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It was good to be at the HTB Leadership Conference on Monday and Tuesday. They filled the Albert Hall, and still managed to sell a few hundred extra tickets for the overflow venue at Holy Trinity Brompton Road.

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There were some very powerful talks and interviews; an incredible array of seminar topics; lots of prayer and discussion and networking; and some fantastic music from the Worship Central team. And there was, interestingly, a very strong Catholic presence: Cardinal Schönborn, for example, was one of the keynote speakers; Christopher West led a series of workshops over two whole afternoons about the Theology of the Body; and the Carmelite Church in Kensington was packed for the celebration of Holy Mass (followed by breakfast for all present), as part of the conference programme, on the Tuesday morning.

I won’t even attempt to summarise the content of the talks. The phrase that struck me most was from Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the States. It was a throwaway line in the middle of a very practical talk about creating a vision within your core team. Here is the line: “You know, we sometimes forget this: that it’s natural for churches to grow!” In other words, if a Christian community simply lives its faith to the full; if Christians simply become the disciples they are called to be; if we simply believe and pray and love and hope and serve as we are meant to: then of course our churches will grow. What should baffle us is not why they sometimes do, but why they usually don’t. As St Catherine of Sienna said: ‘If you become who you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire’.

There was an intensity about the conference, a passion for souls, a Christian fervour, that you don’t often experience on an average Sunday morning. I was wondering to myself if this intensity was something attractive only to those ‘professional’ Christians (like myself) who sign up for conferences like this, and whether it might alienate ordinary Christians. But the conference started on Monday, 13 May, and I started to connect it with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

In the morning, I had celebrated Mass in the local parish in Chelsea and given a short sermon. I spoke about Our Lady of Fatima’s passion for souls, the sense of urgency which she communicated to the three shepherd children, the seriousness of her message, and the unconditional commitment to the gospel message of salvation that she expected from the children and from every Christian. Then I walked up the road to the HTB Leadership Conference. When you see things from the perspective of the call to conversion and the invitation to salvation, there is not a great distance from Fatima to Holy Trinity Brompton.

[For information about Fatima, see here. If you want to book for the leadership conference next year, see here]

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Does it matter which way a church faces? The scripture readings this weekend were about the end of the world, and the second coming of the Son of Man. I chose to speak about the physical orientation of Christian churches: how it is an ancient tradition to build them on an east-west axis, so that you enter through the west door and face the sanctuary/altar at the east end. In this way you have a double symbolism: of Christ coming to meet you, like the rising sun, in the liturgy that you are celebrating; and Christ coming to meet you (soon, but not quite yet), at the end of time. So the sanctuary is a threshold that allows us to meet the divine now and to await the divine in the future.

This is all well-known, and doesn’t need blogging about. (See, for example, Part II, Chapter 3, of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.) What was interesting though was preaching about this in a church in Clerkenwell in the centre of London, with two medieval examples just a stone’s throw away. Today’s St Paul’s Cathedral is of course not medieval, but I assume (please correct me) that it roughly follows the floor plan of the previous cathedral. It’s like an arrow on a huge compass at the centre of London, running perfectly east-west. Yes, it happens to sit tidily on the line of the river Thames at that point too; but it illustrates the way the geography of a Christian city can reflect the spiritual longings of the human soul – for a saviour, for God’s final Word to greet us at the end of our lives, and at the end of time.

Inside St Etheldreda's by Lawrence OP.

The second example, just down the road from Clerkenwell, is St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, in Holburn. This church does not sit at all tidily into its present environment. The east end faces the street, so there is no easy access, and you have to enter the church through a warren of corridors and steps. But once you are there, the same spiritual/geographical truth is apparent, that you enter from the west, from the darkness, and look towards the east, towards the hope of Christ’s coming – in this case represented by a glorious wall of stained-glass above the altar.

There will be hundreds of other examples. It was good to have these at hand on Sunday.

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