics have for such places has never been more beautifully expressed than in Philip Larkin’s masterpiece Church Going. Larkin was nobody’s idea of a devout Christian, but it’s hard to dissent from Peter Hitchens’ view that he was, “without meaning to be, and indeed while meaning not to be, a great religious poet”. At the core of Church Going is the insight that churches cannot and will not cease to be places of meaning and exploration, even if they are no longer used for organised Christian worship, “Since someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious/And gravitating with it to this ground/Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in /If only that so many dead lie round.”
The instinct expressed by Larkin may not be as common as it once was, in Britain at least. A type of religious scepticism that was once quite common—gentle, almost regretful, acknowledging that even if false Christianity was a humane and serious-minded way of approaching hard questions—seems to be fading away, to be replaced by something harder, more ignorant, disdainful and scornful. Nevertheless, however estranged people become from the faith of their fathers, the physical embodiments of our Christian heritage continue to attract the curious.
For Christians themselves—for Anglicans most acutely, since the vast majority of the older church buildings in England belong to the Church of England—these relics pose hard questions. Perhaps the most obvious is how, and indeed whether, to maintain them as places of worship in an age of shrinking congregations. There are about 16,000 Anglican churches in England and the annual repair bill for them is £130m. 
One question in particular is less commonly discussed, and it is this: is there any way in which the physical fabric of Christian England might be used to increase the resilience of Christian communities? This question occurred to me when reading the US writer Rod Dreher, who has written  a book about what he calls “The Benedict Option”. This is an umbrella term he coined for the many and varied ways in which he argues that Christian communities can and must develop spiritual and cultural resilience in response to the challenges of living in heavily secularised and anti-religious countries, at a time when government, business and culture are profoundly hostile to traditional religious beliefs and practices.
The reference to St Benedict of Nursia, the father of Latin monasticism, comes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue. MacIntyre argues that traditional religious believers in the West are faced with a moral and cultural dark age, because—to over-simplify somewhat—the Enlightenment dethroned the Christian worldview as the moral and epistemic basis for our civilisation and has found nothing to put in its place. He ends the book with a call for
“local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
St Benedict is a role model in this context because he helped to preserve the intellectual and moral traditions of authentic Christianity in the disorder and upheaval that followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  
Dreher explores in his book what exactly MacIntyre's “local forms of community” might look like, and many other writers, academics and theologians have joined the discussion. The connection with church buildings themselves is not perhaps immediately obvious, but it does seem plausible that they might have a role to play.
Firstly they act as a powerful reminder that Christianity is an ancient faith that draws on powerful springs, what CS Lewis allegorises in the Narnia books as the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time”. The speed of modern communications, and particularly the rise of social media, has made all of us very vulnerable to becoming overly immersed in What’s Going On Right Now. Every incident of state harassment or oppression of Christians, every setback for Christian voices in the public square, presses in on us and appears to demand an urgent response of anger, recrimination and despair.
Taking a step into the cool, quiet interior of an English parish church, or looking up at the soaring vaults of a cathedral, or even simply spending time amid the ruins of a small chapel, can help us overcome those unhealthy impulses (as the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once said, “I’ve always thought the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder”). To occupy the same space in which people far distant from us in time and language and experience have heard the same prayers, the same chants, the same hymns is a way of placing ourselves back into the great tradition.  
Christians in the past faced the same or greater challenges as we do now. The Christian Church has been around for a long time and it is not going anywhere. It predates almost every single political entity on the planet and it will outlive them all. How many of its earthly tormentors, from the Roman Empire to the USSR, are now as one with Nineveh and Tyre, in Kipling’s phrase? I sometimes wonder whether it is the knowledge of their ultimate impotence against the Church that has made totalitarians persecute it with such fury—and indeed whether the same knowledge has given succour to those being persecuted. One gets a sense in reading the stories of men like St Maximilian Kolbe, who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, of an astonishing inner peace and fortitude.
There are also lessons to be learned for Christians from the rootedness of an ancient church building. We have grown used to hyper-mobility, to having a huge range of choices about where we live and work. It is not hard to see how this might militate against the creation of a settled Christian community, of the kind which has been the norm for most Christians in most places throughout history, and which is clearly envisioned by most of the Biblical writers and the Church Fathers. The original Benedictine monastic rule laid great stress on geographic stability; later writers have stressed the importance of this idea of service to particular people in a particular place at a particular time. In our own day, Christian ministers of various denominations are often the most effective social service in some of our most deprived and difficult areas, because they are committed to a place. The Church’s possession of a long-standing physical presence somewhere can only help to reinforce this important aspect of vocation. In an age when Christians will perhaps be limited in the careers they can choose, the places in which they can work, the universities and schools they can attend and send their children to, they may rediscover the importance of staying in a place, devoting themselves to it and making a strong, close community. Having a building which has been part of a constant Christian presence for many lifetimes could be a powerful psychological aid to this.
There seems too to be a link between building and ritual. One of the themes in Dreher’s Benedict Option writing is his belief that churches that do not have formal liturgy and traditional, structured devotional practices will face an extra barrier in maintaining their integrity and vitality as Christian congregations when persecution comes or when their members face the harsh winds of cultural ridicule and disapproval. Liturgies and traditional practices act as an anchor to the tradition of the Church, they remind congregations of their adherence to the Creeds and that they are part of something much greater which should not be lightly rejected or tampered with. Solidity, routine and sacraments help to build strong Christians. Ancient church buildings can be a hugely important component of this grounding of the faith. Their physicality is a reminder that the faith is not some kind of gnostic spiritualised thing, but is closely concerned with the material creation, with the lives of people who have bodies. Graveyards, which still surround many English churches, even in built-up areas, have a related, though distinct, role; they bring home to people the reality of our limitations and mortality, and act as a constant reminder of the importance of the choices we make about life and the commitments we make—or don’t make—to religion.  
We might also make the simple, final observation that people seem to be drawn to God-haunted places, and so the old prayer-soaked churches might be a way for people living out the Benedict Option to reach out to those outside. Although attendance at Christian services is in decline—the number of regular Anglican worshippers, for example, has apparently fallen below a million for the first time, from a peak of more than 3.5 million c.1930—cathedrals still draw large numbers of visitors, as noted above (C of E figures state that nearly 10 million people visit cathedrals each year). No doubt many of these visitors are tourists or antiquarians—the “ruin-bibbers, randy for antique” whom Larkin gently teased in Church Going. They are not seeking or expecting a spiritual awakening or insight. But there will be others who find something more profound in these places where heaven and earth meet.

1 comment:

  1. Just came across your site for the first time this morning, via Guido and Graeme Archer's post on UnHerd. As a worshipper at Great Malvern Priory (a former Benedictine house) I found this post very thought-provoking and have forwarded a link to several other church members. As you might know, Malvern has strong associations with C S Lewis and the fact that I'm a great fan of Larkin also helped stir my interest.

    I do like your writing style (hope that doesn't sound patronising!) and I am looking forward to exploring your blog in more depth.

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