More than Bricks

The Significance of Church Buildings

Much of my time is spent on church buildings: trying to help clergy and PCCs make them thrive as centres of worship and mission; working with my wonderful colleagues in our DAC office; reviewing List B applications for works that do not require a faculty; and attending long and painstaking DAC meetings.  In the current circumstances for the Church, I have asked myself more sharply than ever whether all this activity is a doomed attempt to keep afloat the sinking wreckage of ‘inherited church’ in preparation for the great day when all things will be taken up into Zoom.  Or, alternatively, is this care for and attention to churches in some enduring way integral to Christian life and mission?

In this, I have been helped by an essay of Josef Ratzinger (latterly Pope Benedict XVI) On the Meaning of Church Architecture, which I believe gives us some helpful orientation, as we think about what churches are for and why we should value them. (1)  In what follows, I have quoted him at length, trying to make his words (in italics) speak for themselves, although I have slightly rearranged and glossed them in a way that I hope will help reflection on our particular context.

In the essay, one can discern four related descriptions of what a church building is: a place that responds to human need; a spiritual and incarnational place; a distinct ecclesial place and a place of abiding presence.  I will look at each of these in turn.

A place that responds to human need

Ratzinger introduces his essay by writing about a character in Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle: an old Communist prisoner named Rubin.  Although imprisoned by Stalin, Rubin has lost nothing of his unconditional Marxist faith and in his mind works ceaselessly to perfect Marxist theory and the Marxist society.  Rubin recognises that in an atheistic Communist society in which much of the moral and social fabric has broken down, whilst those in authority may favour grand building projects, it is vital that there should also be places for rebuilding the human spirit.  He has a dream of ‘Civic Temples’, in which critical occasions of human life are to be celebrated in solemn ceremonies with collective participation.  “Indeed the whole architectural ensemble of the temple must breathe majesty and eternity”.

Solzhenitsyn’s context is the stark one of Soviet Russia but something similar can be said about all modern society, with the many stresses it causes, its obsession with efficiency and earning, and the unremittingly utilitarian nature of its built environment.  In the planned and managed economy of modern western society there is also a human need for buildings that witness to a different reality and take people into a different dimension.

Anyone who looks at the stone wilderness of the growing major cities and senses the abandonment to anonymity and management that half-suffocates the people in it, physically and psychologically, will probably say: If such a thing did not yet exist – the idea of the cathedral, a space for retreat, immersion and silence, a finger pointing to the mysterious and the eternal – then it would have to be invented, because we need it.

A spiritual and incarnational place

The human need for such buildings intersects in a subtle way with what is given to us in Christian doctrine and in the history of the Church.  Ratzinger acknowledges that the Cross of Jesus Christ, in the faith of the New Testament, means the end of the old Temple… What the Temple was for the Old Testament is supplied for the Church, not by any building, but rather by a man – the God-man Jesus Christ.  The directly sacral character that belonged to the Temple is thus not attached to any particular building in the way that it was for Judaism up to 70AD: neither Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome nor any other church in Christendom can ever signify for believers in Jesus Christ something analogously central and irreplaceable.

But the new spiritual worship of the Church, untethered in this sense to any particular place or building, is not some free-floating phenomenon: rather it is fixed to the life of Jesus who himself is the truth (cf. John 14.6).  Christian worship, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, is worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4.24): Christian spiritualisation is at the same time incarnation.

The new worship of God is rooted in the love of the Son.  It is vitally dependent on it.  This means, in turn, that the faith community of Jesus is vitally dependent on gathering around him, the crucified and risen Lord.  This gathering, which we call Eucharist, is the heartbeat of its life.  In it, the faith community remembers that central event of the Cross and Resurrection and, in remembering, receives the Presence.

Christians need a house – a building – which makes possible the all-important gathering around Jesus Christ at the Eucharist, which is the new worship, both spiritual and incarnational.  And this gathering place in which we ‘collect ourselves’ is also a spiritual place in which we can ‘recollect ourselves’: free ourselves from the many distractions of modern life and open ourselves up to the Word.  The result is that, whilst church buildings do not, for Christians, have the directly sacred quality of the Temple, they nevertheless take on a new significance as places of gathering, recollection and encounter in the Spirit with the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord.

