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The Church is a Building
Towards a Theology of Sacred Architecture
“The Church is not a building, it is a people.” So runs the common refrain. These “Ten Words” frame the inviolable law of contemporary religious culture. This declaration is received as a moral imperative imbued with all the force of the Decalogue. It embodies the essence of modernity’s First and Greatest Commandment: “Do Thine Own Thing.”1
Since “the Church is not a building,” buildings matter little these days. Nominalism sets the tone, then pragmaticism sets the agenda, and then utilitarianism sets the stage. In other words, matter doesn’t matter, whatever works works, and form follows function.
But what if the Church is a building because the people are a building? The apostolic testimony is clear: the people of God are “lively stones” built into a spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5); even the “temple of God,” the place where God has chosen to dwell on earth (1 Cor. 3:9, 16). Given our own architectural designation, as well as the nature of the Church as habitation of God and sanctuary for the world, it seems unwise to dismiss all concerns for place and space.
I would argue that because the Church is a building that the buildings set aside for the worship of God matter a great deal.2 Since the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, the place she inhabits should be an image of the Mystical Body of Christ. The building is the sign (signum); the body is the thing signified (res).
But this is but another way of saying that the fundamental problem with modern Church architecture seems to be the tendency to divorce theology from praxis. Due, in large part, to an atrophied sacred imagination, there is a failure to understand that all structures communicate meaning and purpose. The rocks cannot be silent. Thus, the question is not whether a space has a definitive message, but rather, which message it proclaims. My desire is for that message to be the Gospel of the Glorious God written in stone.
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Architects are good artists only insofar as they are faithful theologians. Since building is essentially an embodiment of ideas, it would behoove architects to insist that those ideas be shaped by a robust theological tradition. Since embodiment is merely another word for incarnation, it may be helpful to allow the doctrine of the incarnation to influence how we build houses of worship. Among the many things that the incarnation teaches us, one is certainly that form matters. Architects must be ever mindful of the Archetype.
Following this pattern, the process of building churches would seek to express three key concepts: verticality, perpetuity, and iconography.
By verticality, we mean that a sacred space is the place where both transcendence and immanence are embodied. Historically, this has been done by giving attention to the dimensions of height, depth, and breadth.
God came down from heaven to earth in the Person of His Son—without ceasing to fill either. A Church building should attempt to convey this sense of Divine Otherness and Holy Nearness. Gothic Cathedrals, for instance, employed vaulted ceilings to capture the sense of sheer transcendence. Whereas, Eastern designs focused on breadth so as to bring worshippers into the presence of the domed heaven. Neither sacrificed transcendence or immanence on the altar of comfort. Such a commitment allows for variety of expression, so long as the categories of heaven and earth do not collapse under the weight of anthropocentric ego. Alas, there are more things in heaven and earth, dear Architect, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
By perpetuity, we mean that a sacred space is the place where time and eternity, where promise and prospect, are wedded together. Wherever the Church is, there you have a living example of realized eschatology.
The Incarnation represents the Eternal in the midst of Time. The ascension represents Time in the midst of Eternity. And the Resurrection assures us that the veil separating the two has been forever torn asunder. At the practical level, this means that Churches should be built with stability and durability in mind. As the center of the Christian world, our churches should not be viewed as transient institutions. We have it on good authority that foolish builders prefer sand but wise builders choose stone.
By iconography, we simply mean that a sacred space is an image of a spiritual reality. Christ, the express Image of God, was made manifest to the fallen images of God in order that their visage might be redeemed and restored. Christ was the Living Icon of God; the Truest Temple. All other material images and icons are derivative. Thus, churches are mirrors of the divine and windows into the heavenly realities.
This means that, whether we would have it so or not, spiritual meaning is conveyed by artistic details, as well as the sum of the constructed parts. All buildings are architectural speech. Church buildings speak on behalf of God. Let us make sure that all of our speech is telling the Truth.
The Church is a building, so buildings matter.
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However, I don’t want to be uncharitable. Read on its face and in the best light, the statement simply emphasizes the fact that '“The Church” is an assembly of people, a gathering for the purpose of worship, and is not dependent on, or defined by a particular building or location. But the way that it is often explained (and perhaps more often received) suggests that it is somehow possible to constitute an assembly without actually gathering together at any place at all. In this case, the Church is neither a place or a people; it is an abstraction, a vibe, a mood. In truth, the Church is a body both mystical and visible; historical and eschatological; and is ever and always a peculiar people in a particular place.
This is not to suggest that those who are geographically, financially, or otherwise providentially prohibited from having the kind of Church buildings that are more theologically and aesthetically desirable are not in a state of grace. What is under consideration is the ideal situation. Or at least the ideal for which we are to strive as much as we are able in our circumstances.