Lessons from church architecture

By George Clifford

British author and historian Richard Taylor wrote and narrated the six-hour BBC series, “Learning to Read Churches.” People who appreciate church architecture and the Anglican heritage will find this series enjoyable and informative. I found the links that Taylor draws between social history and church architecture of particular interest.

Taylor comments that the Georgians shifted away from medieval religious themes in the décor of their churches by introducing the Royal coat of arms; concomitantly, the “squirearchy” followed suit, portraying themselves in their funerary memorials as ancient Romans, lending authority and importance to their roles in sustaining the empire. Culture had conquered Christ, further aligning the Church of England (CofE) with state and commerce, alienating most downtrodden or marginalized English people. The clergy, privileged and highly visible representatives of the Church, lived by and adhered to largely upper-class values.

Victorians, especially through the influence of the Oxford movement, returned to medieval religious themes in art and architecture, seeking to restore the centrality of Christ and the Eucharist in their worship. This move came too late, failing to convince most strata of English society that the CofE belonged to the gentry and nobility. This became Christ above culture.

The single contemporary congregation Taylor visited was a “happy-clappy” evangelical congregation in a purpose built facility that resembled an auditorium, seated 1200, and appeared to be full of people in their twenties or thirties. The architecturally and historically significant churches that filled the rest of the six hour show were all filmed when empty, probably because worship attendance in England, by almost any standard, is abysmal. My reading and conversations in England and the States consistently echo Taylor’s implicit point that evangelicalism offers both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church (TEC) their best chance for a bright future in their struggle to retain significance and members.

Yet perhaps evangelicalism is not the answer for either Church. Michael Spencer, a writer and communicator living in a Christian community in Kentucky, wrote an excellent column last month in the Christian Science Monitor, highlighted in the Café’s Lead, “The coming evangelical collapse.” Among the seven reasons Spencer identifies why evangelicalism in the U.S. will collapse within two decades are: a dead end alignment with political conservatives; consumer driven mega-churches that will realign or collapse when money dries up; a pending collision between evangelical core beliefs and basic secular values; and the failure to effectively pass the orthodox Christian faith to the next generation.

Spencer writes as an evangelical Christian. I find his analysis cogent and persuasive but would add an eighth reason for the pending collapse: evangelicalism, like the Oxford Movement, represents a futile attempt to recreate a non-existent prior “Golden Age” in which orthodox Christianity flourished in a way not bound by time or culture. The “Golden Age” to which evangelicalism hopes to return is that of the reformers, whether an early one such as Luther or a latter one such as Wesley. If only we, like they, would hold fast to the deposit of faith revealed in the Christian Holy Scriptures and Creeds, all would be well with the Church.

The truth of the matter is that we can access our treasure, the way of life that we call Christianity, bottled only in earthen vessels. No “Golden Age” ever existed. Medieval Christians and the Reformers created pots whose beauty has waned and whose utility has diminished over time. The necessity to create new earthen vessels with which to try to pass along our treasure to others is ever with us; Paul Tillich expressed this idea when he articulated the Protestant principle. As a non-evangelical, perhaps it is easier for me to recognize the dual Babylonian captivity of evangelicals, ensnared by alignment with political conservatives while catering to consumers in their unrelenting, self-imposed requirement to report ever-increasing numbers. (Incidentally, as a self-avowed liberal, I wonder at what point(s) I am enmeshed in my own Babylonian captivity.)

I personally find old church buildings, in England and in the United States, fascinating windows into the faith of prior generations. These earthen vessels speak of a faith that once was, a testimony to Christianity’s diversity, permanence, and constantly changing face. However, I am thankful that I am not responsible for leading a twenty-first century congregation housed in one of those buildings. I might find myself among the many who succumb to the very real temptation to escape into the past, to pretend that by being good stewards of an old earthen vessel, by repeating the time-worn theological formulas of a prior generation, we are being faithful to the truth that no earthen vessel can contain.

For the Church, buildings are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Yet, too often the Church acts as if the opposite were true. New congregations yearn for the day when they will have their own building with the sense of permanence, perception of credibility, and ease of accommodation it offers. Congregations of longer standing cherish their building as a testimony to the faith of prior generations. And in our litigious twenty-first century America, the Church spends significant sums fighting over building ownership. I suspect Jesus might comment that it is not the building that hallows the people but the people who hallow the building.

When historians look back on ecclesial architecture of this age, what will they say?

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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