I’ve been to church quite a lot over the past few days.
On Tuesday I went to “Church” – aka “Temple of Fun”. It is a fusion of many things: vegan cafe bar, arcade bar, live music venue, home to an independent fashion label and a tattoo parlour (“Purgatory”). The place was built as Osborn Works 100 years ago, designed by an architect who was responsible for many Sheffield Methodist churches. However the decor has been inspired by South American iconography – I can’t help but wonder whether the designer/owner has had issues with Roman Catholicism – perhaps putting the confessional to use would be in order (yes, there is one)! Or saying a prayer at the altar with its crucifix, or paying reverence at the gaudy corner with statues of angels, fairy lights, candles, skulls, flowers……… Amazing! Not forgetting the bar with statuettes of the Virgin Mary among the bottles next to a Rambo arcade machine.
On Thursday I went to a friend’s church. This is what she calls her local tea rooms which exude charm and attention to service. The cafe is located in a village-like part of the city where she has lived for many years and is known by plenty of people (even if she is still an incomer!). She spends a lot of time in the place, meeting friends and local people, listening to what is going on for them in life, and sharing her experience of faith when asked to or when it makes sense to say something. My friend meets up with other people, in the tea rooms or elsewhere, with whom she can explore prayer and creativity as expressions of faith.
On Saturday I had a walk out to an Edge (for non-Sheffielders an Edge is a gritstone escarpment found out into Derbyshire). There were plenty of people walking along any number of different tracks on their (life) journeys, all enjoying the Spring sunshine and the views of creation. Birds soared and hovered overhead, away from the Edge small birds sang, there was mysterious mistiness before sunset, and majestic stones pointing heavenwards. My contribution was a smile and “Hello” when people looked in my direction and we briefly encountered each other as Stranger. It felt like a shared communion within the natural world. Was this Church?
On Sunday I definitely went to church. After all, I was meant to be leading a church service. I dressed in smart clothing (not clerical apparel) which made me feel out of place as I walked to and from the church building. The atmosphere in the service was informal and we enjoyed each other’s company, offering a gift of music or a relevant insight. The usual sort of things happened: hymns, prayers, Bible readings, listening to and discussing the Word, sharing bread and wine, offering of money etc. Afterwards we had coffee and cake or tea and biscuits and people continued chatting and catching up with each other’s life events.
And in between all these experiences I have weaved my usual rhythm of prayer in my conservatory chapel. Sometimes I have been glad that God honours my presence despite my unreadiness for prayer and encounter; other, far fewer, times I have sensed a word or understanding lodging itself within me.
So what counts as Church?