Church & Sanctuary – my developing understanding

As a child… I attended ‘Oak Hall’ also known as ‘The Hall’ or ‘Chapel’; I went to services, Sunday School, activities… Church was ‘St Paul’s’, or ‘St Mary’s’. I didn’t go to church.

I got older… Anywhere I went to do Christian religious stuff was church – whatever the denomination or tradition. I hadn’t changed my faith or religion but I did go to church.

I was taught… ‘the church’ is ‘the believing community that gathers for worship’. ‘Church’ had two meanings: the building where Christians meet; the people, the faith community.    

I was further taught… ‘church isn’t the building it’s the people’ and ‘you don’t go to church you are church’. …So what do we call the building that I used to call ‘the church’?

Then we attended a church that called the church-big-room ‘the sanctuary’. I knew that the Latin ‘sanctus’ means holy. A sanctuary is a holy place. Some said, ‘This is where I meet my God each week. It’s my holy place.’ OK…

But I can meet God anywhere – walking along the beach, in my bedroom, with friends drinking coffee. Are these all sanctuaries? What’s more holy about the church-big-room? Some churches also use their church-big-room for table tennis, lunch club, toddler groups… Is it still ‘the sanctuary’ then?

I’ve been musing on this for years… unable to bring myself to call our church-big-room ‘the sanctuary’.

Yesterday Tish Harrison Watson enlightened me: ‘The word ‘sanctuary refers to a holy place, but, because churches were once places of legal asylum, the term has also come to mean a place of shelter, a haven or a refuge.’

The penny dropped… a well-worn penny into a rusty old machine… there’s ‘sanctuaries’ all around here… sanctuaries for horses, dogs, donkeys, seals… for animals that are elderly or abandoned… a place of care and safety… to help the sick and damaged recover.

If that’s what our church-big-room is to be, then let’s have ‘the sanctuary’ in big letters above the door!!

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