Just begun to read Discovering the Spirit in the City. Even though I’ve only read the first chapter, it’s already started me thinking. Philip Sheldrake writes on ‘Rebuilding the Human City’ – looking at some of the dehumanising forces in modern cities and how we can counteract them. I’m sure he’s right that the city needs humanising, but I think at the same time we’re also divinising it: not making it divine, but recognising again the presence of god and the city’s potential as a place for revealing God to us.
Sheldrake mentions the work of Michel de Certeau, and especially his essay ‘Walking in the City’. Though I’d already read it, I’d done so in purely political terms – I’d never really connected it before with the spirituality of the city. But starting to think in that way, it made me realise what strange and potentially transformative spaces churches are in the life of a city. As environments become more and more controlled: either private, locked, alarmed, or if public, patrolled and photographed – what do you make of an anomalous space that refuses to be either?
A church, for instance, which is open to all comers. No CCTV, no guards, a space open for anyone to come into on their own terms. Somewhere you can wander into and commit small arson in the form of lighting a candle; somewhere you could steal the hymn books if you wanted. Somewhere you can pray in whichever way you feel comfortable, or just go to sleep.
After a long period of consideration, that’s what we did here in Stoke Newington. We know that sometime someone’s going to damage things, but eighteen months in it hasn’t happened yet. What has happened is a constant trickle of people coming and finding to their surprise that they are trusted with our church. One lady has started cleaning the votive candle stand every week – she has no other connection with the congregation.
I hesitate to say it, but I think opening the church is as powerful a witness to the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith as is anything else we do here; and we do it just by failing to lock a couple of doors.