“Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Look inside and see all the people…” Church is one of those words that, I think, generates a lot of tension with its usage. On one hand, the Church is a group of people. This is made clear in passages such as 1 Peter where the Church is referred to as the ‘living stones’ or in 1 Corinthians as ‘the body of Christ’. Scripture also uses other relational metaphors such as referring to the Church as the Bride of Christ for which Jesus returns in Revelation. The Church is a collection of people who in a variety of ways worship, have faith, and ascribe to the Christian belief system.
However, the church is also a building. The church may or may not have a spire, pews, an altar, or stained glass. The church may be old or new. The church may have been built as a church or started as something else and turned into a church. In addition, the church building may be turned into something else in due course. There is a temporality to the church as a building that does not exist when speaking of the Church as a group of people. As a result, the former tends to be given precedence and priority over the latter. By some, there is the conviction that the church building should ultimately serve the Church people.
While I do not think that one should forget that the Church is a body of people, I wonder if sometimes, this has been over-emphasised to the detriment of the building but more significantly to our understanding of the contribution our environment makes to our understanding of who God is, indirectly playing a role in shaping the people of God.
In the time when many of the great cathedrals were built, it was believed that the nature of the building was a key contributor to the worshipping experience. ‘The fabric of the building and its embellishment become the metaphors for the institution and what it stands for; the building of the church becomes also a glimpse of heaven.’ All aspects of the church were intentionally there to inform the viewer about the church, salvation or heaven. (Martindale 144) For example, the Gothic style emphasized God’s transcendence, lifting the worshippers’ eyes to heaven by their sheer height and lightness. The building said something about God and then informed the worshipper’s understanding of God–God is great, holy, and wholly Other from humanity. And yet, in this place of worship, God was there to be met. The decisions made about the environment were not only aesthetic nor were they only functional or pragmatic. They were theological – demonstrating who they understood God to be.
A couple of questions — What do our modern church buildings tell us about what we believe about who God is, and is this a valid correlation? How do you think the tension between the church building and the Church body should be managed?
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*Source: Andrew Martindale, “Patrons and Minders: The Intrusion of the Secular into Sacred Spaces in the Late Middle Ages,” in The Church and the Arts: Papers Read at the 1990 Summer Meeting and the 1991 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Diana Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), 144.