Several years ago now I took members of our youth group to a Youth Mass in Nottingham Cathedral. During the course of the evening, I was loitering in the cathedral porch with one of our youngsters who wasn't feeling very well and I got talking to a young man who had just extinguished his cigarette in the holy water stoup. In the end, he was too nervous to enter the cathedral despite my best attempts at encouragement, but he told me that the next day he was due in court to be sentenced and was expecting to go down for several months; he felt a strong need to come and have a word with God before his freedom was taken away....he couldn't exactly say why, but here he was on the fringes of a place he thought God might be. Would I pray for him? I still do.
I also remember the gentlemen of the road who used to sleep in our church porch and then use the facilities for a quick wash and brush up before members of the church arrived for the first service of the day. There was a certain amount of suspicion on both sides except for certain individuals who naturally and gracefully crossed the divide between porch and nave, traveller and congregation. It was always much better when these people were around - shared cups of coffee might lead on to interesting conversations after the service. However I did, on one occasion, find someone who should have known better nudging one of the gentlemen awake with his toecap and asked him rather sharply how he would like to be woken in such a manner. The travellers often had a 'word' for the church. One even predicted a major terrorist event a few weeks before 9/11.
Then there was the night one of the bell ringers came hammering on the vicarage door and fetched my husband over to the churchyard where hysterical groaning and crying had been heard. Indeed there was a man pouring his heart and soul out because, it turned out, he and his girlfriend had split up. There was a happy sequel to that one. I met said girlfriend while out shopping later in the week and discovered they had reconciled.
Church porches used to be where coffins were placed and indeed whole funerals conducted. They were also where betrothals took place and sometimes the first part of the marriage service, which represented the betrothal, was conducted at the church door. Churchyards are often places of sanctuary or places to hang out. They can be places of grief - I have seen grieving relatives keep daily vigil beside graves for months on end. Or they can become places of joy and community continuity - picnics on table tombstones at the church fair, reminiscent of the ancient Roman practice of feasting at the burial place of ancestors. They are places of refuge for passers by and for young people in care who have run away from the latest Local Authority home. They are places which represent the mysterious and uncontrollable - our youth group loved to frighten themselves silly by telling tales of supposed 'goings on' in the churchyard. And then there are the flowers, ashes and skeletons of birds and small mammals that appear in churchyards all over the place - tell tale signs of small rituals which have nothing to do with the organised and authorised worship of the church.
The space around a church is liminal space, borderland between worlds, threshold of the sacred and place of protest. It is a place where you find those who have been pushed to the margins of society, whose stories are not heard, who are prevented from participating in mainstream activities or who feel that they have been shamed in some way. I think I have heard more 'confessions' in churchyards than anywhere else. But they are also very mainstream places too - I think of the military parades, the shaking of mayoral hands and the congregational meeting and networking that goes on in the porch and churchyard. And of the way in which churches situated opposite registry offices somehow find their way into the civil wedding photos as 'suitable' backdrops for a life changing event. The space around many churches is potentially one that can become a melting pot for the whole community. It is, not always comfortably, a place where conflicting world views and interests come into direct contact. (Ask any vicar! Sorting out who is allowed to do what in the churchyard probably takes up a surprising amount of his or her time and can be a cause of great tension.)
Rebecca seems to be picking up on something very important in her piece about God's openness. When church buildings become unwelcoming, threatening or are quite simply closed, people decamp to the space around. But the buildings are only a sign of the true church. The church is Christ's family - the people who make up His body. What do our buildings and the space around them say about our attitudes? And what does the space around them say about the degree of effectiveness with which members of the church are engaging with the everyday lives of people? A frequently inhabited churchyard and church porch can potentially tell you a great deal about what is going on in a community, as well as about the kind of understanding of God the people of that particular church have and, crucially, about how the two things do or don't interact. Read the notices, watch who goes in and out, dare to follow up the stories of one or two of the passers through.
I very much agree with a point that I think Rebecca's post is making - there are, every day in every community, a large number of people who feel the need to reach out to something that is of God - some quite inarticulately, in a very spontaneous and unformulated way, and others quite deliberately, seeking out something that symbolises the divine or the hope of the divine. These people, today, are doing something very similar to the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' robe. Did she know where that gesture would lead her? She was desperate. She knew she wanted her life to change. She hoped to be made whole, but she feared anger and derision as much as she craved kindness and relief from her suffering. She did what she did with great faith. Maybe it was a strong faith that had been growing in her for some time as she watched Jesus, maybe it was a panicky, momentary burst of faith. Church porches and churchyards symbolise the vast resource of faith that is expressed by people in liminal places. Profound liminality puts us in uncomfortable places where the norms of our lives are changing or just don't quite make sense any more, places where we feel very vulnerable and need somewhere to turn, or someone to turn to, places where we crave, but don't have, the 'safe place' or hospitality that will allow us to seek for meaning and a way forward. Liminal places are scary places of huge potential and creativity, they are pre-resurrection places. Above all, they are significant as a source of the faith that every church might be welcoming, marking, rejoicing over and encouraging - the faith that might reshape the life of everyone in the community - outside, inside and on the borderland. And this faith might challenge our presuppositions about categories like 'inside' and 'outside'.
When I worked on an outer city estate we didn't have a churchyard but we did have a yard around the church and a porch. One Sunday morning we all turned up to worship to discover that the church had been the focus of an attack overnight. The yard was full of broken glass, tins and bottles, nails, brick, bits of charred fencing from the surrounding houses and rusty barbed wire that had been pulled from the top of our fence. People had urinated and vomited in the porch. We swept and cleaned and sorted and carried most of the debris into the church. There was a sense of despair, 'O Lord, not again,' and everyone was subdued and thoroughly fed up. Then someone had the idea of shaping the pile of rubbish we had collected into a cross. That morning we worshipped round the cross we had made. We lamented and cried and confessed our own inability to do anything about the problems we saw around us all day everyday that led to this kind of behaviour. The cross stayed there for a number of weeks and, one day, the community development worker came in and saw it. Gradually she and few members of the church got together enough volunteers to organise a community festival. An artist saw the cross and incorporated the image into the posters for the festival. Slowly, the memory of the devastation and an appreciation of the utter hopelessness and frustration that had caused the vandalism became the source of a festival of hope which drew the community together. I suspected that some of the people who helped with the festival had also been involved in the vandalism....