Wandering along in West London the other evening, I noticed a very beautiful old church. It was huge, sprawling across the corner of two roads, and had lots of lovely old stained-glass windows carved out of the cool, grey coloured stone. It was at least 3 stories high with pinnacles and a couple of trees growing against the walls. I stood admiring it for a while and took a photo. How beautiful. However, as I looked to the lower levels I became confused, or enlightened maybe, as I realised it had been turned into shops and cafes, and probably highly priced apartments at the top. Still a beautiful building but such a shame it’s no longer a church.
It’s not the first Church or religious building to be unconsecrated and turned into shops, flats or even a pub of course and I’m sure it won’t be the last, far from it. But it got me thinking about how our society is changing so rapidly and how it is affecting us. Local churches once brought together the whole community, whether rich or poor, sinner or sinned against, young and old, to worship together regardless of what the week had held. But not anymore. if we are at a loose end we are encouraged to think of wandering to our local shopping centre rather than our local church.
Upon investigation, I found that, according to some reports, over 500 churches have closed in London in recent times i.e. since 2000, (while over 400 mosques have opened) and since 2001, over 500 churches in London have been sold as private homes. As far as our state religion, the Church of England is concerned, the number of British people stating they are a member is dropping each year, and those without a religion seem to outnumber those who say they are Christian. So, no wonder congregation numbers are dropping, and churches are being sold off.
But I can’t help feeling this was hastened by the relaxation of the Sunday Trading Laws – another case of the state undermining our traditional way of life. Those who used to work Monday to Friday (or Monday to Saturday in the case of retail staff or similar) were at first reassured they would not have to work Sundays if they didn’t want to. But of course, this was soon forgotten, and they were often made to sign new contracts, which not only treated Sunday as a normal working day but got rid of any chance of overtime if you did work a Sunday (or Bank Holiday). This effectively undermined the traditional idea of all the family being at home together on a Sunday and seeing grandparents, cousins etc. Not everyone went to Church on a Sunday anyway of course, but many still followed the traditional Christian values we have always lived by in the UK. It is all part of a constant ‘drip drip dripping away’ at our way of life.
If Sunday is just a normal working day then there is not even the impetus to try to make it a relaxed and special day for spending time with your family, which is, of course, part of our heritage. Other religions have their day of rest on different days – perhaps a Saturday or Friday – of course, but my point is that now NO day is special or a rest day. There is no time for rest when there is money to be earnt, expensive coffee to be drunk, and more things to buy. And if a family does spend Sunday together more often than not you see them trawling round the shops together or sitting in coffee shops while their kids run around trying to amuse themselves playing in a shopping centre or café rather than their own back garden. Back in the day kids went to Sunday School often just to give the hardworking parents a rest, but either way, they were learning about community and doing things together that didn’t involve shopping or working. Whether you were religious or not, often the Church you belonged to was a big part of your life and you felt part of that community. Now it seems there is no time for all that, and only those who are firm believers and determined to worship will go to Church. It is no longer the basis of our community or beliefs. There is no moral guideline or community support from the Church for the general population because religion and the sanctity of a day of rest have been systematically undermined by the state.
So, we are back to the beautiful Church I saw. Transformed into shops, cafes and highly expensive apartments it symbolises for me our new religion – the cult of SHOPPING. Shopping is, after all, our main job and purpose. We cannot be distracted from this in any way. So how fitting that our beautiful churches are being sold as luxury apartments or temples to shopping, or as those establishments that ensure people work all the hours that God can send – restaurant and cafes. Our new temples of worship are icons to the new religion of spending money on things we don’t need.
If like me, you love the sound of Church bells, I suggest you savour them now as much as you can. I feel we are increasingly facing a future without one of the once most beloved staples of our communities – the local Church.