Where Heaven Meets Earth: Scripture and the Importance of Churches

Josephine Warren explores sacred places in Scripture, why people are drawn to holy spaces and how churches enrich our faith today.

photo of the inside of st alphonsa syro malabar cathedral preston
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One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4


Churches form the focal point for many of the places in which we live – mediaeval churches in villages and towns and as local landmarks in bigger cities. They act as a physical reminder of the sacred within our busy lives. But why are these spaces sacred, what symbolism do they hold, and where do these traditions come from? Scripture is full of references to sacred spaces, shrines, and places that were held holy by the people we meet in the Bible, such as Horeb, Bethel, Sinai, Tabor, Gerizim, the wilderness and desert, Jerusalem, and the New Jerusalem promised in the book of Revelation.

In my work advising communities on how they can best protect and care for the heritage of their churches, I have the privilege of travelling across England and Wales, visiting some of the historic buildings in the care of the Catholic Church. These are often places of beauty and calm and a space for people seeking peace amongst the busyness and clamour of everyday life.

Caring for these places is not easy. The financial cost of maintaining and repairing our church buildings can greatly strain communities who cannot afford expensive building work. However, with the right support and advice, these places are important because they speak of our history and identity as Christian communities. They also provide the focus and the base from which to offer all sorts of social and outreach projects.

What do people do in churches, and why do they want to go in them?

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary…
Psalm 150:1

Churches are the fundamental built spaces in which we celebrate our faith. In the Catholic tradition, this primarily means the Mass, but the buildings also hold the constant rhythm of smaller more personal devotions, other spiritual activities and traditions. Go into any Catholic church, and you will likely find candles lit for prayers begging the intercession of a particular saint or people gently taking the time to enjoy the peace and quiet away from busy lives. With so much focus on ‘wellbeing’ and social prescribing in the press, it’s not hard to see how churches can provide places of beauty and calm including for those without any religious background.

Churches offer different things to different people. There is a huge interest in the history and archaeology of church buildings which extends well beyond church membership. Our churches offer a space for learning about the history and context of the people who built them and the traditions of arts and crafts in their design, artwork and furnishings. They are not static monuments to the past; they continue to express something of the communities who care for them today, even if they differ from the people who built them.

Scripture and sacred spaces

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
Psalm 84:1

In Scripture, the first sacred space we read about is the Garden of Eden. It is a place set apart and where God walks amongst the creatures he has created (Genesis 2-3). Angels guard its entrance and exit – these are the cherubim stationed at the east end with a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:24). Churches are often covered with decorations referring to Eden, the angels and the symbols of everlasting life that Christ brings through his resurrection as the new Adam.

In the book of Exodus, God speaks from the burning bush – instructing Moses to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stands is holy (Exodus 3:5). Later, from Exodus 26 onwards, God orders him to build the Tabernacle or ‘tent of meeting’ – a mobile sanctuary which the people transported as they moved around. It housed the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them. God’s presence takes up residence amongst the people in this tabernacle, which becomes the precursor to the temple of Jerusalem. This symbolism is carried forward into Catholic Churches in the tabernacles in which we house the Blessed Sacrament. These biblical origins and their connections to our worship today are key to understanding why our churches are holy places – both literal places where God is present in the Catholic tradition and also of huge symbolic significance in Christianity as a whole. This idea of the sacred space is expressed in King David’s prayer in Psalm 5:7 –

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.

We also see this reference to the Tabernacle in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel – ‘and the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’. In the Greek translation, God is said to have ‘pitched his tent’ which in the Latin translates as ‘tabernaculum’ – or ‘tabernacle’. John is making the connection between God’s presence in the tabernacle or tent of meeting in Exodus and God’s presence in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus; while Luke connects the Ark of the Covenant to Mary’s womb to describe how she houses Jesus in her pregnancy. (Luke 1:26-35).

Throughout the gospels, we are presented with spaces where God is encountered, separated from the people yet amongst them, and space for Jesus as we follow his life, death and resurrection. Christ is presented to God by his parents in the temple (Luke 2:22-38), he teaches in the temple (Luke 2: 41-50), and turns over tables in the temple in all four gospels because the wealthy were extorting huge payments from the poorest people in the name of God. The latter episode clearly shows that Jesus understood that this holy place – his father’s dwelling place – was not to be used for oppressive commercial transactions.

What do different Churches reveal to us about our faith and formation today?

