It was fitting that the Archbishop of Canterbury should come to Bury St Edmunds last week – the home, over 1,000 years ago, to one of the most important Abbeys in Western Europe.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about religion. Interest declared: I am the grandson and great grandson of Anglican vicars. But I am also a politician who does not bang on about it.
As I sat listening to Justin Welby’s address last Saturday evening in our packed Cathedral, he told us two important things about our part of Suffolk. (He also did a service on Saturday morning as well – and I can’t help thinking this has something to do with our outstanding Dean, Dr Frances Ward, one of the most senior women in the whole of the Church of England).
First, his presence reminded us of how very significant our town is – in national terms. Indisputably the most civilised, aesthetically pleasing and unspoilt county town in the whole of the United Kingdom, it also outcompetes its rivals when it comes to notable celebrations. Consider that recently Her Majesty the Queen has visited us not once but twice. She has distributed the Maundy money at our Cathedral. Then she visited again during her Jubilee. In addition, Prince Charles has visited to commemorate Bury’s great modern architectural achievement – the great Gothic revival Millennium Tower – and then again for the unveiling of the new vaulted ceiling.
The second point the Archbishop prompted in my mind is what does the church do in the community and would we miss it if it disappeared? The Archbishop had good answers to this question but the one that struck me most of all was what he said about Suffolk church buildings.
He was certainly right to say that these are among the very finest in the country, conceived (he reminded us) to be as much monuments to the rich wool merchants that funded them as to the greater glory of God. Interestingly, they always also had many more seats than there were actual inhabitants in the surrounding local villages.
These fine buildings are still very much with us today. They have stood for centuries and the Archbishop made it clear that under his guidance they would still have a very important role in the twenty-first century. He was incredibly optimistic about what church activity in these buildings could put back in to civil society. I think he is right. Churches, put simply, are places where we can socially interact – often regardless of faith.
How so? Four out of 10 adults attended a Suffolk church for a memorial service for someone who had died last year. One in five of us visited a Suffolk church simply to seek some quiet space. Four out of 10 attended a wedding in a Suffolk church last year; and more than that attended funerals. A massive 85% of us visit a church or place of worship in the course of every year.
Church buildings bulk large in the public imagination. Did you know that three out of five England’s top visitor attractions are Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and York Minster? And in East Anglia obviously our St Edmundsbury Cathedral is catching up on the Ship on the Fens, Ely Cathedral.
The Archbishop gave us a powerful reminder that Bury St Edmunds and Suffolk is very special place. He also reminded us that the church has survived for a millennium and under him it will be an ambitious, outward-looking organisation doing good wherever it can.
Whether we are religious or not we should all strive to do that, I hope.