Sunday, July 16, 2017


The Minster’s ten bells rang out between 11.30am and 12.30pm yesterday, the second of four towers in a regional bell-ringers’ Ringing Ramble.

When I arrived sometime after twelve, for the Summer Fayre that was to begin once the bells fell silent, I noticed a man I had not seen before, sitting by himself in a middle pew, taking in his surroundings.

After a while, I went across to him. I introduced myself as Andrew. He introduced himself as George [1]. I sat down next to him, and we got talking.

George told me that he had come in, drawn by the sound of the bells. He had walked past many times before, but never been inside. In fact, he did not know that the building was an open one [2]. But he had heard the bells, and had stood outside for some time, before someone came along and told him that he could go inside.

With tears welling in his eyes, George told me that he could never have imagined what he would have found inside, but that he felt as if he had won the lottery.

As he continued to talk, and I continued to listen, George turned to the subject of suffering. There were so many different views, it was confusing. Some saw suffering as evidence that God does not exist. Others, as reason to not worship God. Others claimed that if you believe, God would protect you from suffering. It was confusing. The only thing that made sense to him was the experience of sitting here, in this place he had not known about till now.

In this, George reminded me of one of the Psalms [3], in which the psalmist wrestles to make sense of the world, until he went into the sanctuary of God, and there perceived a deeper reality. And it did not surprise me: after all, George was sitting in a space where people have contemplated mystery for a thousand years.

Only then did George go on to reveal that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When the doctor had tried to explain the implications to him, he had stopped them: ‘I already know; my mother and my grandmother both had this before me.’ He was still quite lucid—although he was aware of having memory issues, the only obvious tell-tale sign was when I asked his age, and he told me he was 48: George clearly was not 48—but his fear was informed, and it was clear that he was grieving a future that would be taken from him by degrees.

More than once, George told me that he felt as if he had won the lottery. For what he had found was a safe place, sanctuary, somewhere he could come and sit. A place that holds memories, before God, for as long as is needed—far beyond the memory of any individual. A place in which George found himself, like many before him, sitting in God’s embrace.

More than once, George asked me if he was keeping me, from something more important. No, I reassured him: I was there to sit with him, for as long as he wanted. That was why I was there—and I’m grateful to have had that space held for me by other members of the congregation who were doing other things around us, all the while aware of us, and holding us in prayer.

Church is more-than a building, more-than place; but it is never less-than place, and often not less-than building [4]. This is certainly part of the charism of our church, rooted in our community. We are God’s people, sent to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—has come alongside us, in joy and in sorrow—among an aging population, increasingly living with dementia. In being sent, in living among this people, we are also able to gather: to experience sanctuary ourselves, and to say to others, Come and see!

This is something worth our reflecting on.

[1] In fact, I have changed his name, to respect his privacy; but I felt important that he should have a name in this story, not just a(n im)personal pronoun.

[2] George is not alone in this misapprehension, despite an open door, signs, and people coming in and out of the building throughout the day, every day of the week. We need to get much better at word-of-mouth.

[3] Psalm 73.

[4] This is certainly true biblically: just consider how the churches of the New Testament are addressed in letters, as the church in such-and-such a place, or that meets in so-and-so’s home.

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