The building itself with its walls is not the presence of God, as was probably often assumed about the Temple in the pre-Christian era.  But it does point to the gathering that this place is, alludes to it symbolically, and makes it possible.  And in this respect, it indirectly bears in itself some of the features of that gathering.  And in a new, that is, Christian way that makes it “sacral”, worthy of reverence and love.

A distinct ecclesial place

But, to ask a question that has been disputed in the Church of England in recent weeks, does this new worship in spirit and in truth necessitate a church building?  Could the home not be the place for it?  Is the very fact of church buildings essentially a sign of the Constantinian Romanisation and imperialization of the Church?  Here, Ratzinger writes somewhat tersely:

… we should warn the reader here against an archeologism that, remarkably, is akin to many types of progressivism: the conviction that only what is old is authentically Christian and that everything that came afterward must be regarded as arbitrary, if not as almost degenerate.  This standard, which sees nothing at all between the Bible and us and mistakes antiquity for truth, is based… well, squarely on a mistake.  Christianity has its original and guiding message in the Bible, but the claim expressed in the Bible matures fully over the course of history, and thus things that are biblically essential in a Christian way can appear in all eras.  Even though it appeared late, it can still be the discovery of something authentic, a product of the real inner history of the faith.

Underlining the point, he reminds us that:

Paul started by preaching in the synagogue; merely pointing out that he had to celebrate the Eucharist in houses does not prove that this was for Christianity an intrinsically necessary or even a more suitable form.

On the contrary, Ratzinger argues with reference to the abuses at the Eucharist described in 1 Corinthians 11, that Paul draws ‘a decisive boundary’ between house and church.  The shared meal that used to precede the Eucharist had degenerated so that some were hungry and others gluttonous or drunk.  Paul asks the Corinthians: ‘do you not have houses to eat and drink in?’ (v.22).  Thus, writes Ratzinger, he throws the agape feast out of the “churches” and relegates them to the houses.  Paul himself therefore demarcates a shared community meal from the eucharistic celebration.  Ratzinger writes that the gathering that is supposed to represent the Church must be completely imbued with the memory of the Lord; it must be “sacral”, one could say, a fact that Paul underlines by firmly and decisively reiterating to the Corinthians that ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (v.26).  This produces a space of reverence in which the Cross is lifted up wherever the words of thanksgiving are spoken.  The church gathering for the Eucharist is a new public entity, distinct from the family or social gathering to share a meal.  Specially designated church buildings flow naturally out of these seminal insights.

In this regard, there was an intrinsic reason that led the Christian assemblies to gather in the imperial building called the basilica, when public law allowed this self-expression of their claim.  Hence the cathedral is a form that sprang up from within Christianity and not a political adaptation or political aberration.

A place of abiding presence

The logic of the New Testament suggests then that churches should be distinct places for meeting Christ in gathering and eucharistic thanksgiving; for finding the stillness that enables us to hear the Word he speaks in the Spirit.  And out of the New Testament also, further features would come to be introduced: a place for baptism and, arising from that, a place for penance and the forgiveness of sins which draws us back to our baptism.  All of these became realities that are built and prayed into church buildings.  In a wonderful, non-functional, non-utilitarian way, the individual celebrations overflow, so that the Christian experience – shared, I would suggest, by many visitors to our churches – is that something endures in these buildings even when they are not in use for specific liturgical functions.  A church becomes a space that invites Christians beyond the common worship of God, to stay awhile, to pray, to be silent before the Lord, whose eucharistic closeness remains beyond the common celebration.  In doing so, they are signs of the Lord who has promised ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.20).

Thus slowly, through various incentives, this new Christian thing developed: churches that are churches all day long.  Churches in which the Church is always alive, because praying people always encounter there the mystery of the Lord, of his death and Resurrection.  After all, someone who prays in church does not pray to God in general but, rather, to the God who through Jesus constantly places on our lips the Word of the Eucharist and the word of prayer that is sure of an answer.  Someone who prays in church always prays with the Church, not alone.  Praying churches are the new gift that the Church and her faith have given to mankind.  This is something that could never exist in the old temples, the cellae of the gods.  Only with this development is Christianity perfectly distinct – only now is the Christian form found; really, even humanly speaking, I consider these praying churches to be one of the most precious things that the Christian spirit has produced.

  1. Ratzinger, J., Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life, trans. Michael J. Miller and Matthew J. O’Connell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 233-242.  (The original German edition was published as Dogma und Verkündigung in 1973).

The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the Diocese of Chichester.

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