Miscellany 35: Why Church Architecture Matters
Architecture is important. In fact, one can make the case that architecture is of the highest importance, because we live in it. I can choose to pick up or put down any particular book, to go to a particular movie or not, but I cannot avoid the effects that the architectural design of buildings has upon my daily experience at home, at work, as I do errands or sit in a coffee shop.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Oxford this year – long enough to soak in the beauty of the old buildings, to get used to the eye being able to find lovely things to look at in all sorts of places. There are gargoyles on rain gutters!
The contrast between Oxford and Cambridge and generic Southern California architecture is striking. I was particularly depressed last fall when I came back from a stay in Keble College, Oxford, for a conference… to the mass-market blandness of the college at which I taught. Temporary buildings that had defaulted into quasi-permanent ones… faculty rooms that could have been exchanged for any generic office space… classroom buildings designated only with numbers, not names. Granted, in SoCal there’s no depth of history, but what really bothered me was that the college wasn’t even trying. Functional, yes; new and well equipped, yes; beautiful — what? Well, there was some nice landscaping, sure, but the classroom and office areas were simply sterile.
The reality is that most people live and work in aesthetically displeasing, or at best neutral, spaces. Few people today in America work and live in buildings that lift up the heart, that provide beauty for the eye and harmony for the soul.
That’s one reason why we desperately need churches to be beautiful.
Beautiful churches and cathedrals are egalitarian. They make beauty available to all — even the poorest and most culturally deprived.
If a church meets in a gymnasium or a generic meeting hall, or a church that is just a large hall with a stage… yes, the Gospel can be preached, and the Spirit will be present, but we’re missing out on a great deal more. Christ is Truth and Beauty.
The centuries-old churches of England and Europe have a bit of an edge: they were built when people understood that the place in which one worships God is part of the worship that we give Him. The old churches, cathedrals, and chapels that I’ve been in take beauty seriously: it is part of giving glory to God, of recognizing sacred space as a place of transformation and formation in Christ’s likeness, and of creating an environment that can be a locus for the work of the Holy Spirit. But it’s not just old churches that can be beautiful – we can build new ones that bring beauty into our spiritual lives, that honor God with art, that take the opportunity to help us be more receptive to the Word.
And now a few pieces to read to think more about this:
Here is a thoughtful NYT piece asking: Why don’t we read about architecture? From the article: “Buildings are discussed — indeed aspects of them obsessed upon — but almost exclusively in the context of economics. This building went over budget, that surplus of houses led to the foreclosure crisis, that condo broke the record for residential real estate, etc. To the layman, then, architecture is conveyed as little more than something that costs a lot and causes a lot of grief, rather than something with the potential to enhance our daily lives.”
And lastly, here are two sonnets that I have written that came out of the experience of worship in a beautiful church: On the Edge, and A Sonnet for the Church of St. Edward King and Martyr.