The Little White Chapel

On the road to Whittlesea, where I grew up, there was an old weatherboard church. At one point, perhaps a hundred years ago, it was in its prime – a country parish, built by the hands of the local parishioners, standing stout and proud in paddocks of sheep and cows. A community centre, where people met on a Sunday in freshly pressed clothes, to worship their God and eat scones and jam afterwards.

Those days were long gone, and as I travelled by on the school bus, I could see that this old church building was brown and faded, covered in barely a few slithers of crumbling paint. 

When I drove past recently, I noticed that this old church has been spruced up considerably, and now stands bright white within a much smaller paddock (for suburbia is encroaching). The small church now sports a freshly painted white picket fence…and a new sign. The sign doesn’t say, “South Morang Methodist Church – all welcome”, or even something more modern like, “Golden Valley Community Church – Coffee, Friends, God”.

Rather, the sign out the front simply says, “The Little White Chapel”.

The name is self-consciously simple and crisp, like the building itself. It speaks of daisy chains and dresses with sashes, of hard-working men and dusty roads.

This lick of white paint and this new sign out the front is a resurrection – of sorts. But my first reaction is irritation, even anger. What seems to be resurrected here is not a church, but an aesthetic. The church itself is no more; it has been emptied out, its soul put out for hard rubbish. The chipped teacups have disappeared and the hymnbooks were bought for a bargain by a second-hand book dealer. The new buyers wondered why there were tiny shot glasses in the cupboards, and they laid them down along with the old faded sign, in a pile on the side of the road. 

They polished the pews and sanded the floor – evening out the floorboards that were dark and shiny in the aisles from hundreds of pairs of feet. There was no need for the archaic pulpit in the corner, so they dismantled that, but they left the wooden platform. It was an ideal place for a bride, a groom and a celebrant to stand. 

So now this small dusty church has been done up as a wedding venue – and why not, if the building was in disuse? Better than tearing it down, and filling the valuable land with a big, beige housing development. Garden beds that grew weeds now brim with jostling jonquils in the spring, and swell with the scent of lavender in the summer. The lawn around the chapel is freshly mowed, and it looks lovely again.

I’m not mad at the new owners. I guess I’m just mad at this culture, in which little country churches are irrelevant, and are valued only because they are quaint. Little ‘chapels’ like these are now nice places to get married – for people who have always dreamt of a church wedding but don’t have any religion to speak of.

Oh, maybe it was a horrible church, made up of craggy inward-looking people who gnawed on dry biscuits after the service and complained a lot about young people these days. Maybe this church really was irrelevant – moored only to the past, and blind to the new families moving into the newly subdivided paddocks. Maybe this church needed to die.

Maybe this church lost its soul long ago, before that faded sign was taken down, and a new one was put up in its place.

I long for churches that are wedded deeply to their past – but at the same time are fully immersed in the present world, and have their doors open and arms reaching out to the people who live around them. Churches that value the ancient smell that wafts forth when you open the communion cupboard. Churches that wouldn’t dream of building a concrete box somewhere up the road, to hold worship in a place where you can get the lighting exactly right for the band. I long for churches that have guitars alongside organs, and teenagers sitting next to the people who have seen this place grow and change over 60 years.

I am now wondering whether the renaming of this church, and of its resurrection back to its aesthetic glory days, reflects a kind of longing as well. A longing from a place within our modern culture, that knows it has lost something, but can’t quite put its finger on what that might be.

There is something in many of our hearts that leaps at the sight of a white church in a paddock, or a daisy chain, or a dress with a sash, or the sight of a man in dirty boots. Our smile upon a quaint chapel seems shadow, but the roots go much deeper than that. The white chapel signifies something deeply humane; a soul-level comfort. Something to do with land and community and family and connection. Something that we crave.

And maybe we are all craving the same thing.

Me - I long for churches that are anchored in their history and have their doors open to the people around. I get sad when I see these churches shut up, and angry when I see them exploited for their quaintness factor.

And other people - they long for places that are similarly rooted in history, yet fulfil their present desire for connection and community. Their hearts leap when they see a quaint church, for it reminds them of what they want but do not have.

So we are left with a Little White Chapel – both a reminder of what we have lost, and a sign pointing towards what we might one day have.

I’m not sure whether to smile or weep.