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Hallo again to all.

We've always enjoyed great church and cathedral buildings. We shall never forget the time, exploring inside the octagon of Ely Cathedral, that we saw a great oaken beam with carpenter's marks chalked in Roman numerals: it predated the use of Arabic numerals in Britain. We felt a strong bond with the workers of so many centuries ago, and could feel how they had expressed their faith in part through their contribution to that monument to God.

We were thrilled to encounter not long ago a complete set of photographs of churches in Northamptonshire (England) by Graham Battison. They're on two pages, A-L and M-Z. Splendid photography of splendid church buildings; each is a regional treasure and several are national treasures. Interior of a very old churchBut their value is not today so much as houses of worship as works of art and architecture. Beautiful, timeless, and artistic, but almost always vacant. You'll have a hard time finding images of a person (or parson) in any of Mr Battison's magnificent photographs, because they are pictures of buildings and not of congregations.

Some weeks later we were in a declining urban area in the USA and visited an Episcopal church building that seemed to be at the brink of ruin. Set curbside on a rundown street in an industrial neighbourhood, its neglected walls were concrete, not stone. Photographing it would have required standing in the middle of a four-lane road carrying traffic to and from warehouses and railway terminals nearby. The people that it had been built to serve were mostly gone; a skeleton congregation of stalwart parishioners who remembered its glory days still attended on most Sundays, but the parish was more or less dead, and the demographics of the surrounding city told us that it would never be revived.

We realised that hardly anyone outside its dwindling congregation would shed a tear when that decaying US urban church closed and its worshipers scattered. The church building was built when it was needed — and will be torn down when it is needed no longer.

We choose to ignore all of the shrill voices screeching 'the church is dying because of xxx', and consider individual churches to be part of a cultural life cycle that is part of civilisation. Economies change, villages and towns and cities grow and shrink and change. People migrate. Jobs migrate. Buildings do not. Buildings get left behind. And we can't help but think that, in a sense, the bishop responsible for those ancient and beautiful buildings in Northamptonshire has a much harder job on his hands than does the US bishop in whose diocese sits that decaying and near-empty church. We wouldn't go so far as to suggest that church buildings ought to be homely and utilitarian so that in the future there will be fewer tears shed when they must be torn down, but it does give us pause. We remain thankful that our own parish church is attractive and welcoming. It's where two or three come together, after all.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 4 December 2005

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