About church buildings…

Posted by on Nov 24, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

A common question of tourists is ‘So what did you see today?’ If they are touring Europe (as Rosemary and I have just done), you are likely to hear the reply,  ‘abc’. Lest you have not heard the quip, abc stands for ‘another bloody church’. It is a little ironic that the worlds most secular continent is filled with church buildings – and not just any church buildings, stupendously splendid buildings, buildings that literally take your breath away with their beauty, history and heritage. On our recent trip Rosemary and I explored church buildings that, if they could be priced (and they can’t), would be worth many, many billions of dollars. So do church buildings have anything to say to us?

You will notice that evangelical Baptist that I am, I refer to church buildings. No, the buildings are not the church. The church according to 1 Peter 2:5 is made up of ‘living stones’ who together are being built into ‘a spiritual house’. In other words, the church is made up of Christians, not bricks and mortar, however impressive the latter may be. Having said that, say the word ‘church’ and it is the buildings that spring into the mind of most people. Furthermore, architecture speaks… it tells us about who we are, what we value and often indicates our position and place in society. So as I travelled through a few of the church buildings of Europe, what did the architecture say to me?

My education starting with our guide explaining the difference between gothic and baroque architecture. The former, with its height and grandeur, pointed arches and vaulted ceilings sweeps your gaze heavenwards, the architecture making you look upwards and you supposedly therefore become aware of the God who is above you. Our guide summarized the difference between gothic and baroque architecture by saying something like this: ‘Gothic architecture points you to heaven. By contrast, baroque architecture brings heaven to you. It is a feast for the senses.’ And my, those baroque churches are a sensory delight, with their gold plating, bright colours, vividly painted ceilings and sheer opulence – even though some of its impact results from creating optical illusions… an interesting thought for a church building.

The first thing that struck me in both gothic and baroque churches was ‘wow’. Unless you have absolutely no aesthetic sensitivity, they really do impact you. But sometimes it is more than that. I don’t think I imagined it. Some convey a deep sense of ‘this is a sacred space. Expect to meet God here.’ And people do meet God in those sacred spaces. Sure, many were overflowing with tourists, happily ignoring the requests to refrain from using flash photography and to respect the reverent silence of the place, but even in the most crowded of the popular tourist cathedrals, I noticed those who had clearly come as pilgrims, quietly praying. At times the prayer was fervent and deeply heartfelt. I recollect at one time standing at a side chapel admiring a painting of a long deceased saint and suddenly being joined by a group of touring pilgrims, each of whom was praying quietly but audibly. The depth of passion in the group was remarkable. These were clearly not nominal believers. The reality of their faith was obvious and as an outsider to the group it felt a privilege to be surrounded by them.

If wow was the first impression, the second was of being pointed to an alternate reality. The art work most commonly points heavenward. There is the constant reminder that this world is not all that there is. Actually, you are forced to think about God. These glorious cathedrals speak of God in a way that our ‘church in a warehouse age’ (or host church inany building that is available age) does not. They insistently say, ‘God matters, and God is worthy of the very best that human creativity can design.’ They are primarily buildings about God, rather than buildings about us – and the activities we wish to run. Not that they are used for purely sacred purposes. Rosemary and I attended a delightful evening of arias from the operas, and its setting in a magnificent gothic church seemed totally appropriate – and the acoustics were perfect. I was also struck at the Basilica of the (no, its name now eludes me) how the pipe organ which was quietly playing ‘Ava Maria’ when we entered the church seamlessly changed to ‘Memories’ from the Lloyd Webber musical ‘Cats’.  It seemed to fit. Many of the people at that basilica were lighting candles in memory of deceased relatives, and in this setting both the sacred and secular seemed equally consecrated.

A third impression was that Roman Catholic churches place a far greater emphasis on the passion of Christ than do Protestant churches, and that they are the richer for it. As a child I was told that in Protestant churches the Cross is always empty as a reminder of the resurrection. Fair enough… but to rush so quickly to resurrection Sunday runs the risk of forgetting the agony of crucifixion day, and if we forget that, can we really fully grasp the depth of God’s love for us, or catch an adequate glimpse of the depth of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf? If the splendour of the buildings reminded me of the worthiness of God, the moving portrayals of the crucifixion were often hauntingly evocative. They refused to let you bypass the agony of Calvary. Time and again my takeaway line was simply ‘remember Calvary’. Functional though our ‘church in a warehouse’ era is, that is not usually the take away line our modern buildings leave us with.

I am a little more ambivalent about my fourth impression. The majority of the churches we visited were Roman Catholic. At times I found them simply confusing, The focus on relics of long dead saints (here is part of the elbow of St whoever…) does absolutely nothing for me, and creates more than a few theological dilemmas. However, I did see another side to this that I had not previously considered. The saints remind us that it is possible to live a godly life – and indeed, that we should aspire to lead godly lives. As we are invited to reflect upon the lives of different saints, we should do so reflectively. If they found it possible to be faithful to God (usually in situations of great difficulty), why should we not find it equally possible. Perhaps it is taking the teaching of Hebrews 12:1 seriously, and allowing the great cloud of witnesses who surround us to spur us on in the faith. Perhaps… but I must admit that I still find displaying parts of corpses – even if they are corpses of saints – macabre.

A fifth impression – and this is especially true of churches built in the baroque style – is that artists are often the theologians of the church. The ceiling frescoes interpret different biblical passages in a way that sticks. When the interpretation is dodgy (and some of the interpretations of the afterlife struck me as being decidedly dodgy), this is problematic. When sound, it is a great blessing. How does this sound as a generalization? Musicians and worship leaders are the theologians of Evangelicalism, artists the theologians of Roman Catholicism. For neither group are the theologians the theologians. There has to be a PhD in that…

Well, I thought I’d jot down these impressions while they are fresh in my mind. No, I don’t intend to fundraise to enable a new era of opulent church buildings. Indeed, I shall continue to advocate for new church groups to locate in school buildings, community centres, warehouses and wherever they can find space. But I have been reminded that there is a different side to the story. And I am glad that the architecture of a previous era can speak to us today, and at times, remind us of some of our blind spots and of things we too quickly overlook.

As always, nice chatting…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.