On Returning to Church (Buildings)
Exploring the irreplaceable significance of shared architectural spaces for our worship”
No doubt about it, the rise of digital services and worship, has been a great gift to many people who found attending church before the pandemic difficult or impossible. The possibility of using apps, or participating over zoom, or dialling in to a service on a land line, have extended access to church in real ways which ought not to slip our memory when our going to church returns to more recognisable forms.
Nevertheless, in what follows, I want to explore what might lie theologically behind the fact that so many of us have missed our places of worship and have wanted to return to our pews. What might lie theologically, in other words, behind the fact that ordinarily we do not simply meet as a church, but in churches, sharing the same physical space, enclosed by walls and covered by roof?
There is so much that we could say about how different our worship is online compared to in person; about the difference it makes to be physically present rather than only present online; about the significance of place for our sacramental life. But in what I want to explore over the next half or so, I’m focussing my attention only on the difference that buildings might make.
From the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Christ have sought out spaces to share. At the very outset, this looked like meeting in the homes of its members. We hear in the new testament the names of some of those in whose homes the early community convened: Aquila, Prisca, and Nympha. Early house churches were gradually replaced by the construction of Christian buildings. By the third century, such buildings existed in widely flung corners of the empire. Through the ages, different designs would direct and lift the souls of worshippers. The Reformation would of course interrupt the enthusiasm for magnitude and ornament – stripping altars and emptying niches – but the fact that such arguments took place – that people had such strong convictions about what Christian places should be like – shows us again a reading of buildings as theologically significant.
I want to suggest three reasons, perhaps a little in the backdrop, that might remind us of the significance of why we want to be church in churches. And why meeting within walls has profound significance.
I want to pair each reason I suggest with a different image that I hope will help bring to life what I seek to propose.
So – to the first image we turn now.
On the left here, is a painting by the artist Stanley Spencer, painted in 1920. Some of you might know Spencer’s work and recognise in this painting a move that Spencer made quite a few times – his placement of parts of the biblical narrative in the present day of his home context. Here we have Jesus carrying his cross not in first century Jerusalem but in the English village of Cookham, where Spencer grew up.
Part of what I think this painting communicates is the fact that the story of the gospel is a story that is set in the world in which we live. It’s a story of people – and of places – and of actors – and of intentions – and of objects. A story that features bread, and wine, and wood, and nails. It’s a story in and of our world.
The point Spencer’s painting makes to me is that the story of God coming to the world isn’t a ‘spiritual’ story. It didn’t drop from the sky – it’s a story in history. The same history that you and I are part of.
And the fact that such a story happened in history, means that part of the way we know about it is through testimony – it is a story that has been handed down. Spencer’s painting recollects other paintings of the same subject. We remember that it is through people that we know what we do about this person Jesus, who lived in the world we live in, who touched the same materials we can touch, who looked at people who might have looked a bit like people we know.
Spencer’s painting says to me: the gospel happened in our history. And the reason we therefore know about it is through people who told us about it – through their stories, through their paintings, through their actions, and, I want to say, through the buildings they built.
One notable characteristic of architecture is that it endures – often for a very long time. What church buildings can communicate to us, then, is what people, in a moment of time apart from the one we exist in, wanted to say, one way or another, about worshipping the God we also worship today.
The churches built in some moments want to tell us to look upwards, others want to tell us to look outwards, others to look at each other. Some tell us to be near to the sacraments, others to be at a distance. Some have made the most prominent furniture the pulpit – others the altar. Some subtly tell us to relax, others to be attentive. Some want us to marvel in beauty, while others insist we focus on hearing the word.
But of course, the theology expressed in any given building isn’t a straightforward and unchanging message. We could consider here, for a moment, Westminster Cathedral, pictured to the right. In early Byzantine style, the cathedral is, for the most part, embellished with intricate mosaics which speak very clearly, teaching their onlookers the stories of God. It is overwhelmingly visual – full of gold and splendour and magnificence – it speaks of lifting up worshippers to something heavenly. Yet these heavenly visions remain at ground level – if you look up you see empty domes black with darkness – these were intended to be adorned with mosaic too but never were. The imagery ends and we have these great voids – a counterpoint to the intricate detail of the ground level. In one space, we have a testament to the rich imagination of what the Kingdom of God is and looks like, and, by virtue of its not being completed and left so dark, also a testament to a kind of silence – the end of imagination – of a different kind of awe.
Each church, like Westminster Cathedral, speaks in subtle ways of the faith that we receive from those who came before us. In all their peculiarities and contingencies, these buildings connect us to Christ in so far as those who conceived them, designed them, built them, and worshipped in them, are themselves ‘human links stretching back to the coming of Christ’.
They tell us part of who our ancestors in the faith thought God was – based in part on who their own ancestors in the faith thought God was.
