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Hallo again to all.

Sort of openOne of our favourite pastimes has always been the exploration of new places: neighbourhoods, towns, villages and rural places we've never seen before or had long wanted to investigate further. Inevitably, our feet or cars wend their way—of their own volition of course—in the direction of churches. Even if we do not arrive during service-times, the churchyards, architecture, outbuildings, signs and even locations of churches never fail give us some insight into a community and its local way of Christian living.

No matter the time of day, we make a circumambulation or two of the church grounds, ending up at a likely-looking door where we try our luck with the knob or knocker. About one time in ten, the doorknob is a satisfying, surprising way into a hidden world we would never have known had we not ventured to try it outside the space of four or five hours a week. The other nine times, the doorknob doesn't turn and there is no sign of an open church office, side-door, or other way in. Even when a cast-iron sign such as the one above alerts passersby to a given church's openness for prayer, it may not be the case that a church is open. (On Saturday, when we visited the church pictured here, all doors were locked despite the presence of this sign. We tried, tried and tried—six locked doors, if memory serves—until we had the good fortune to meet the parish organist who had just arrived to practice the next morning's service music. He let us in, and made the sign true with gracious hospitality.)

We're familiar with many of the reasons given for keeping churches locked: we have no staff present during the day; candlesticks, icons, treasures of every kind could be stolen or defaced; our heating, cooling and electrical bills are already too high; open doors could lead to violence against church workers; visitors could become temporary tenants, spending too many hours in church. There are as many situations that make the case against or for open churches as there are churches themselves.

That said, there are places where churches are nearly always open at least in daylight: here, here and here for example. Their examples are worth examining for the parish that would like to have its doors unlocked more often. And there are many other places at which a church secretary, sexton or priest is present for a few hours during the course of weekdays when doors could be opened temporarily. A handwritten note could direct visitors to the church office, where someone may be able to let them in. A sign could note that 'though we're not open today, we're glad you visited. We hope you can call some other time, such as XYZ'. A locked door next to a sign that says 'we welcome you!' is just a locked door.

It is a common trope to lament that the Church has lost influence; and so it may be. The prominence of churches at times of history in civic life—think sanctuary—art and commerce did stem in large part from the availability of the church premises for such activities. But lest we think that church buildings have always been open, during those glorious days of sepia-toned Anglicanism, our old friend John Mason Neale reminds us that it was not so, but needed to be, in 1844:

The cottager's wife, with her large family, her two rooms, her continual interruptions, now scarcely able, morning and evening, to devote her little ones to God; would she not hail, as an inestimable privilege, the open church? The mechanick, pent up all day in the stifling manufactory, returning to an equally stifling apartment, crowded [...] with ten, twelve, fifteen inmates; are his prayers private? The labourer returning from toil in the sweat of his brow, if to an affectionate, yet to a noisy, family, would not he rejoice to go in, for a few brief minutes, to the open House of God, and there to recommend himself, and his, to his Heavenly Father? Can these, and such as these, enter into their closets, and pray to their Father, which seeth in secret?

Though we know a world today that is different in striking ways from the one in which Neale taught a new generation to sing God's praise, much of what he says still rings true. The commuter en route to or from the train may want—nay, need—five minutes of calm between office and travel. The newcomer to a community may want to see a church without people before she decides to come on a Sunday when there are people. A retiree may attempt to use an extra hour each day for prayer with the zeal some give to golfing or marathon training. The fast-food chain employee who has spent many hours in bright light and noise may want—nay, need—time to listen to or talk to God between shifts. An open church answers all of these perennial needs in a way that no other place can.

It is not that we cannot pray anywhere but in churches; it's also true that gyms are not the only places in which we can exercise. But churches and gyms are both built for specific purposes, building on the wisdom of many generations about what works for holiness or strength-building. If we are eager to send home the message that prayer is an activity that should take place outside of Sunday morning, it behooves us to think of ways in which it might be possible to open with more regularity the buildings built for that purpose. The unacceptable alternative is that we protect our artworks and candlesticks at the expense of closing doors to people who seek to deepen, begin, renew, refresh or recharge their life-giving relationship with God. Such doors are not ours to close, and we suspect the benefits to be seen from having them open will make us wonder why we ever locked them at all.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 31 August 2008

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