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The Little Church around the CornerHallo again to all.

If you've spent any time around Anglicans and listened carefully to our speech patterns, you will have noticed that when we talk about parish churches we also talk about geography. We don't just say 'I go to St Bartholomew's' or 'We went to St Thomas Church' and assume that our interlocutors will know which one we mean. We append the place-name like this: 'I go to St Bartholomew's, Brighton' or 'We went to St Thomas, Fifth Avenue', and immediately there is recognition of the earthly place from which we sent our prayers heavenward.

Though we wouldn't want to make this conversational pattern bear more meaning than it ought—or to claim it as an exclusively Anglican speech-pattern—we're convinced more and more that there is something to it. Bear with us and think back to Homer's Catalogue of Ships as we make our point with some delicious examples. It is easy to begin lists like this, but hard to draw them short.

In one broad category, there are church-dedication-with-toponym combinations that delight us with the way they trip off the tongue:

St Agatha, Brightwell-cum-Sotwell St Ninian, Comely Bank St Peter, Eastern Hill St George, Freezywater
Church of the Nativity, Frog Lake St Matthew, Heart's Delight St Silas, Kentish Town St James, Lark Harbour
St Nicholas, Leading Tickles All Saints, Navesink St Michael and All Angels, Observatory Holy Innocents, Paradise

In another category, there are church names that rely on some generic local feature of the natural world for their rootedness on the earth. They usually combine the name of an apostle or major saint with a preposition and a definite article. They are a gentle marker of the ways in which Anglicans have seen themselves in the landscape as our church has grown and castles, fields and hills have become deserts, mesas and velds. And along with this gentleness also comes humour: jokes about the Church of St Swithin in the Swamp are only funny because they ring true in our experience of archetypal church names such as these.

Trinity on the Hill St Andrew in the Valley St Andrew on the Dunes St Clare in the Cove
St Columba by the Castle St Cross by the Sea St Francis in the Redwoods St Francis in the Wood
St John in the Village St John in the Wilderness St Mark on the Mesa St Martin in the Fields
St Martin in the Veld St Mary in the Highlands St Mary in the Valley St Michael by the Sea
St Paul in the Desert St Peter on the Rock St Philip in the Highlands St Stephen in the Fields

Lastly, there are church names that have in effect become toponyms of their own. One elides the dedication into the location without effort; commas disappear and we're led through the mists to a time when houses of God and gates of heaven were built by craft-guilds, or when long-gone landmarks still stood and Great Fires had not yet happened. And then there is that almost singular example where our grandparents were married, the Little Church around the Corner—not often called anything but its name-in-derision earned in a famous act of charity.

Holy Trinity, Stanley Mission All Saints, Margaret Street All Hallows by the Tower Annunciation, Marble Arch
St Andrew by the Wardrobe St Christopher le Stocks St Clement Danes St Giles Cripplegate
St Lawrence Jewry St Mark, Locust Street St Mary Overie St Mildred in the Poultry
St Olave Jewry St Peter, London Docks St Paul, K Street The Temple Church

The Little Church around the CornerThere is something more lovely, more meaningful, more sonorous in these names that makes them stand out for us as places infused with the love of God incarnate, much more so than Sixth Avenue Memorial Protestant Episcopal Church, Twelfth Episcopal Church or Emerald City East End Anglican Fellowship.

It is a keystone of the Anglican pastoral ideal that a parish church is the church of a place for the people of that place. In sundry times and places, that has been turned into bland but ultimately quite meaningful marketing slogans: 'We're here for you' and the like. Our church names in their delightful variety and attractive descriptiveness are a kind of shorthand for this pastoral commitment, as if to say 'Here among the Redwoods, we are following Christ by emulating St Francis' and 'On this Cove, a place of great beauty, we strive to lead godly lives like St Clare did'. Our parish churches are rooted on earth and pointing to heaven: hyperlinks, if you will. How and whether those links resolve depends on many things. There is a powerful theological lesson about the incarnation here: that the divine is known to us through the material, the heavenly through the earthly, the universal through the local.

A few things, though, are certain: consecration orders assume the perpetuity of worship in a place once it has begun. The good people who gathered in the Veld or in the Fields to consecrate St Martin's began something that was intended to continue until 'sacraments shall cease'. It is also certain that this perpetuity is a kind of stewardship to which our forerunners in the faith have committed us, and to which we have re-committed ourselves time and again. As we take our places in the long chain of parish life, we do well to remember in a joyful way that we're part of something both bigger and smaller than we might be tempted to think. So far from being a sign of the congregationalism that has of late been called a fatal flaw of our tradition, the significant spiritual role of a parish as the place of grace-filled contact with others in the faith is the best expression of catholic localism we know.

The blogosphere-blighted churchscape, to judge by headlines, would seem to be as fractured as it has ever been. But when we look at intersections between churchscape and landscape with their special places 'where prayer has been valid', we can point our minds and affections to the things that are above, remembering that we have this treasure in earthen vessels.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 16 September 2007

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