The physical presence of church buildings, then, is part of the story we receive.
And, like so much of the story we receive, it is often an imperfect and incomplete offering. An offering that sometimes obstructs the truth as much as tells it. There turns out to be a great deal of diversity in how followers of Christ have wanted to express a response to the God they have known.
But this in itself tells us something important.
It tells us something about who God is that, by coming to time, God allows God’s self to be known through and despite the offerings and stories of people across time.
The theologian Rachel Muers offers words that help describe this sense when she writes that God, becoming Christ, ‘becomes what human words in truth are – vulnerable to mishearing [and] dependent on their hearers for their effectiveness’.
As God chooses to come to history – choosing to be one who will be known through stories passed on, through people’s experiences, and their own – sometimes holy and sometimes sinful telling of that experience – God is one who opens God’s self up to the risk of being misspoken of and misheard.
In this sense, as Rachel Muers sees, we learn that God comes not as a single powerful idea, imposing itself on human thought, but dignifies human persons by depending, vulnerably, on their capacity to hear his word.
Coming so fully, being with people so wholly, speaking their language, God in Jesus Christ could not but be one vulnerable to being, misunderstood and misconstrued.
It is these insights that, I think, church buildings can help us encounter.
In embodying history, by, very often, standing for so many years, church buildings recall to us the faithful – saints and sinners among them - who have gone before us. As the hymn has it:
These stones that have echoed Their praises are holy, And dear is the ground Where their feet have once trod; Yet here they confessed They were strangers and pilgrims, And still they were seeking The city of God.
church buildings present us, physically, with the ‘human links’ connecting us to Christ who came to the same world in which we live today.
And, in themselves standing as embodiments of a particular response to that Gospel story, they recall to us just how closely and totally Christ was given to the world. So totally that he would be open and vulnerable to our attempts to tell and sometimes – often – mis-tell his story.
Whether beautiful or oppressive, whether to us successful or not, church buildings communicate something of the same truth that Spencer’s painting shows us: that it was to our same world that God came; and, so, it is through people – and their peculiar, fallible, and contingent ways of expressing God through words, art, stories, and, in our case, buildings – that we know God.
Perhaps part of what is strengthened in our habit of being church in churches is the conviction that the gospel is not an idea that can be communicated pristinely or completely but a story that started in time and continues in it – a story that persists in imperfect ideas and not-quite-there language – indeed, these qualities of the story tell us a great deal about just how completely God gave God’s self to the world.
We turn, now, to a second image – this time a photograph of a work by Tracey Emin. In pink neon, fluorescent tube writing, it reads ‘I felt you and I knew you loved me’. It is situated above the west doors of Liverpool Cathedral, the dean of whom commissioned this work which was completed in 2008. As one commentator, Gill Hedley, notes, ‘coloured glass, light and text have been the cornerstone of art in Christian worship for centuries, and this work combines all three’.
In a single sentence, and in her own handwriting, Emin offers words which sound deeply intimate. These could be the inner most thoughts of one addressing God.
And yet they stand above the door of an enormous cathedral, situated where many hundreds of people would see those intimate words, written in another’s personal hand. In pink neon, they stand out like the neon signs that adorn shops or bars shouting out to onlookers to be noticed.
Something that seems deeply personal is placed somewhere unambiguously public. The sentiment that sounds as intimate as to be between just two, shouts out to be shared with many.
This relation of the personal and the public is something that I think proves quite significant to church buildings, which, like Emin’s work, operate on what we could have imagined as being private nevertheless being realised in public.
To explore this point, I want to turn to Genesis and think briefly about the practice of making altars to God.
Abraham built his first altar in relation to God’s promise – on Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, the Lord appeared and said, ‘to your offspring, I will give this land’ (Genesis 12.7). Abraham hears this and builds an altar in response.
The theologian Murray Rae has written about these early altars, showing how time and time again, ‘altars are constructed as a marker of the covenant relationship into which Abraham has entered with the Lord’. When God speaks, or makes a promise, or reveals God’s self, then Abraham or one of his offspring very often builds an altar in response, marking the land in response to the divine encounter between God and God’s people.
Rae notes that these altars become what he calls key coordinates – that are established in response to the initiative of God.
The land the Israelites are in is not the chaos of endless and nameless space, but it becomes, with each altar, spotted with places, each a public reminder that God is present, God is faithful, and God is drawing his people towards the good. Each a reminder that God and the world are bound together by the gracious movement of God.
In this sense, the early altars are a way of externalizing, and making public, marking in the land, the address of God.
And Church buildings sit in the same tradition as these early altars, marking places in relation to God, and making public the memory of God’s action or address in a certain place.
Early in the church’s life, the burial places of martyrs became places people would gather and build baptismal fonts. Churches were later built around these sites – in recognition and memory of the fact God had been known, had been present, had been faithful, in such a place.
