Think of church and you might think of a modern, open plan worship space; a stage, perhaps, and lighting rigs and a big LED screen hanging on the wall. Or you might think of Europe’s great cathedrals, high ceilings and hushed tones and holy statues lurking in corners. I’m guessing no-one thought of the toilets.
That’s a mistake. And there are three reasons why (aside from the obvious):
We need to think about the toilets because, frankly, in comfortable western societies toilets are taken for granted. The whole messy business of getting sewage in and out of places is something other people worry about. Yet 2.4 billion people don’t have a clean, safe place to go about their business, and while that’s obviously a health and hygiene issue, it’s also an issue of justice – girls around yhe world can’t go to school, or are put at risk of rape, all for the want of decent facilities. That’s why the Toilet Twinning initiative is such a good idea – it can turn your church toilets into vehicles of justice, and maybe that’s the sort of thing that Jesus would have us think about, rather than yet another upgrade to the sound system.
There’s also the issue of dignity. Again, something that’s easy to take for granted, but imagine being out of the house and getting caught short and genuinely being stuck without access to a toilet. That’s an everyday reality for many people with disabilities, something that organisations like Changing Places are working to, well, change. Around 1/2 million people can’t use standard toilets and there aren’t enough disabled facilities out there to grant people the dignity they deserve. Churches aren’t always as welcoming to people with disabilities as they could be; maybe you need to see whether the disabled loo in your church is fit for purpose, or whether it’s just become the place where the mop buckets are kept.
But someone’s got to look after those toilets; someone’s got to fix the leaks, someone’s got to mop the floors, someone’s got to change the loo rolls. And if I know churches, the majority of people doing that are probably pensioners, often elderly women who love to serve the church but who don’t get enough recognition, many of who probably shouldn’t be lugging vacuum cleaners around in the first place but there’s no-one else to do it. Somewhere along the line we ritualised Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; maybe next Maundy Thursday the elders should quietly do a stint cleaning the toilets instead. They should certainly give thanks and recognition to the army of unacknowledged servants who make sure the church is cleaned every week. I believe Jesus honours this work; his church should too.
So this Sunday, when you walk past the church toilets, think about what they might have to teach us. Because it’s in the things we most take for granted that we are often the most challenged; it’s in the most humble of places that God often speaks the loudest.