When I was growing up we learnt a little rhyme with hand actions about the Church, it went like this: “here is the church, here is the steeple, open up the doors and here are all the people.” Of course, it would have been far more accurate to have said “here is the building, here is the steeple, open up the doors and here is the church”. And whilst I recognise that that version would not win any prizes for poetry, it does get closer to the heart of what the Church really is.
There is a great confusion both within the Christian community and in our wider society about what we mean when we talk about the Church. Over a long period of time we have come to describe the places that Christians gather to meet in for worship as ‘churches’, and this means – I think – that if we asked most people who live in the neighbourhood around us to tell us what the Church, is they would probably point to this great building. When we ourselves think of the word ‘Church’, or when we use it in conversation, we might have this building in our minds as well, and if we do then we are partly right.
Our church building stands as a sign of continuity with the past, of the beauty and creativity of creation, of the mystery and transcendence of God, and most importantly it stands as a reminder that God is present here in this neighbourhood. Anglicans have always known the need to have church buildings in as many localities as possible, because we believe that they provide a sign, and a reminder that God is present in every time and every place – calling people to live in a new and different way within the pattern of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The Blessed Sacrament of the Body of Christ is reserved here, in the aumbry (what some of us may know as the tabernacle) in the sanctuary, as a perpetual sign of God’s presence with us in that great sacrament, not only when we receive Holy Communion ourselves at the Eucharist but within the bread that is kept here as a sign of God’s presence at all other times. That is why the red sanctuary lamp and the white aumbry lamp remain lit throughout the week, as a reminder to any who come into this building that this is a holy place in which God is tangibly present within the gifts of that sacrament. So, even when this building is completely empty, without a person in it, it still symbolises for those who pass by and those who visit here, the presence of God at work in this local community. This building is a symbol, a sign, but at the end of the day it is only a building.
This beautiful church building has been here longer than any of us, and it will be here for longer than any of us in the future. But that does not make it immovable, or permanent for all time. There probably will come a time in the future when it is no longer here in its current form, whether that be in one hundred years time, or one thousand years time; and God will still be at work long after this building is not. Although we like to think of this building as being unchanging, if we stop to think about it for a moment, it has only been unchanging when it has suited us and those who have gone before us. In other words, it has been a building that could not be altered until we decided to alter it: to not finish it according to its original design, to add the St Barnabas Chapel, to move the pews that used to surround the font at the back, to move the altar forward so that the priest could stand behind it, following the great liturgical changes inspired by the Second Vatican Council. When I look at this and other church buildings I try to remind myself that they have been created more like a tent than like an immovable structure. They are a tent within which Christians gather for worship, and fellowship, and they are a sign to those around us.
But there is much more to the Church than simply the building. All of the things that we say about this building we should be able to say about ourselves. Just as it is with this building, we are each signs of continuity with the past, we are each signs of God’s beauty and creativity, we are each symbols of God’s presence at work in this local community. And we are much more powerful and profound symbols with which our neighbours can engage and interact than this building is – because we are living symbols, tangible signs of God in action. So we always need to remember that all church buildings are here to serve the ministry of God and his people, and not the other way around. In other words, the primary purpose of this building is to serve the Church that gathers within it. The primary purpose of those who gather here is not to be defined and to be at the service of the building. That means that when we ask ‘what is the Church?’ the first thing that we can say is that the Church is the people. We meet in a building that we call a “church building”, and which is recognised by others around us as a symbol of God, and that we value greatly. But the Church is not the building, the Church is you and me. This building is not the Body of Christ: we are.
The fellowship that we enjoy as members of the Church is different from our membership in any other organisation that we belong to, because at its heart our fellowship is first and foremost with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, with each other through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not like any other charitable or community society.
