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Hallo again to all.

We've all seen the reports that 'church attendance is down at mainstream churches'. There are lots of footnotes and caveats, but the reports continue to say that fewer people care about attending the churches that their ancestors did.

We have not seen any reports describing or measuring a 'church as cultural icon'. Observers take note when people occupy space inside a church. Less note is taken when churches occupy symbolic space inside people's heads. We first realized the depth to which church buildings had become cultural icons when we saw this report of a replica of an English church built on the 21st floor of a Japanese hotel. The owners of the 'Grace' restaurant in Portland, Maine, USA make quite a fuss of its having formerly been a United Methodist church building. And surely you've noticed the ongoing squabble — not quite a battle — in Christchurch, New Zealand over whether the city's Anglican cathedral belongs to the church or to the citizenry. (A survey taken by the diocese reveals that 59% of the citizenry believe that decisions about the future of the cathedral are too important to be left to the church.)

Any clergy person can and will tell you that 'the church' is not the same thing as 'the church building'. That the church is the collection of people who worship in that building. All true, but there is no denying that church buildings have some meaning of their own, some symbolic power. Most older cathedrals are tourist attractions. Some even charge money to tourists while allowing free access to worshippers. Many cities around the world, in preparing guides for tourists and visitors, draw attention to old or iconic church buildings. We've never seen an attempt to analyse the psychology of perceiving a church as a cultural symbol, but there is no doubt in our minds that most church buildings that don't look like a re-purposed house carry symbolic meaning.

Church buildings stand for something. Unbelievably, this is a worsening problem.

As we noted, the reports about church attendance say that fewer people are attending church. We refuse to believe that those people are substantively different from their century-ago ancestors. They are of a different time and place, yes, but their human needs are largely unchanged. The reduced attendance at church indicates that the church community is not meeting their needs. Perhaps those needs are met elsewhere. Perhaps the needs fester.

Without getting quantitative about it, without counting, we think we have seen a notable increase in church building vandalism all over the world. Something is festering. We are lucky that in general in our community people do not express their frustration by shooting guns or exploding bombs. But there seems to be an increase in people expressing their frustration by throwing goat blood on church linens or painting epithets on church walls. Or smashing windows and pews.

Try using your favourite news search engine to search the news for 'church vandalism'. Try different date ranges, both current and historic. Try different countries. You'll see headlines like 'Several churches found sprayed with satanic graffiti' or 'Vandals have scrawled graffiti onto the walls and doors of St Editha's Church' or 'Church targeted in vandalism spree in South Devon town' or (in France) 'Actes de vandalisme à Sicap Mbao: L'église protestante saccagée'.

Now try looking for news stories reporting vandalism of pharmacies or sporting-goods shops or grocers or music stores. Almost nothing. In vandalising a church, the vandal is expressing hostility at what he or she believes the church stands for. The goat's blood might be thrown on the linens or the walls, but the message and motive is more complex.

As we said, church buildings stand for something, and this is becoming a problem. Perhaps if we can understand the thinking and hostility that creates the urge to destroy and disrupt, we can be better evangelists.

Come to think of it, nobody has been as successful a church vandal as were Henry VIII and the ministers of young Edward VI. They certainly did it for symbolic reasons.

See you again next week.

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18 June 2017

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