From the Pews by Tony Gaster

This article was first published in Itchen Valley News, July edition

I have recently returned from a holiday in Thailand, a country and people I like very much indeed. It was my first time on Koh Samui but as an assurance to our younger readers I did not attend the full moon party. However, one day I hired a driver and went for a trip around the island. Now Thailand is a Buddhist country and therefore temples and images of Buddha are naturally part of the itinerary.

I don’t really understand anything about this faith and what the images are supposed to convey. But I could see I was in good company along with many other tourists.

So it made me stop and think. Apart from the obligatory photos and maybe some souvenirs, I wonder what westerners like me get from Buddhism. I must confess, not a lot. Perhaps I need to do some homework here. One of the delightful features of most Thai people is they are incredibly gentle and always have a smile. Is that I wonder something engendered by their faith?

By now you may be wondering where I am going with this but what I want to do is make a parallel. For those who have never set foot in a church or who do not consider themselves to be Christian, I wonder what they make of our churches. Indeed what would Thai people think if I took them around our village churches. What would this say about the people in our community and elsewhere.

Whilst Christianity has been part of English life for a very long time, it’s clear to me that for some it has no meaning. The churches which form part of most towns and villages in our land might be considered either unnecessary or even anachronistic. This might seem a strange thing to say for someone who is a believer but today Christianity is influential but certainly not what it used to be. Indeed some in the community have expressed strong views against anything Christian.

So these buildings, our churches, built long ago as symbols of faith for the community are only held special by a comparatively small group. Is there any difference from my visit to a Thai temple and someone’s visit to one of our local churches? If there is a difference, then what do our churches say to people of our day?

I think the distinction is very important. Church buildings stand in central positions in our villages. They are grand buildings in large plots, often surrounded by burial grounds. Is there then a difference between our four village churches and the one at Itchen Stoke which is largely unused?. Those who don’t know the community may not see a difference but for Christians, our buildings are all used for a whole variety of activities. In the past 10 years or so much time and money has been spent on modernizing and re-equipping to make them better adapted for our time without substantially altering external appearance. All this has been done by local people and not just by the community of faith.

But so far all I have said is about buildings, places to come and look at, take photos of and move on. I think our churches should have a much more important message, because although the heritage of old buildings is a huge asset for the Church of England, it is what happens inside which really matters. Be it a baptism, wedding or funeral or one of the many types of service that are held. Our churches are there for all who want to use them.

Unlike any other organization, there is no membership fee, no form to complete to join, no barrier if you are unmarried, remarried, black, brown or white, academic or practical, wealthy or poor, property owner or renting. The church is there to welcome everyone. Christian people in this community pray for you, for your needs, for your concerns because they believe there is a God who cares and loves us all. I’d like to think that anyone who steps inside our churches will feel that presence of God.

Tony Gaster

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