I am fascinated with buildings. Big or small, old or new there is something about them that never tires my interest. In fact, outside of ministry, I have spent a lot of time working on all sorts of structures gaining various skills and knowledge about them. It is amazing how building space, form and function affect our psyche and draw us in different directions. In spite of this, the deep connection between church buildings and faith expression has not always been so apparent to me.
Over the years, through visiting churches of a number of denominations let me see how theology was expressed in architecture from bare bones no frill truck wash bay type settings to highly ornate and gold inlayed beauty that hinted at heaven. But it seemed to me at the time these settings were for the benefit of the attendees, for those who already belonged. And they were empty a lot of the time. The sense that this was a centre of mission or outreach was not there unless you went in and saw a notice for some event or program. I am sure I was not the only one who was ambivalent about this mission/ building connection.
Later a course centred on stewardship, intrigued me with the possibilities of what can be done to create vibrant viable parishes with enough funds to do God’s work as missioners and keep the doors open for corporate worship and communal activity. Taught by the Rev. (now Bishop) Rob Hardwick from Qu’Appelle Diocese it was the beginning of a journey for me . . . leading to gift planning ministry.
Two sides of the same coin, mission and building, are very much connected in my mind and so necessary for creating a thriving church community. Mission, whatever the focus may be, needs an identifiable place to operate from, especially locally, a headquarters if you will. A headquarters without a purpose is not much use if it is just taking up space on a block and so needs a mission. But here a dilemma surfaces.
We have a rather troubled relationship with our buildings as Anglicans that goes well beyond simply their cost. On the one hand we want to say that they are not important, it is only the people involved who matter and, indeed, the case has been made for eliminating them altogether as an outmoded model. Spend the money on the poor or other valid pressing social matters and forget the stained glass booths! There is a truth in this and first and foremost people will always be the focus of our loving actions proclaiming the Kingdom.
Yet we love our churches too. Whether they are huge stained glass wonders or small dusty country parishes, perhaps sporting a slight hint of mildew, they are home to those who attend plus a welcome spot for visitors to drop into. We deny that our buildings are our identity and yet in so many ways they are. All of us are members of a particular parish (I know that is how we identify ourselves at any diocesan function) parishes each with their distinct ethos, culture and social connections. The word church brings to mind all sorts of images and I would bet that one of the first to come to mind is the building where we personally gather as a community of faith.
These buildings, these special buildings, are worship space, office space, concert space, meeting space and more – plus a reference point for the surrounding community. They may also be ignored by that same surrounding community, but a quiet presence is maintained, proclaiming that God has not been run out of town just yet and is worshipped by those who go there. Faith is alive!
Churchill noted, when arguing that the bombed out House of Commons should be rebuilt as it was said that “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” British parliamentary heritage was at stake in his mind and in their many varied forms the churches we worship in echo the multi-faceted heritage of God’s word and the Kingdom.
Yes buildings are important for what they say about us and for also what we say about them. There is a huge tension in many parishes over building funds, repairs, expansions or selling off some or all of building and land to survive or move on. These are not easy questions to debate, as mundane as some issues may seem. A lot of emotion often rides in simply changing a window or a plaque let alone leaving a well known and beloved space that has served God’s people for many years. It is hard.
I remember well the closing service at St Paul’s Viscount and how through tears and stories a sense of finality was there for what had been, yet the memories shared offered hope for the future. Hope for a resurrected Church in a new, and as yet unknown, form serving a different generation as ably as the one who fondly recalled such love in its predecessor.
Our buildings are the single most expensive item maintaining our worship community identity and, for some, a cause of as much distress as of joy. Yet I believe they provide one of the best, and perhaps under-utilised ways of reaching out, of proclaiming the Good News, and of encouraging discipleship that we have in our communities. They are beacons for mission, embassies for action, that call out for justice to be heard and wholeness to be embraced. Places where one may share in God’s teachings and learn to walk in God’s ways knowing we are loved while seeking forgiveness for our failings.
Although it was made clear a long time ago that God does not dwell in a temple made by human hands the spirits of those who seek and serve our Lord are surely uplifted there. No other public structure represents such solace, and a sense that we are called to something holy and greater than ourselves, than does a house of worship. Sadly that is not the experience of all when seeing a church and admittedly wrongs have been done within them.
We who call such places home are entrusted to keep them holy in God’s name, through all that we say and do, so others may know the peace and promise of our Lord Jesus Christ represented by His people’s gathering place. Ideally, a church building should be a symbol for hope that is recognised wherever it is standing.
Stewardship then of our buildings need not be viewed solely as inward looking maintenance for I believe it is about people always, in the end, and these sacred structures speak to the wider community in symbols of wood, bricks and mortar in a special way.