Camping In A Church

Camping In A Church February 19, 2019

This is interesting, if vaguely depressing. For the world wanderer, collecting interesting places to stay, various churches in England and Scotland are available for what they’re calling ‘champing,’ that is, camping in a church.

Taking a page from the glamping phenomenon—very expensive glamour camping that in no way resembles actual real camping, most especially because of how much you pay for it—camping in a church is a way to experience beautiful architecture and history first hand, beyond the desultory drive by or stroll. You pay a little bit—more than you might expect, but not near so much that the experience is out of an ordinary traveler’s reach—and you have the whole place to yourself for the night. The churches are not deconsecrated, some of them still have services occasionally, so of course it is important to be respectful when you’re there, cuddled up in your sleeping bag. The money you pay goes towards general upkeep. In this way, everyone wins.

The article itself is a telling relic for anyone documenting our new post-Christian anthropology.

I lie on my camp bed, gaze at the vaulted ceiling and marvel at the intricacy of its wooden seraphim. I’ve never slept in such a large space before. The ornate carvings and the spectacular stained-glass windows were probably quite ‘bling’ in their day but this is a truly inspiring space. I’m not a religious person but before I fall asleep I ponder the faith that drove Whitwell Elwin to build such an incredible building. His commitment and slightly mad ambition is a source of wonder. Late at night, this deeply restful place feels like one man’s vision of heaven, or at least a house of profound peace that is on its way there.

It’s what we do now. We search out ‘inspiration.’ We ‘ponder the faith’ of other people who enacted it, who lived it out in stone and marble, who themselves traveled far and wide to spread and propagate it. But that’s as far as it can go, because in the morning there is the bustle of rolling up the sleeping bag, folding up the cot, packing up the car, and assessing the town which has a ‘boutique hotel’ and a really good breakfast.

Blow the dust off a prayer book, enjoy a glass of wine which “has always been part of the ritual of church services,” lie back in your cot and stare at the gorgeous ceiling, and then pass on to your regular well-appointed life in which you remain the center, the measure, the truth.

I am often sad walking through our cinderblock parish hall pondering to myself—which is a very Christian thing to do, by the way, along with the glass of wine, it goes all the way back to our ‘founding’—that curious question of ecclesiastical taste, and church budgets. Whoever designed our hall either didn’t think, or didn’t know to make it prettier and better. The whole building seems hastily built, and then hastily remodeled. The cavernous, unprepossessing hall was constructed with an eye toward church dinners and bingo. The nave itself is open and light, but not in the least architecturally arresting. Matt likes to call it the Brady Bunch church because—well, that’s what it looks like. It’s not the kind of place for which you would pay money to spend the night.

Not that you couldn’t stay there, in a pinch. When a portion of our town flooded we opened up the parish hall for people who had bleakly watched the water come all the way up into their living rooms. We blew up air-mattresses, put out a call for extra blankets, and tried to make a screen out of some gray office cubicle dividers. But it was awkward, uncomfortable for them, and embarrassing for all the people wandering through. Nearly every day there is something going on in that room—bible studies, classes, soup kitchen cooks popping by to see if there’s anything edible in the fridge. When we invited the flooded to come up for building’s purpose, worshiping a transcendent and holy God who took on human flesh so that we could be rescued out of the power of sin and the darkness of hell, they shuddered and quickened the search for new lodgings.

No one would ever lie back and ‘ponder the faith’ of the person who built it, nor any of us who inhabit it now. You would not be in awe. You would not think of heaven.

And yet, you wouldn’t, probably, if you stayed for an actual service, quietly go back to your well arranged life without having some kind of reaction, even if it was only to huff and be annoyed.

Anyway, isn’t there something in the Bible about camping? Or some sort of house? How strange that old church buildings themselves would be inhabited by wanderers, people going from one place to another, not staying long. That’s what the human experience is supposed to be. Not too comfortable, too attached, but always keeping an eye on that looming reality of the life to come. If an empty church isn’t the place to proclaim the One who came to drag us up out of the mire into his own place, perhaps it is better to pass on and find some more plain, less inspiring place to while away the time.

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