While on holiday in Whitby we visited the famous St mary's Church which sits beside the ruined abbey, on the exposed headland. This is a fascinating building, with box pews, the best positioned and best appointed were family owned, and a church maid was paid to keep them clean and free from soot and dust from one sunday to the next.
The architectural furnishings reinforced those social divisions, and remain monuments to social arrangements with which the church has too long colluded. Those boxed pews were so high it is unlikely anyone of smaller stature would see much beyond them, and so enclosed that it was possible to be in the house of God in your own wee room, not inconvenienced by the visible presence of other human beings. The high pulpit meant the preacher could at least see the heads of the congregation, but how there could ever be a meeting of hearts, or anything like human communication across the chasms of social convention, architectural exclusion zones, and rhetorical remoteness is hard to imagine. The one positive surprise was the notice on the pulpit about the hearing tubes and the Rector's wife. The idea of the Rector's wife having her personal loop system 200 years ago is an early recognition of inclusion, an ironic gesture before its time, of building modification to accommodate those with disabilities, albeit a privileged member of the congregation.
Now, with the rapid decline of Christian influence in society the church, established or not, is having to come to terms with a different social context which will require a different configuration of Chrstian community, and a radical change in how Christians understand mission, the gospel and the world in which that mission and that gospel are to be embodied, proclaimed and made present. Sitting in that old church, established, respectable, visited by tourists out of curiosity, viewed as a museum of a faith threatened with extinction in the polls and comments of our data fascinated culture, and already with the smell and feel of a long history of disengagement, I felt both poignancy and the slip towards acceptance, resignation and inner adjustment to anticipated loss.
But just as quickly I felt the no of the Holy Spirit, that inner defiance of observed realities that we call faith, trust in a deeper and more enduring reality which is the life and gift and activity of God. The work of the Holy Spirit in guiding, enabling and driving the mission of the church, convicting the world of sin and its own brokenness, as creator and guardian of creation in a world trashed and rubbished by our consumerist obsessions, and as the transforming gift of God in Christ calling and creating community in the Kingdom of God - that work of God is to be prayed for, and our lives to be given to God, that he may bring to completion the work he has started in those leaven-communities of believers, called to be salt and sent to be light.