Friday, April 27, 2007

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

Today I am resuming, after a break, where I left off in my series looking at some of the challenges I see in my present ministry. This was itself a part of the larger series on my personal journey! I am going to write this blog in two parts. The first today to try to describe my attitude to church buildings and then next to try to describe what I see as the challenge at the moment!

Whatever our attitude to church buildings, most Churches do own property. Do we see this property as simply the place where we meet? Or do we see it as having some spiritual significance in itself? This is the subject of today’s part!

The weather is getting wetter here in Hong Kong. We had our first ‘red rainstorm warning’ this week. When it is not raining, it is still quite wet because of the humidity. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like in the days without air-conditioning. When I look at pictures of the old colonial days, way before air-conditioning came along, I am amazed to see British soldiers in full ceremonial dress at the height of Summer. It must have been unbearable! Of course, the weather here causes no end of problems for old buildings, but I’ll come to that next time.

Have a good weekend!

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

Part One: Just Bricks and Mortar?

Some of you may remember me writing some time ago about how I first became a Christian through the House Church Movement. In those days, it was just that, namely, a movement that believed in meeting in houses. Many of those who were part of the movement had come out of traditional Churches. Houses were the only place to meet given that those concerned did not own other buildings to meet in! However, meeting in houses was seen not just as practical necessity, but as saying something important theologically. It stressed informality and spontaneity, family and closeness.

I have to say that whatever else I believe about the Church, I still believe that this was an important insight that we have not subsequently taken as seriously as we should. I would recommend R J Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, as an excellent study of what St Paul has to say about the Church.

However, as far as the House Church Movement was concerned houses were not only good, traditional church buildings were bad. God did not dwell in holy places, he dwelt in holy people. You didn’t go to Church to worship God, you worshipped him anywhere and everywhere. This meant traditional attitudes to church buildings were theologically wrong, they reflected the attitudes of the old covenant and not the new. The Church is the people not the building.

It wasn’t long, however, before the House Church Movement outgrew houses. Those part of it wanted buildings to meet in and acquired often very expensive buildings in which to gather for worship. (It has often intrigued me that those most critical of traditional church attitudes to buildings spend infinitely more money on them than many local traditional churches!) They kept the name House Church Movement, but that was more about past origins than present practice. Nevertheless, those associated with the movement continued to be critical of any tendency to accord the building religious significance. This was where the Church met. It was not the Church.

This theology permeated traditional congregations as well, not least through the charismatic movement. So congregations led by keen Vicars started vandalizing existing church buildings. Oh alright then, reordering them! The result was much the same. Centuries old pews were thrown out in favour of chairs that had a life of a few years. Church ornaments were sold off to antique dealers. Everything was about usefulness. Nothing was sacred and nothing was holy. How could it be?

Ironically the contemporary manifestation of the sprit of the House Church Movement, the Emerging Church, is rediscovering the importance of the holy and of sacred space. So places like Iona and Lindisfarne are suddenly tourist hot spots for radical Christians. It’s a funny world.

Many Christians found themselves caught in the middle. They could see the argument about the Church being the people and not the building, but they also loved what were often old and beautiful buildings. Another consideration for many traditional Churches, of course, was finance. Beautiful old buildings cost money, lots of money. Mission not maintenance was the order of the day. Why waste money on buildings when people needed our help?

So when I was ordained I found myself somewhat torn. I still had house church attitudes to buildings, but now I was part of a Church that owned many old buildings, buildings to which many accorded religious significance. As a curate, I had the luxury of not having to worry about it. As a college chaplain and a lecturer in a college without a chapel, I was again spared the problem. When I went to Banchory, however, I had to start to face up to it!

Both my Churches in Banchory were Victorian of a gothic design. While they had been looked after, they both needed work doing on them and constant maintenance. This was the first time I had had responsibility for church buildings, and I had to work out my attitude to them. During my time in Banchory, I found attitude changing in a a series of steps:

Step one: the importance of stewardship. At first, I took the attitude that whatever significance the building did or did not have, theologically and spiritually, it had to be looked after and maintained and this was just good stewardship. I did what I could, therefore, to look after the buildings and make sure they were kept in good condition.

Step two: creating a welcoming environment. As my time at Banchory moved on, I became increasingly convinced that looking after the building wasn’t about maintenance, but about mission as well. If the place where the church meets is badly cared for and dilapidated, as many church buildings are, what does that say to new people? Apart from anything else, you don’t want to invite people to a building that is in a terrible condition. This led me to work hard to improve the overall appearance of the building and to make it warm and inviting.

Step three: a place for worship. I gradually became convinced of the importance of the place where we worship for worship. I accepted, in a way I would not have done years earlier, that physical surroundings have an affect on how we worship. While worshipping God in a tin shed might be as valid, in God’s eyes, as worship in a Cathedral; nevertheless, some buildings, because of their architecture and the way they have been cared for and arranged, inspire worship.

Step four: sacred space. I finally came to believe that not only was the building the place where we meet for worship, but that it was itself a part of our worship. It shared in our worship and acquired a character and importance because of it. In other words, I came to see that physical space could have spiritual significance. This did not mean that I thought the Church was the building or that you could only worship God in special buildings or that you shouldn’t hold services elsewhere, but rather that certain places were especially conducive to worship and became themselves sacred because of it. Furthermore, I came to believe that these sacred spaces should be honoured as such.

This, I think, is significant for I know many Christians who would go a long way with me down the path I have described, but who would not want to take the last step. They would agree that looking after the building is good stewardship. They would agree that it is a bad reflection on a Church if the building is in poor condition. They would accept that we should make the building as warm and inviting as possible to newcomers. And they would even agree that the physical condition and atmosphere of the building affects worship. Where they would stop short is in seeing any building as having any spiritual significance in and of itself and so of being itself worthy of honour.

I respect that. I also accept that it is not true of every building used for worship and nor need it be. Plenty of people have to rent halls, schools, community centres, and the like, out of sheer necessity. There is nowhere else for them to meet, and their worship is no less worship because of it. Other Christians choose not to create or to regard the space where they worship as sacred, even if they could. They will meet in the church building for worship on a Sunday and use the space for something else quite different during the week. That, I believe, is a valid choice.

But is it really so terrible if some of us feel the space where we worship, and where perhaps generations of Christians have worshipped in the past, is special? And is it so terrible if we want to recognize that it is special by the way we treat it and behave in it, not only when we are there worshipping, but at all other times as well?

Well, that at least was the position I came to while at Banchory, and it was with this attitude that I came to Christ Church, Hong Kong.

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