The village of Monks Kirby is dominated by the mighty sandstone tower of St Edith’s Church. Founded in 1077, this majestic, almost cathedral-like church is today the Anglican parish church. Our little church of St Joseph’s nestles humbly at the other end of the village.
It has impressed me since I arrived in the parish that St Edith’s is open every day from dawn until dusk. Occasionally when I am out walking I will pop in, and I always appreciate the quiet beauty of the place.
Recently the church’s vestry was broken into and several items were stolen. For a few days afterwards the church was kept locked. It would have been understandable if it had remained shut outside of services for good but the rector and parochial church council took the bold decision to maintain their long practice of leaving the doors open for visitors. This is admirable and reminds me of the importance of accessibility to churches outside of times of worship.
I was fortunate some years ago to have served as a curate in a large town centre church which Nikolaus Pevsner described as “out of the ordinary for scale as for style”. The church sat on the fault line between the well-to-do upper town and the down-at-heel old town. It was a place where each day the doors were flung open and signs placed on the pavement welcoming everybody in.
I would spend long periods just hanging around in the church. This was never time wasted as it provided valuable opportunities for ministry to visitors who came in a steady stream throughout the day.
People came for all sorts of reasons, as was testified by the entries in the visitor’s book, which always quickly filled up and needed replacing. Curious tourists, casual passers-by and, faithful parishioners all seemed to appreciate the church being open. I was grateful for many of the relationships which developed with regular visitors, as well as the chance to meet all sorts of interesting people who came for a one-off visit. Those in need also found their way to the church for a place to shelter or to bend a listening ear. The building became a place of gentle evangelisation.
According to research by Visit England, trips to churches are as popular as days out to castles or historic houses. More than half of those surveyed visited at least one church a year, and one in four did so three or four times a year. But the survey also found that only half of churches were open on a regular basis but that those that did contributed to the local economy as well as offering an important ministry.
Often churches are closed because of fears of theft and vandalism. Yet the largest insurer of church buildings, Ecclesiastical, encourages parishes to keep churches open.
Its website says: “We are often asked whether churches should be kept locked at all times. Our answer is ‘no’, provided the right precautions have been taken. Indeed, we recommend, where appropriate that churches are kept open because of the positive effect that has on security.” Many Catholic churches are not historic and often have modest architectural merit, but we can offer so much in terms of welcome and holiness. Most importantly, we have the wonderful gift of the Blessed Sacrament – the greatest treasure of all.
About a year ago we began open our little church at certain times each week. We advertise these in the porch and the local village magazine. We could still do more but at the moment we are finding our way as not everyone is convinced that it is a good idea.
Another practice we are trying to encourage is parishioners using the church for private prayer. We have purchased a key safe with a combination number which is printed each week in the notice sheet to provide access when the church is locked. This is not ideal as only those in the know have the number, but it is a start.
We are not the owners of our churches but merely custodians. Opening churches and offering sacred space within our society is a gentle way of challenging secularism, enabling our buildings to become platforms for evangelisation. Can we afford to lock the world out?
Fr Matthew Pittam is the parish priest of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, and author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom (St Pauls). Fr Dominic Allain is on holiday