St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, North Wales

Sacred sites have a long tradition in the UK. Pilgrimage is now experiencing a ‘renaissance’ of sorts, with a broad range of people engaging with old and new pilgrimage routes [1].  Holywell in Wales is an ancient site of pilgrimage, and it is thought that it is the only British shine where pilgrimage continued uninterrupted from the mediaeval period to the present. The Holy Well itself dates from the 7th century, and tradition tells us St Winefride was decapitated when she refused the advances of a suitor. A spring of water appeared where her head fell, and her uncle – St Beuno – retrieved her head and put it back on her body and brought her back to life. The site has remained a Christian place of pilgrimage for over 1,400 years, and pilgrims still visit the shrine to bathe in its healing waters. In 2023, both the local Catholic and Anglican bishops dedicated the shrine as a place of healing and hope for women who have experienced violence[2]. The Catholic church on the site has undergone various adaptions over the years – it was re-modelled to a design by prominent Catholic architect J.J. Scholes in the 1830s, and then further altered in 1909. The Grade II listed church is important, but the healing waters draw pilgrims from far and wide to the ‘Lourdes of Wales’.

St Winifride’s Church and Well, Holywell, North Wales

St Alphonsa’s Cathedral, Preston

Grade II* listed St Alphonsa in Preston is the Cathedral of the Syro-Malabar community in Great Britain. This community originated in Kerala in India and has an estimated 4.2 million members worldwide and almost 40,000 members in Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland). The Syro-Malabar community traces its roots back to the tradition that St Thomas the apostle travelled to India in the 1st century AD. He converted the local people to Christianity well before the arrival of Portuguese colonists, and they are now accepted as in communion with the Catholic church internationally.

As a church of the Eastern Syriac rite, the Syro-Malabar community were keen to have their own space. They were given the former Jesuit church of St Ignatius in Preston, re-dedicating it to St Alphonsa, who is important within the Syro-Malabar tradition as the first Indian woman to be canonised. The Cathedral has a rich history in its own right, having been the place where the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins was curate, and the new community have added their own decorations with statues of saints of the Syro-Malabar tradition. The congregation has wholeheartedly taken on the challenge of caring for this building. Their children have collected the names of benefactors recorded in the church’s stained glass and pray for them as an act of commemoration of the people from whom they have inherited the space. The Cathedral continues to be a place that is diverse and that welcomes migrants who find a home within the wider community of faith.

St Alphonsa’s Cathedral, Preston © Alex Ramsay Photography/CBCEW

St Oswald and St Edmund Arrowsmith, Ashton-in-Makerfield 

The church of St Oswald and St Edmund Arrowsmith in Ashton-in-Makerfield is an unusual and impressive example of early 20th-century Neo-Romanesque design. The church also houses the shrine of the relic of St Edmund Arrowsmith, who was martyred in Lancaster in 1628. The design of our churches speaks of the history of the church and of the identity of the community. After Catholic emancipation in 1829, when Catholics were allowed to worship freely once again, there was a flourishing of Catholic church architecture. Architects and their patrons and church commissioners were able to imagine what sort of identity they wanted to portray in their buildings – drawing from historical examples of architecture as their inspiration. Although the 19th and early 20th centuries are marked by the popularity of the Gothic Revival as exemplified in A.W.N. Pugin’s work, some architects chose other styles, perhaps to distinguish these churches from the mediaeval churches under the care of the Church of England. The architect J. Sydney Brocklesby drew his inspiration for St Oswald and St Edmund Arrowsmith from the Romanesque style, but the church also houses the relic of St Edmund Arrowsmith’s hand (removed from his body by a supporter, shortly after his death). In a different way from the waters at Holywell, this shrine has also been a focus for pilgrimage. The relic of the martyr, having had many healing miracles attributed to it, continues to act as a reminder of the power of God in human life.

St Oswald and St Edmund Arrowsmith, Ashton-in-Makerfield 

As we continue to visit, worship and hear the Scriptures in our churches today, we are reminded of the faithful believers who have gone before us. We follow in their footsteps and on holy ground, we can see where heaven meets earth.

Josephine Warren is Historic Churches Adviser for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

For more photos and information about these churches:
Taking Stock: https://taking-stock.org.uk/building/preston-st-ignatius/
Taking Stock: https://taking-stock.org.uk/building/holywell-st-winefride/
Taking Stock: Taking Stock – Catholic Churches of England and Wales

[1] https://www.pilgrimways.org.uk/

[2] https://www.cbcew.org.uk/bishop-wants-shrine-to-be-beacon-of-hope-and-healing-for-women/