I attended an open-air service this weekend, at our local parish church. Our family has moved house recently and we haven’t yet settled into a new church. But this open-air gathering seemed hugely appropriate right now, just after Easter.

First of all, this church sits next to a large green space where people of all ages come to meet out of doors, walk dogs, throw frisbees, etc. So our outdoor worship event felt like a public witness: a community’s reminder that there are followers of Jesus in their midst – people who find it worthwhile to gather on a chilly spring morning to raise their voices in worship and hear again the story of the first Easter.

Second, our open-air service took place in a graveyard. Normally I walk through graveyards only to get to the other side, unless I’m actually visiting the grave of a family member (and I doubt I’m unusual in this). Occasionally I pause to look at the years inscribed on gravestones, and note the ages of the deceased. But as we said the Apostles’ Creed, intoning “I believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”, I couldn’t help feeling it rather appropriate to be gathered among the dead in Christ. One day I will join them, unless the Lord returns sooner, and I too will await resurrection. I suppose that those who have already died in Christ number more than we believers who are currently alive, at least among the English if not in people groups where the church is growing fastest. So these gravestones represent a significant cloud of witnesses. Perhaps we ought to make more space for them in our public devotions?

The third way in which it was appropriate is simply that a key point in the Easter story is when the angels ask Mary, Joanna and Mary, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). And indeed, we the congregation were looking past the gravestones around us to the microphone stand from where Bible readings and a homily were delivered. The backdrop was also inspiring: a centuries-old stone building [1] where believers have gathered through dozens of generations, with an enormous yew tree that looked as though it might be almost as old. And more inspiring still, to me, was the blue and cloudy sky above. I’ve long found something romantically uplifting about breezy blue skies with clouds at Easter time, which I like to think is related to what the angels at Christ’s ascension said about Jesus returning in the same way that he was seen to leave, in clouds (Acts 1:11). Or perhaps it’s just the exhilarating sense of freshness and light.

I do believe that the fellowship and witness of a living church are of more pressing concern than a building, a graveyard, or even a set of memories of deceased believers. But this weekend’s experience has reminded me how much can be lost when we take our worship behind closed doors in a clean room with bright lights and loudspeakers that betrays no hint of the location in God’s world where it sits, and leaves no space for non-human creatures… in fact this experience of corporate outdoor fellowship helped to remind me of the essence of worship – something that doesn’t need polish or performance to be powerful. Although I don’t tend to identify as an Anglican, this experience has reminded me of the miracle of how accessible, down-to-earth and yet mysteriously spiritual a parish church can be.

Congregation outside church

I’m sure many of us are currently wondering how the local church, and Christian witness more broadly, will turn out to have been affected by the prolonged lockdowns of the last year. My prayer for now is that believers will not only value more highly than before the opportunity to meet together, but will also press for church teaching and activities to be more relevant to all of life, not least in education, business and its post-Covid evolution, and the shaping of public policy. One thing we could all do after the lockdowns is to participate with renewed diligence in church small-groups, where practical ideas can be shared and developed. Any other ideas?

[1] An introduction to this particularly beautiful church is available on YouTube.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]