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Social media keeps churches closed by the coronavirus open for visitors

Social media keeps churches closed by the coronavirus open for visitors

St. Joan of Arc Chapel on the campus of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. | Dennis Lennox

Many churches have closed their doors to visitors in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

That doesn’t, however, mean you can’t go inside. Virtual visits are possible, thanks to the church enthusiasts behind several blogs and social media channels.

By far, the most common medium is Instagram, where enthusiasts with differing photographic abilities document every conceivable detail of a church ranging from baptismal fonts and Gothic windows to ornately carved wooden pews.

Douglas Young is among the enthusiasts who publish photos of historic churches and cathedrals on a daily or near-daily basis. He is the man behind @devonchurchland on Instagram, which showcases churches in the southwestern English county of Devon. A companion website, Devon Churchland, recently launched.

Marktkirche, or Market Church, in Wiesbaden, Germany. | Dennis Lennox

“An altarpiece in the National Gallery is a lesser thing than when it is hung above the altar with incense and the host being venerated,” said Gawain Towler, a political operative who remarkably found time during the last British general election to visit churches wherever he went on the campaign trail. “The architecture and fittings of churches, like the music, is beautiful in its own right, but takes on a far greater meaning when in the setting of a service.”

For others it is wholly secular, which is fitting since medieval churches were the art museums of their day with paintings, stained-glass and sculpture.

“My interest is primarily in art and architectural history,” said Rob Andrews, better known as @churchcrawling on Instagram. “It started in the final year of my undergraduate course at university. I soon discovered there was much more to learn about the buildings themselves.”

Arve Berntzen, who says he isn’t religious but retains the Church of Norway (Lutheran) faith of his childhood, started visiting out of his hobby for photography. His photos are on Instagram under @kirkerchurches.

“Walking around the church to find the best angle for shooting is very relaxing and challenging at the same time,” he said. “I find church architecture fascinating.”

Berntzen’s subjects are primarily the Lutheran state churches from the idyllic Norwegian countryside. Think old medieval stone edifices to wooden churches from the 1800s.

Nobody compares to Cameron Newman, who is several years into a goal of visiting all 12,000 rural parish churches in the Church of England (Anglican).

So far, the self-described “eccentric weirdo” has visited more than 9,000 churches and taken at least 500,000 photos for the Parish Church Photographic Survey. A more curated collection of photos can be found on his Instagram, @realcbnewham.

Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, is home to the restored 17th-century Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury. | Dennis Lennox

Importantly, one doesn’t need to travel to the Old World for historic churches — a point this column regularly makes.

Not only are there surviving colonial-era churches, but splendid 19th century churches ranging in style from Gothic Revival to Richardsonian Romanesque can be found in many cities across the United States.

“Many think about various European churches but not the old and important churches in our country,” said Lee Little, historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. “Many have a vague idea about what’s here, but they don’t seem to leave a lasting impression like the European ones do.”

Lee conducts tours of Indianapolis-area churches. His photos are published on the aptly named Instagram channel @oldchurchesindy.

Almost all enthusiasts agree that churches can do a better job at making themselves accessible to visitors.

“Sadly, most churches in the cities are locked,” said Towler, whose Instagram is @gawaintowler. “More and more country churches are the same.”

Andrews said all churches need “clear instructions for key collection or information about other forms of access are a must even if the doors must through circumstance be kept locked.”

Others suggested more churches utilize volunteers to open on certain days of the week or month. This strategy is employed with great success by the Friends of the City Churches in London.

On Instagram, be sure to also follow @helenhookerarchitecture, @matt.afc and @churchhunting.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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