And what I think might be significant about these activities is this attempt they share to mark space and so externalize their knowledge of the act and address of God. In so doing, they make a statement to say that God’s address is not related only to a single recipient concerning a single recipient – but is an address that relates to those beyond that moment.
God relates not just to my inner world – but the public and outer world that we share. These structures – altars and churches – testify to the relation of God beyond me – they testify to a conviction that who God is relates to the whole of life – that the truth I know of God implicates the truth of all else. It is a whole, uncontainable, vision, that touches the rest of what I know and see. Touches the rest of what I don’t know and don’t see.
And, if we can imagine, in any way, the churches we go to as connected to this tradition of marking space through altars and structure, of externalizing the address and act of God we have known, then maybe our going to church becomes a way of saying, likewise, that the God we know does not only relate to us – but relates to the whole of life.
One building that makes this point quite strikingly is Fitzwilliam College Chapel in Cambridge – which you can see pictured here. The chapel reveals a square glazed wall which forms the backdrop to the altar. As the congregation gaze up at the sacrament, they cannot but also gaze through and see the world – to see one requires seeing the other – a statement indeed that the love encountered in that sacramental moment is a love that reaches and touches all things. And our relation to it – to the sacrament - also puts us in a particular relation to all else.
The instinct, that churches express, that God is not one whose revelations can be constricted only to my mind and my life but overflow and pertain to the whole of life – brings us back to the insight of Genesis. The whole world is God’s and loved by God; all that we see and know is given its order by God; all, will, one day be reconciled to God. God’s address and love holds it all.
Perhaps our trips to church – to these public markers of God’s address – are ways of grasping a little more the reach of God’s love, then – which meets not only us – but also meets every person we have ever met – and which waits for us and pertains to every place we could ever go.
And perhaps this also sheds some light on why it is so important that, where we can, we keep our buildings open – for others to wander in through open doors and encounter the love that Emin’s work articulates. Because the address she articulates – the address of love – is an address that Christians have wanted to mark and make public, to put in bright pink neon – to invite others to know it too, and to let it seep recklessly into every dimension of our shared life.
The third image I want to share is this photograph by Richard Long. It was made in 1967, and is titled ‘A Line Made by Walking’. And that is what it shows: a line across a field, made by repeated walking. I imagine most of you will know Brick Lane, in Shoreditch. It’s a bustling street I live not too far from, always full with people meeting, eating, and shopping. I read a plaque there not long ago that said brick lane started its life as a field path in open countryside, in 1500 – a path presumably defined by the routes that a few individuals, and then a few more individuals, and then a few more individuals decided to take. The grass getting a little more trod down each time, until, over time, the path became clear, became difficult for others to ignore, became a street, became a lane, became brick lane.
This photograph speaks to me about how the ways we take – and the ways we are – are informed and shaped by the signs and nudges that our community give us. The path we take, in all kinds of ways, for better or worse, responds to how those before us have trod on the ground we share.
In this final reflection, I want to say that church buildings can contain for us a host of signs and nudges which help us faithfully determine where the path will go next.
So, what might these signs and nudges be?
One nudge, that church buildings seem to offer, is the nudge to prayer. In preparing for this talk, I asked a number of people what it was that they missed about being in church and the answer I heard the most was this: it’s easier to pray there. There is, it seems, something about the knowledge that others have prayed in a space that makes that space easier for others to pray in. Someone I asked put it like this: she said, what I have to offer is so meagre, that I need to know others are praying too to be able to pray – and not just a few others – a whole cloud of witnesses. In a way that is difficult to analyse, many of us have a sense that theologian John Inge describes: that places and things do not hallow people… but the enduring faith of people may hallow places’, and in such hallowed places, our prayers can seem easier to offer.
A second nudge, that we might observe, is the reminder church buildings give us to consider our lives against a divine backdrop. By placing our bodies in the context of a church once a week we signal to ourselves the fact that as much as our lives are in this world they are at once oriented to another eternal Kingdom. Murray Rae makes an interesting point when he says that architecture, among the different art forms, is particularly well placed to help express the Christian’s sense that we are at once here and yet also living toward a broader horizon.
Rae’s point is that the character of architectural places is determined by no small measure by that which lies beyond it – buildings don’t stand in the abstract, they’re not seen in isolation, they stand next to other buildings, or next to great spaces; through windows we can sometimes see busy roads, other times serene water. In all these cases, the place gets it character from what is beyond it as much as what it, in itself, is. He cites the example of The Church of the Good Shepherd, on the shore of Lake Takepo in New Zealand, which you’ll see on the slide – the form of the church is far from unique, but the architecture enables a unique apprehension of the scenery beyond – the small cross stands at the intersection of the viewer’s immanent reality – you know, what’s right in front of her - and the landscape that lies beyond.