As Anglicans we believe in a visible Church, an organised Church, which is publicly able to be seen, and into which people are initiated through Holy Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit. When Prince George was baptised in England recently the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was joining a community – we might say a visible community – of two thousand million people who are baptised. That is not to say that the whole Church is visible now. You and I see each other as we gather for worship and our other ministries week by week, and we know that similar groups are gathering all around the world. Millions of Christians will gather as the visible and organised Church this weekend, to give worship to God and to pray for the needs of the world, and to provide opportunities for others to be gathered to share in this ongoing life of Christ. Those millions are just a very small part of the membership of the Church.
The ‘Church Militant’ (which is the phrase that we use for those of us who are currently alive on earth) is just a tiny part of the whole Church, which includes all those who have gone before us. That is why in a very real way we can never say that the Church is in decline, even if it might look like it in our current generation. To say that the Church is in decline, is to deny that all those faithful departed who have gone before us, remain in communion with us as part of the life of Christ. We might say that the Church is growing less quickly at the current time than it has done in the past, but we can never say that it is reducing in membership.
I say all of this today on this great Feast of All Saints, because it is on this day more than any other, that we are conscious of the communion that we share in the life of the Church with the Saints in Heaven, and as we prepare to solemnly remember and to pray for those who have died at our All Souls service on Sunday evening. These two observances – of All Saints and All Souls – remind us that the Church has a kind of two tier system for those who have gone before us and who are held within the life of Christ. There is the group who have been recognised by the Church as Saints, the ones we celebrate at this Eucharist, and then there are all those other people who have departed this life – and for whom we hope for salvation and eternal rest in Christ. In other words, there is a separation between those people who the Church has come to know as Saints, and the rest of us – those people we have known who have died – who are still in some way on the way to sainthood. We distinguish these with our different liturgical colours: white and red for saints and saintly martyrs, and purple, at funerals for the rest of us.
That manifests itself most clearly in our Christian thinking, not only in this separation between All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but in the different attitudes which we have to prayer in relation to all of those who have died. We are conscious that the Saints (the ‘Church Triumphant’) join us in the one great prayer of the Church to God – we might for example have a sense that we pray with them, because we believe that they are alive and in the presence of God right now, offering worship and praying with us. We do not pray to them, but we somehow gain strength from praying with them. On the other hand, and in contrast, we ourselves remember in our prayers all those who have died, who the Church has not yet come to recognise as Saints, who we call the ‘Church Expectant’. That may mean that we remember in our prayers quite specifically people who we have known and loved who have died – regularly or on the anniversary of their deaths. This is a normal and proper part of our way of life, and an expression of our love for those who are no longer with us, and it is what we will be doing on Sunday evening. We do not pray for the Saints, because the Church teaches that they do not need our prayers – they are already in the eternal presence of God. That’s why we pray with Saint Peter, for example, in our intercessions, and not for him; but we do continue to pray for all those souls who we have loved, and who we long also will be in God’s presence as well.
On this great Feast Day we are reminded that we are surrounded by the Saints of God: because they are in God’s presence now we do not think of them as being in the past, because they are alive with us in the present. In a very real way God’s saints are our contemporaries. They are with us as we worship, which is why the altar’s in this church building have icons placed on them, which you might like to come and look at some time: a visual reminder that when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist the saints gather with us.
On this great Feast Day we remember that the Church is much bigger than we could ever imagine. Christ’s body includes all those who have gone before us, both the Saints in light that we remember at this Eucharist, and all those who we have loved, who we will remember on Sunday evening, who are themselves on the way to sainthood. So be encouraged my friends, we gather in this building as one small part of God’s Church, God’s People, his Body – the Church Militant here on earth, the Church Expectant on the way to sainthood, and the Church Triumphant living in the radiant presence of God for eternity. We give thanks that we are not the first people to muddle through what it means to live lives that point to Jesus, and we will not be the last, and we draw strength and inspiration from all those who have gone before us. Most importantly we remember that we have not been left alone. God’s Spirit is with us, and his saints surround us as we seek to serve him for his glory.