Churches are places of worship but they are, increasingly, centres of social and charitable activity as well, not the least playing an important role in supporting the homeless. But does this inevitably lead to the secularisation of churches? And how can churches combine a zeal for social action with the need to do worship well?
Churches across Britain – from St Paul’s, Colwyn Bay to the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Clerkenwell – host food banks and many more donate regularly to them. Church halls such as that of St Aidan’s, Coulsdon have been used as vaccination centres, and Anglican cathedrals at Bangor, Salisbury and Rochester have acted as either Covid-19 vaccination or testing centres. St Paul’s, Ludgvan allows pilgrims on the Cornish Celtic Way to sleep in the church. And churches of all denominations – for example, St James’s, Spanish Place, London – regularly host homelessness cafes and soup kitchens, job clubs and other community initiatives intended to support those in need in their local community and beyond. This is a use of churches that is plainly understood by secular observers and journalists.
But does the concentration on such “secular” activities mean that churches are losing sight of their sacred and religious purpose? Does it amount to the secularisation of church buildings? When founding the Redundant Churches Fund (now the Churches Conservation Trust) in the 1960s, former MP Ivor Bulmer-Thomas prioritised the repurposing of church buildings no longer used for worship, for secular activities ranging from festivals to art exhibitions. The success of this repurposing depends hugely on how non-worship activities are conceived by clergy and congregations, and how far their purpose is embedded and promoted as part of the mission of the Church. A look at the history of good works and community use of churches can give us some ideas for how that could work.
Henry Mance, writing in the Financial Times in March this year, commented that Christianity “lends itself naturally” to such Covid-era adaptations by British churches. Mance’s statement is more accurate than he perhaps realises. Not only is caring for one’s less fortunate neighbours central to Christian teaching, but churches have been fulfilling this role for centuries. Throughout the medieval era, the church had a rich culture of good works – and a duty of almsgiving. This culture altered, though did not disappear, after the 16th-century advent of Protestantism. The parish church continued to function as a centre of charitable works.
For centuries, both rich and poor anticipating death would leave bequests to the church for those in need. Alms of bread, grain or small amounts of money were given out in parish churches and cathedrals on feast days, such as Lady Day, or on patronal festivals, by priests or churchwardens. In 1448, Alexander Riston, rector of Salisbury, left his corn to the church of Lydford in Devon, while in 1571 Thomas Lewis, parson of Castell Caereinion in Montgomeryshire, left three shillings and fourpence (around £45) to the “poore ffeeble & impotente people of the said parishe Twentie bushels of Rye”.
It is less well known that community activities spilled over into church buildings themselves. Medieval churches were hectic places with multiple functions. These included the establishment of hospitals, far different from ours. Often founded by monastic houses, they provided care for the poor, infirm, elderly or disabled. Some were guest houses for travellers or pilgrims and infirmaries for the sick; others were essentially almshouses to serve the poor or ageing. Perhaps the most famous is St Giles’s Hospital in Norwich, instituted by Bishop Walter Suffield in c.1249 to aid the poor, and also for the remission of his own sins – a staple consideration for benefactors.
Smaller churches also fulfilled similar obligations, such as St Thomas the Martyr in Southwark, where, in 1400, the “old aisle” was specifically appropriated for the “sick” and “poor” to “lie within the church of the hospital”, allowing the nave to usurp the hospital ward as a place of healing. And, from at least the 12th to early 17th century, fugitives or criminals could seek sanctuary within church parameters, usually for up to 40 days. In turn, the clergy or religious community were legally obliged to grant the culprit safety and even keep them well fed for the duration of their stay. Worship and works simply went hand in hand.
As the domain specifically for the use of, and maintained by, the lay congregation, the nave could be a frenzied communal hub, holding events from general meetings to markets as well as the Mass. Women, children and men of all classes assembled here for a variety of common activities, including sleeping, eating, drinking and performing. With the early medieval arrival of the scot-ale or church-ale, most common in the rural south of England, banqueting even became an officially patronised religious practice. Though technically a money-making feast, gluttony and drunkenness abounded.
So celebrated were these activities, they were often commemorated on the church furniture, commonly as bench ends such as the 16th-century carving of dancers, a piper and crowder at St Nonna’s, Altarnun in Cornwall. Parishioners in one 17th-century Flintshire parish church even claimed, when censured, that their hearty meal on the high altar was custom and practice, all part of their community life. Belief in the sacred nature of the church space also attracted some to seal financial bargains in parish churches, selling land and arranging marriages in a place where an oath had even more weight than elsewhere.
Most of this social and economic activity speaks to the central role that the parish played in the lives of the people, rather than the fact that churches were considered “secular”. Churches belonged to the people, but the people also belonged to the Church, and their faith provided a framework for their lives and activities. Historian Beat Kümin argues that church buildings were, in the right circumstances, “an unrivalled centre of local religious life”. In a sense, this should not be surprising. Community cohesion was of almost unimaginable importance in the past, and activities that focused on the parish were drawn into the life of the church. In this way, the sacred and the profane were difficult to disentangle. The parish church was the centre of community life, of rites of passage and sometimes raucous celebration.
So, what lessons can these observations teach us as 21st-century Christians? Parish life thrives when worship and works are connected by both clergy and laity. This requires a more catholic definition of “sacred” activities, and an understanding that faith, worship and works are inseparable. Pope Francis, in his Evangelii Gaudium, noted that: “Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit.” Knowing one’s neighbours as part of a parish community is at the heart of the church’s mission. It enabled the people of the past to help the needy, but it was done by a cohesive community who worshipped together, played together and supported one another. It should be this cohesion which inspires church communities to offer food to the poor, help for the homeless, or to open up their hall for Covid vaccinations.
If active faith leads to good works for the individual, faith and worship must also be the foundation for social engagement on the part of the parish. Worship drives community life, bringing together people from all backgrounds, which can only bring a greater authenticity to the mission of the church community. These activities must be informed and led by faith, otherwise the Church is little more than another charitable organisation seeking to compete for attention in a wider marketplace.
When works and worship unite, the parish life of the past becomes the model, and the Church can bring to the altar the real meaning of religious community – salvation and solidarity. Fundamentally, the modern, socially active Church is far more “historical” then ever we thought.
Dr Sarah Ward Clavier is a senior lecturer in History at the University of the West of England. Dr Emma J Wells is a lecturer in Ecclesiastical and Architectural History at the University of York
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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