When church architects experiment with ‘untheological ideas’

Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista.jpg

Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Ticino, Switzerland

This morning, I’ve been packing up books, making ready some space for what promises to be a new whizz-bang modern office that will appear sometime over the Summer. This offers the perfect opportunity for procrastination – for blogging, for example – and for opening up some dusty tomes long neglected by all but the various arthropods who have died under their weight. One such example is Peter Hammonds’s Liturgy and Architecture (published in 1960) under whose spine a huntsman spider took its last breaths, and among whose pages I happened upon these words lamenting, in tones more sanguine than one might employ today, the absence of theological and liturgical wisdom in architectural decisions about spaces designated for worship. Those pastors and others who have grieved when many of the most important decisions about such things are left in the hands of some 17-year-old salesman at the sound system shop, or by the church bean counter, will understand why these words struck a note:

‘Whereas on the Continent church architecture has been in deep communication with theology and liturgy since the early ‘twenties, in this country it has been carried on in an æsthetic vacuum and treated as something quite peripheral to the Church’s pastoral and missionary task: the preserve of antiquarians, archdeacons, secretaries of boards of finance and church-furnishers. Though ample resources of fresh thinking have been available, they have not been brought to bear on the design of our new churches. Those who have been building have held little converse with those who have been theologising or liturgising. The results have been disastrous. Lacking the brief which only the theologian and the liturgist could supply, architects have experimented with untheological ideas, and for want of any guidance as to fundamental principles have been forced to rely upon fashionable clichés culled from the architectural periodicals, or from a Scandinavian holiday, to give their churches a superficial modernity’.

Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

Christianity as Spiritual Architecture

‘Although contemporary people often think of architecture as static or perhaps stifling, buildings often “live.” Medieval Christians attempted to translate their spiritual sensibilities into some sort of structure that would communicate life – even long after the builders died. Chartres Cathedral would not exist if not for the two great institutions of the Middle Ages – the monastery and the parish church.

To medieval people, church buildings expressed their spirituality – their visions, virtues, and dreams of God. Church buildings were the geography of paradise, the actual location where God’s reign of beauty and justice could be experienced. Buildings, and the arts and liturgies therein, demonstrated the mysterious interweavings of the worlds, the playful combination of this world and the one beyond. Holiness was translated into visible structures where people might see, touch, and feel the beauty of God. Medieval builders captured this sense, creating sacred spaces that were both spiritually unpredictable and theologically structured at the same time.

Because the church building was holy geography, communities spend enormous resources of time, money, and talent constructing church buildings; the church stood as both a location of paradise and an icon of communal identity. Medieval people associated the actual building with God’s reign and were ferociously protective of their churches. In the 1130s, Peter of Bruis, a French preacher, promoted the idea that God had no use for church buildings. To him they interfered with the purity and simplicity of faith. Peter urged Christians in the town of Saint-Gilles to give up their church and burn its ornaments, including its crosses, dramatically illustrating the point by lighting a pyre. The people of Saint-Gilles, whose church was a major pilgrimage site, responded by tossing poor Peter on his own bonfire’. – Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperOne, 2009).