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The Vicar writes...

Dear friends,  

            Many of us were deeply saddened to see Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris badly damaged by fire last month. It’s thought that the iconic medieval building came perilously close to being completely destroyed. Millions of people around the world watched the drama unfold live on television news and on the internet.

            Notre Dame is a world heritage site and regularly attracted around thirty million pilgrims and visitors each year. Restoring it to its former glory will take many years.

            With so much human suffering in the world it seems strange that people should feel so upset by the near loss of an old cathedral. But Notre Dame is much more than a pile of stones or a museum of religious artefacts. It’s why so many Parisians and visitors came to stand near to the Cathedral, praying and singing hymns. For despite being an officially secular state more than half of the French population identify themselves as Catholic. A number of onlookers who were interviewed spoke of the 850 year old building as ‘the very heart of Paris’. Distances in France are usually measured from the steps of the great Cathedral.

            Thanks to the bravery and skill of the fire fighters it now looks likely that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes and be restored to its former glory.

            Public reaction to the fire at Notre Dame has made me rethink about our Church buildings and what they mean to the communities they serve. We know that the Church is much more than bricks and mortar; it is the Lord’s people; a fellowship of faith in heaven and on earth. In these challenging days for us we have often come to look at our buildings as something of a drain on our resources.

Most of us would also say that we have too many places of worship. Our local Catholic Church serves the communities of Mumbles and Gower. For their one Church the Anglicans have twenty two, sixteen of them medieval. If each were a branch of a bank or retail chain most of them would have closed years ago. But the reason they have survived for so many centuries is because, like Notre Dame’, they remain at the very heart of the communities they serve. As a former ‘Gower Parson’ I know that whether local residents attend services or not most of them like the Church being there, if only for the rites of passage, what we flippantly call ‘hatch, match and despatch’.

When the painful decision is made to close a Church there is often an outcry within the wider community. We saw this, several years ago, when All Saints’ in the Rhondda Fach was closed. Locals staged a well publicised media campaign to save one of the last places of worship in the valley. The Church housed a memorial to the 1885 Maerdy Colliery disaster, which had claimed the lives of 81 men and boys. It was clear that All Saints’ meant something to many in the community, even if they rarely darkened its doors.

Four years ago I felt the loss at the closure of another All Saints’, my old Parish Church in Kilvey, Swansea. There too, there was an unsuccessful local campaign to save it. The building was historic, with important Copperopolis connections and housed an impressive memorial to the 68 men of Kilvey and Pentrechwyth who died during the First World War.

I know that there are proper and financial reasons for making Churches and Chapels redundant, but we have to remember that their closure is always a loss, a bereavement to the faithful and to the not so faithful.

Reflecting on the near loss of Notre Dame has made me realize what I probably already knew; that our Church buildings speak powerfully about the things spiritual to the world. They were designed to impress; to convey a sense of awe, of permanence and of the eternal. Whether you enter a tiny medieval Gower Church, unpretentious Norton Mission or cathedral-like All Saints’, Oystermouth, their unique beauty calls us to that life beyond our own mundane concerns. They humble us and draw us from ourselves to the love of God and of others. They remain testimonies, sermons in stone, and that’s why so many of us love and care for them. It’s why they can be seen as an asset rather than a hindrance to the Gospel.

With every blessing,

 

    

 


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