Church buildings and humanist ceremonies

Recently, St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland in Golspie made headlines for deciding not to allow the use of its Fountain Road Hall for a humanist funeral. For the last two weeks, the matter has been covered in the Northern Times, and it is clear that some people are unhappy with the church’s decision.

Appropriate uses for church buildings

What is an appropriate use for a church building? To answer this question, the church needs to turn to the Bible. And here, we immediately run into the problem that the Bible does not say anything about church buildings as such. In New Testament times, churches met in people’s homes. This situation is neither commended nor regretted in the New Testament; it’s just the way it was.

The Old Testament, of course, tells us about the Temple in Jerusalem (and its predecessor, the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting), which could, I suppose, be described as the ultimate church building. But it was one of a kind – God gave special and detailed instructions for every aspect of its construction, which do not apply to other church buildings – and so what the Bible says about what it was used for does really apply to the buildings used by Christian congregations.

So how should congregations think about their buildings? And the answer is that congregations tend to own a variety of buildings – they own church buildings, they own church halls, they own houses for their ministers / pastors to live in – and indeed sometimes they own buildings which don’t come into any of those categories. And since churches in New Testament times didn’t own any buildings, none of these categories is recognized in the Bible. In short, these buildings are merely property that churches own.

So how does a congregation decide what is an appropriate use for a church building? The same way any Christian decides what is an appropriate use of possessions: ask the question “What would glorify and honour God?” Broadly speaking, that means that the building will not be used for anything that would be displeasing to God.  

Furthermore, it seems to me, that there is no Biblical reason for saying that there may be some things that would be appropriate in a church hall, but not appropriate in a church building. So, for example in the case in Golspie, if something would not be an appropriate use of the St. Andrew’s Church Building, it would not be an appropriate use of the Fountain Road Hall.

Humanism

So – is it appropriate for church buildings (including church halls) to be used for humanist ceremonies – e.g. humanist funerals, weddings, and naming ceremonies? At this point we need to ask the question “What is humanism?”

According to Wikipedia, the term ‘humanism’ was coined in 1808 by a Lutheran theologian Friedrich Niethammer, who “wished to introduce into German education the humane values of ancient Greece and Rome.” Many early humanists were Christians, However (Wikipedia goes on to say)

“Since the twentieth century, however, Anglophone humanist movements have usually been aligned with secularism, and today humanism typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centred on human agency and looking to science rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world.”

In other words, when people in Britain today describe themselves as humanists, they generally mean that they don’t believe in God, or they think that if God exists, he has not communicated with us to tell us anything about the meaning of life. Or to put it another way, they believe that Christianity is simply wrong.

And if you look at the websites of British Humanist Association, and the Humanist Society Scotland it is pretty clear that this is where they stand. They proclaim clearly that they believe that this life is the only life we have, and that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side. And notice that these are not minor parts of what humanists believe; they are their core beliefs. You will find them in the very first paragraph of the British Humanist Association website’s description of what humanism is

The rejection of Christianity (and other theistic religions) is what they are all about.   While they never actually use the words “Jesus was completely wrong”, they make it clear that they think he was.

Is it appropriate for Christian churches to allow their buildings to be used by such groups? Does it honour and glorify God to allow the church’s buildings to be used by them? It seems to me that there is a good case for saying that the answer to these questions is “no”.

Perhaps someone will say “But surely Christian churches should allow anyone at all to use their buildings, because that is the generous thing to do?” And the answer to that is “Anyone? Should churches really allow anyone at all to use church buildings, and use them to say anything they want? Are there not some things that people might say that would be so wrong, so offensive, so wicked – that it would be inappropriate for them to be said in a church building? Are there not some organisations whose aims are so obnoxious that it would not be appropriate for them to allowed to use a church building? And I doubt that many people would disagree with that. The only question is “Where does one draw the line?”