Architecture, he writes, as exemplified at the church on Lake Takepo, ‘fosters a sense of interpenetration between here and there, between that which is present and that which is at a distance’.
And that offers us an analogy with the Christian life – as we can apprehend one place, and what lies beyond it, all at once, so the Christian seeks to hold life now, with life to come.
And when we come to church, setting ourselves in a new context, we nudge ourselves to remember the interpenetration of life to come with life now – the eternal and heavenly with the ordinary and mundane. Not one or the other, but both.
A third offering that church spaces make is to offer us a physical reminder of the desire that people have wanted to know and commune with God. Churches continue to stand, at least in part, because people continue to want to worship in them. And, as such, they communicate and remind us of a desire that we can easily forget, caught up as we can be in the smallness, sometimes, of our own clutch of feelings and hopes in any given moment.
But they don’t just show us pious desire – they can show us something darker too. The church I go to in Shadwell is called St George in the East. It is a magnificent and beautiful building – designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was funded by the 1711 Act of Parliament which established a commission to build 50 new churches in populous districts of London. The agenda, to be clear, has been described as ‘as much political as pious’. The national religion needed to be asserted, it was thought: and ‘imposing edifices needed to tower over the homes of the working classes’, especially in the East End where immigration and non-conformism was taking hold, to keep such people in their place. St George’s is not the only church founded and built on a set of, to put it lightly, mixed motivations.
As it, and many other churches, stand, we are confronted by the fact that who God is for us is shaped and given expression by instincts that can be sinful.
But it’s interesting to note too that St George’s, conceived with these mixed motivations, has become, nevertheless, 300 years on, a place where a tremendous amount of social action occurs with and by the very people such a building was designed to keep in their place. Church buildings, then, in communicating something of the desire others have to know God, as well as frequently communicating darker motivations – to control and dominate – hold up a mirror to what us human creatures can encompass in ourselves – our desire for God, and our propensity to nevertheless use God towards our end of control – and our capacity, in circumstances of such sin, to continue seeking and pursuing the good even so.
In these ways, church buildings, as in Richard Long’s photograph, are part of what treads the grass and shapes the path we take. They are the legacy we receive – often useful – in helping us to pray, in inviting us to consider our life against a divine backdrop, and reminding us of the enduring desire to know God. But they are also a mirror held up to us – showing us, sometimes, our propensity to want to dominate and control.
The route they form for us in the grass is often helpful for us as we find our way – but it is also a route that raises questions and confronts us with realities that invite us to take care as we determine where the path goes next.
So – to draw these reflections to a close and offer a brief recap:
Meeting as church in churches matters deeply to many of us for many reasons.
And I have wanted to offer a few reasons that sit in the backdrop but nevertheless could be important.
One reason that church buildings might matter is that they embody history – they help us remember the faithful who have gone before, and, in turn, remember that it is through the faithful – and their offerings – the stories they have told us and the buildings they have built - often beautiful but always fallible – that we know God. And that God lets God’s self be known through such broken offerings, tells us a great deal about who God is.
Another reason that church buildings might matter is the way that they, like the early altars made by Abraham and his offspring, are ways of marking and externalizing the address of God in the world - and so saying that it is not just me and my faith caught up in God – but actually the the whole world, and the whole of reality, is addressed and touched and formed by God’s love.
And a third reason that church buildings might matter is the nudges they can give us to keep the faith. Our character being prone often to forget, to be weak of will, to be distracted – it seems that some of us at least need all the help we can get. And places that remind us of what we desire, help us to pray, let us remember the divine horizon behind us, and confront us with our propensity to use and wield God – such places can be of great help indeed.
Church buildings keep us alert, as in Spencer’s painting, to the gospel as it happened and is passed to us in history. They help us remember, as in Tracey Emin’s work, the public, all-encompassing impact of the divine love we encounter, its relation to the whole of what we see, and so its placing us in a particular relation to the whole of what we see. And, in practical ways, as in Richard Long’s photograph, they aid us finding our way as well requiring us to confront the kinds of ways we are capable of taking.
These are some early thoughts, that address the question of just part of what might be going on in our trips to church. And there are of course so many other angles to this – there is the physical presence of people, the sacraments, the singing, and so on – but I wonder – as a starter for our discussion – what it is that you have missed about your place of worship?
 Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank, For The Parish (London: SCM Press, 2010).  Rachel Muers, Keeping God’s Silence (London: Blackwell, 2004).  In Our Day of Thanksgiving  https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/212/feature/case-study  Murray Rae, Architecture and Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017).  John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place (London: Routledge, 2003).  Rae, Architecture and Theology, cf. ch. 7.  Rae, Architecture and Theology, cf. ch. 7.  http://www.stgitehistory.org.uk/history.html  http://www.stgitehistory.org.uk/history.html