Not far from where I live, there’s a holy well, sitting quietly hidden in the shadow of tower blocks. It’s easy to miss, a sacred site sitting in the middle of urbanisation. Passing by, you’d barely notice its existence, but it carries with it history and memory. It tells a story without words, and in doing so it transforms the landscape.
The church, over the years, has latched on to a couple of key ways of telling its story – sermons and music. These will form the basis of most Sunday services; at their best, they’ll work together to promote an atmosphere of worship, at their worst, well, the preacher and the worship leader will be ready to drown each other in the nearest font.
This emphasis on two particular ‘media’ has pushed out some of the other ways in which the gospel story has been communicated over the centuries. Look around an old church next time you get the chance, look at the windows and the walls. The sun will shine through technicolour glass and bring to life the nativity or the feeding of the five thousand, or a host of saints and angels. In the years before most people could read and services were conducted in an alien tongue, stained glass was one of the ways in which people were drawn closer to God.
The same thing goes for the landscape around us. On a hill near where I grew up, a cross was erected for an Easter service one year. Only they forgot to take it down and so the cross remains, visible from miles around. That tells a story too.
Or look at a map. ‘Gospel Oak’ tells you where a wandering preacher would once gather his congregations; ‘Gospel End’ will point you to a parish boundary. Place names often communicate important information – directions, warnings, commemorations… We name our spaces for a reason, and if you know what you’re doing, you can read a map and see stories emerge from the lines and borders and contours. The Bible does this a lot – read the Old Testament and see how many times someone named a place after some defining moment in their life. And then all the people who moved into that place after them remembered what happened there and fixed their identity in their surroundings.
Wendell Berry once said that there are no unsacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places. And sometimes it’s not words or even songs that draw attention to that sacredness, it’s art and memory. They can serve as vehicles for telling stories, or they can tell the stories themselves, and we need to respond to that. The way in which we communicate has changed over the decades, and the church risks being left behind by the future and, ironically, its past – our predecessors enchanted the landscape and embedded a story in the world around them, and so we have a duty to rediscover and reimagine and reawaken those stories etched into the world around us, to amplify them and recapture their original impact.
And then we’ll discover new ways to deploy the artists and storytellers in our midst, and leave new stories in the world around us, letting the generations after us hear our voices and follow in our steps.