So – what about humanists? Many people in modern Scotland may think that there is nothing particularly unacceptable about saying “Jesus was completely wrong”. However, if you are a Christian, then you must regard such a view as dangerously mistaken – and you will regard any organisation whose main purpose is the rejection of faith in God as an enemy of light and truth, and as an agent of darkness and ignorance. And it seems to me that you will draw the line at anything that would give the impression that you regard this group and its message as something acceptable.

Yes, I believe that they the Humanist Society should be free to proclaim their beliefs and argue their cause. But in no way would I want to be seen as suggesting that its message was something that offered anything positive to the world.

The matter of public funding

There was one other matter that was raised in the Northern Times. Some people have pointed out that the church received grant funding for the refurbishment of Fountain Road hall, and suggested that the congregation might be in breach of the terms of the funding. Graham Phillips, a member of Highland Council, is quoted as saying

“I am writing to the board to ask if their decision is compatible with the criteria of funding bodies – such as the Big Lottery – who stipulate that there should be no religious discrimination attached to the projects they support. . . . The funding case was that it was a community facility and would not be restricted to religious use.”

In fact, according to the Northern Times, the Big Lottery was not one of the funders of the project. However, even if it was one of the funders, it seems to me that there would not be a problem. According to the Big Lottery Fund’s quick guide for faith-based organisations, they “regularly fund minor refurbishment and upgrades for the likes of church halls”, adding

“we recognise that these are important assets in many communities, and host a wide range of other groups and activities. However, we would not typically fund a building that is used primarily as either a place of worship or for other religious activities. . . . The main thing faith-based groups need to be aware of is that we cannot fund the practice of religion, or any activities that actively promote religion or particular belief systems (or indeed the lack of belief). This is because these activities could exclude people from accessing a project on religious grounds.”

While I have not read the detailed terms and conditions, I cannot see that any of that in any way conflicts with what St. Andrew’s Church in Golspie have done.

But there is a more basic issue here. What happened was that the congregation decided not to permit a funeral to take place in Fountain Road hall because the funeral was going to be conducted under the auspices of the Humanist Society. They were, in effect saying that they believed that this was something inappropriate – because of what the Humanist Society is and does.

Any hall that is available to the public is going to receive requests from a variety of people who want to hire it, and for a variety of purposes. A lot of these purposes and people are completely uncontroversial. But some of are not. What if a hall was approached about hosting a performance by a comedian who was notorious for jokes in extremely questionable taste? What if a hall was approached about hosting a performance by a stripper? What about if a hall was approached about hosting a public meeting for a political party that was seen as racist or extremist? No funding organisation, be it the Big Lottery Fund or anyone else, is going to say to a hall that applies for grant funding “You have to accept every group that wants to use your hall.” Because most people respect the right of other people to say “no” to certain things.

I think the unhappiness at what happened in Golspie basically arose for two reasons. The first is that many people thought that the church was saying “no” to the family. That is not the case. The church had no problems with the family, or with the gentleman who had passed away, or with their religious beliefs. The church’s problem is with the Humanist Society.

The second problem is that most people don’t think that there is anything particularly controversial about Humanist Society funerals. But would they react differently if the church declined a request for a Satanist funeral or a Nazi funeral? I think a lot of people would. Most people believe that one has to draw the line somewhere – that some element of ‘discrimination’ is acceptable – they just believe that St. Andrew’s Church in Golspie drew it in the wrong place.

 But surely in an open and tolerant society, it is necessary for people to accept that other people that will draw the line in a different place, and respect their decision. 

St Andrew’s Church Golspie has effectively said to the watching world

We believe in life after death, and that God made the heavens and the earth, and that through Jesus Christ (and only through him) we can have everlasting life. We believe these things are important. 

In fact we believe that these things are so important, that we will take a stand on them and say (not just by our words, but also by our actions) that those who deny these truths are pointing people to a way that leads to death, instead of pointing them to the path that leads to life.”

And for that, they are to be commended.

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