James prayed for his family: his wife Denise and their two teenage children Matthew and Elizabeth. He prayed for their safekeeping in a difficult world. He prayed for those in need and hardship in these challenging times. He prayed for God to give him strength to perform his duties faithfully for Him here on this earth. He knelt on the hard wooden board, his head lowered onto his hands, resting on the sand-coloured pew in front. He murmured the words, his lips moving almost imperceptibly.
When he was finished, still holding onto the back of the other pew, he pulled himself up and sat down on the cushioned bench behind him, rubbing his knees. He was alone in the building and he absorbed the peace around him. The air was hushed and still held some of the night’s chill. The morning sun was just beginning its kaleidoscopic glow through the windows of the chancel in front of him, casting red and green and blue patches of light onto the pinky-white stone arches along the left side of the nave. As well as the saints and New Testament scenes, the stained glass also told the stories of the local community: the mine and the foundry, the brave soldiers, all now gone. Above him, the dark timber roof was supported by delicate columns. The low pulpit in front was an octagon of pink sandstone, sparsely carved with foliar designs, which were repeated at the end of each of the birch-wood pews down the length of the aisle. He loved the simplicity of it all. It had modesty; chastity. No gilt-framed idols. No marble, no gold. No agonised Christ, dripping blood. Instead, a simple wooden cross at the altar was all that was required to remind them of the saviour’s suffering.
His family had attended this church for four generations now. His grandfather had moved here to work in the mine in the 1920s, his wife pregnant with their first of five children. James’ grandmother had been the daughter of a missionary in Africa, his mother the daughter of a deacon. His parents had ensured that he and his three sisters attended church each and every Sunday. His father had followed James’ grandfather’s path and gave almost 35 years to the mine before dying of lung cancer aged 53, two years before the pit closed for the final time. His funeral service had been held here. And James’ mother’s too, only four years later. Denise said it was a broken heart that had claimed her. But his parents were together for eternity now, their shared grave in the shaded cemetery behind the church. James had been the first member of the family to attend university and had got a job as a civil engineer in the city but, while his sisters had eventually all gone off to make their lives in other places, he’d always stayed at the family home here in the parish. He and Denise had been married here. Their children had been christened here. They all attended services every Sunday. Denise was an elder now, helping with the day-to-day running of the church. Matthew, who was currently applying to study Theology at university, was a Youth Fellowship leader. And caring, compassionate Elizabeth had recently started helping out with the youngest of the children attending Sunday School. Although there were no official family pews in this church, the one in which he sat now, second from the front, was never used by anyone other than them.
The church wasn’t usually open on Friday mornings. Long gone were the days of places of worship as permanent sanctuaries for the needy; now, like everywhere else, they were vulnerable to theft and vandalism and had to remain locked. But James had a pre-arranged meeting with the pastor this morning so the side door had been left open for him. He heard the noise of an interior door creaking open and a tan coloured velvet curtain was swept back behind the pulpit. The pastor, dressed in civilian clothes, entered from the church hall behind and came to join James, sitting next to him on the pew. Pastor Francis had been at the church for over forty years now. James, a teenager at the time of his arrival, remembered his excitement at the idea of a young man coming to lead them with fresh views and enthusiasm, while some of the older members of the congregation voiced concern over “new-fangled ideas”. Now in his seventies, the pastor had earned a great deal of respect from all of the congregation. Other churches were losing worshippers; some had been seduced by the gloss and the shine of those Mega-churches, with their clapping and whooping and slick orators. It was also due to the insidious creep of indifference, in a world where people were encouraged to look out for themselves. But this church’s membership had remained steady. As well as faith and the word of God, it was about fostering a sense of community. Giving people a way to help each other. Freeing them from the bonds of pointless possessions and selfish greed.
The pastor handed James a manila folder.
“Thank you for doing this task for us today.”
“I was going into the city anyway, so it makes sense for me to do this too.”
“Well I appreciate you volunteering. We can always rely on you James.”