Bare ruined choirs, where once the sweet birds sang… –William Shakespeare
There is something uniquely melancholy about a ruined church, I always think. Ruined castles are sometimes sad, too, especially when they bear the marks of violence. Abandoned homes always seem forlorn, as if they are fruitlessly waiting for the return of their former masters. But churches are different. They are where people worshipped, and prayed, and rejoiced in God. In a time when all labor was done by hand, it might have been easy to build small, plain churches so that time could be freed to work on ‘more important’ buildings, like castles or fortifications—but instead workers lovingly built grand, ornately carved cathedrals, some of which took more than two centuries to complete. I’m sure that there were some bad motivations—lords competing with each other to decide who could build the most beautiful building, abbeys more interested in showing off their wealth than helping the poor—but I am not willing to be overly cynical. Most people, I would guess, remembered for whom the church was actually being built, and saw the building as it really was—a thanksgiving offering, and a reminder of God’s grandeur. To see a church destroyed is heartbreaking.
All of this was running through my mind last weekend, when I visited Scotland. The last night of my stay a friend and I walked up above the city on a line of cliffs overlooking the sea. On an outcropping of rocks we found a church that had just one wall still standing, and a few tumbled rocks where the foundation had been. The plaque beside the ruin said that it had once been St Anthony’s Chapel, an outpost of a nearby monastery dedicated to helping people with skin ailments. People had gone there for healing and for care—and now it was merely barren wreckage, considered (when it was considered at all) as a historical artifact rather than as a living place of worship. I made a comment about the melancholy of ruined churches to the friend who was with me. Her reply surprised me. “I don’t know. I always think ruined churches say something about the impermanence of humanity.” She paused. “Not the impermanence of God.”
This comment moved me. By temperament, I am a religious historicist. The ancient traditions of the church are important to me, and I am helped in my worship by the knowledge that the liturgy or the church I am using has been used by successive generations of Christians for hundreds of years. I find it easier to focus on God when I am in a place that has been made holy by dedication to him. I certainly don’t believe that this is the only way to worship, but I do think that it echoes something true: the Church will survive past the end of this world. She is the eternal bride of the Lamb, and there will be no end to her rejoicing. The details of what this means are perhaps debatable, but at the very least we know that time will not erase all marks of the Church.
At the same time, as my friend reminded me, it is important to remember that the outer trappings of the Church, the liturgies and buildings, are not the Church herself, and that the Church is not God. There is something natural in the passage of time—and, because death is not eternal, this passage does not have to be bitter. Old churches fall into ruin, but new churches are built. Old hymns stop being sung, but new hymns are composed. Humans are impermanent—we are like wildflowers, quickly withered, and even when our works survive us, they too will eventually crumble into dust. But God remains, through each generation, and he has promised that he will be with us, no matter what else is lost. Even if all sanctuaries were destroyed, God would remain—and in this hope we can find great joy.