I am writing this from the the crowded seat of the ‘quiet carriage’ of a Cross Country Trains Edinburgh – Penzance express. Frankly express is a bit of a misnomer. This particular train is currently 57 minutes late and I suspect I have missed my connections home to Warminster from Bristol Temple Meads.
Travelling by train was once a joy in this country, or so I am told. Growing up in a family of Railway Men, I was regaled with stories as a child of God’s Wonderful Railway or as most people new it the GWR. The railway system in this country prior to 1948 was the envy of the world. It ran smoothly and on time, carrying many times the numbers of people travelling today without trouble or delay. The Big Four Railway companies, as they were known took pride in their services and their staff were courteous and well trained. Or at least that is how they were remembered.
If you travel as I did by rail today, you will see sad reminders of the once glorious heyday of rail travel in Great Britain. Empty track beds where redundant lines have been pulled up, the occasional hint of an old redundant station, ‘dead’ carriages in long-forgotten sidings and rusty freight tracks leading into a business that now ships everything by road or air.
The railways along with some other British institutions have become shadows of their former selves.
The same accusation is often leveled at the Church. The country is littered with beautiful (and some frankly terrifying) Church buildings, many of which we are told are empty, or just used occasionally. These buildings, once hubs of their communities are apparently devoid of worshippers, empty every Sunday and these days now served by a Vicar who is responsible for 10 other buildings as well.
Perhaps elements of this are true. And those of us involved in Church life perhaps lament a ‘once glorious’ past where everyone in the community attended Church. The truth is far different though. Most of our buildings in the Church of England at least are actually the result of a sort of ecclesiastical one-upmanship engaged on by Victorian noteworthies. Most of these Gothic landmarks have never been full – any Church that can seat 700 people built in a village of 400 hundred is never going to be full!
I am not suggesting that all the stories of falling numbers of ‘bums on pews’ are wholly inaccurate, but I would suggest that such stories are exaggerated.
As the Church celebrates its Birthday this month on the day of Pentecost, we look back at nearly 2000 years of heritage and history. But we do not dwell there pretending there is some kind of glorious past to recall. We look to the future, because rumours of our death have been exaggerated. The Church is not dying – the Church cannot die – it belongs to God, not us.
We have made mistakes in the past, some that shame us as Christians today, and I am sure we will make mistakes in the future too – that is because we are human and God by choosing to use us to do his work accepts and forgives our mistakes.
As we celebrate our Birthday as part of the world-wide Church – the body of Christian believers why not come and join us, see how the Church today is well and truly alive and kicking.
This article is published in the June/July 2009 Christ Church Parish Magazine