Familiar or Foreign?: Church Architecture and Worship

My friend, Paul, blogged about Church architecture sometime back. One point he made which struck me was this:

When I look at those religious buildings in Singapore, I know immediately which one is which. Were I to seek a Muslim house of worship, I would enter the mosque. The photo on the left of the Purajaya Mosque in Malaysia is instantly recognizable as a mosque. It's geometric shapes and patterns, the dome, the small minarets in the four corners are all hallmarks of the Islamic house of worship.

The same should be true of our churches. There should be
certain hallmarks that set them out as Christian house of worship, apart from the cross... and a number of modern churches don't even have these!
My parish church is about to undergo extensive remodelling. Many churches in Singapore have recently been renovated or rebuilt. Sad to say, they sometimes lose their distinctive characteristics in the process. My hope is that the same will not happen to my parish church.

Amy Welborn's blog has a fascinating debate about a more fundamental issue (of which humdrum church architecture may be merely a symptom) -- namely the question of familiarity in the worship experience. Do read all the comments. Some commenters discuss the 'megachurch' phenomenon in the US, which might seem somewhat remote and irrelevant. But then, we have our local variants too. Think NCC and CHC.

So what is your take on 1. Church architecture, 2. The nature of the worship experience -- should be it familiar, a seamless fit with other activities that form part of our 'lifestyle'; or should it retain some sense of mystery, wonder, or even bafflement?


Daniel said...

I'm not so sure that mosques are instantly recognizable from their exterior. They are, from their interior, because of the wide open space used for prayer. Heck, I didn't even know that the building to the left of the Taj Mahal (as seen from the front) was a mosque until it was told to me. FYI, the building on the right, which looks exactly like the same as the one of the left, isn't a mosque.

I'd say that every Catholic church does retain certain properties that make it distinct.

Such things include the presence of the tabernacle, the altar as the focus of the congregation's viewpoint. Some would include the presence of the Stations of the Cross, confessionals, and of course, an organ used for sacred music.

Ultimately, the Church is found not in the buildings, but in the people who worship God in those buildings. The Holy Spirit works through these people, not the buildings, plasma TVs and all.

Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Daniel, I beg to differ. Leaving aside your example of the mosque in India, the point of my example was to say that by and large, religious buildings (at least in Singapore) have distinctive styles. One does not (generally) step into a Hindu temple structure and expect to find oneself in a Synagogue. Likewise, were I to say: "Turn right at the Buddhist temple" you should not have to then say: "Is it the one with four minarets?" The styles are distinctive and for a good reason.

The impetus of my post (if you'd read it) was to stress that the Church building is and can be a sign for evangelisation but the church which looks like a multiplex or barn simply does not have that potential of witness. Moreover, almost everyone I speak to is drawn to beauty... Our churches which are devoid of beauty are lacking in yet one more element that speaks of God.

What I am concentrating on here, is primarily the external form of the structure. You may find also on my blog a post on the theological understanding of form and beauty, which underlies a lot of what I say about architecture.

Lastly, to say that we are to worship God in spirit and in truth and thus should not fuss over material things strikes me as somewhat Protestant and iconoclastic! The Catholic tradition has always upheld the sheer sacramentality of creation and the wonder of the incarnation... Refer to my post on architecture in which I point out Benedict XVI's reflection on this with relation to architecture. Better yet, read the book he wrote: "A New Song for the Lord".

Yes, it is not the be all and end all, but it does matter how we express ourselves in the physical world and our churches should stand as icons of our faith and a clear witness to Christ and His Body on earth.

Daniel said...

When the new Church of St Mary of the Angels was built, it received mixed criticisms. Some said that its architecture was very beautiful and felt drawn to the church. Others felt it was too grand and was turned off by it.

While a beautiful church building can be a sign of evangelization to others, it can also turn others away because of how grand it looks.

To me, a church building still is a place for Christians to gather and worship God. The people in my parish are currently suffering from the lack of spiritual development because the parish priest is focusing too much time and attention on the church upgrading fund, so perhaps that is the reason I feel this way.

Still, it is a very real concern that our Catholics are not receiving enough spiritual nourishment. Until they do, I believe that the external beauty of the church buildings can wait.

It would be pointless to have a beautiful church building as a sign for others, and when they enter, they find a soulless, loveless people no different from those outside.

I agree that beauty is lacking, yes, but the internal beauty is always most important. When that internal beauty is nourished and taken care of, the external beauty will be made visible as well.

Nick Teo said...

If every church is on the same level, meaning all are old or all are new. then we can argue on the point of intrinsic beauty. however, sadly enough there are many factors or conditions when people choose churches.

people choose the church out of conveniences, out of comfort and out of aesthetic beauty. that seems to be the key considerations in the congregation today.

on another note i agree with Paul and Chris saying that the definitive structure of the religious buildings are very important. Not only it gives the faithful a sense of belonging, knowing that you belong to this defined Catholic structure, it also acts as a evangelical component.

Frankly, looking at cityharvest, i cannot tell if it's a church. in the very first place, without the usual artefacts, can any holding area be called a church? call me traditional but surely every auditorium and hall cannot be a church, there must be a place for everything. you cannot say your bedroom is a church too if you were to invite a priest there to have a private mass. albeit the spirit is intact, where there is a priest and there is a community.

there is still a need for a proper place with a definitive purpose for masses and prayer to be held. argue all you want, we are just humans who needs external help to link us to God.

i suppose what we lack in human components, can be made up with material components.no one needs to tell you to be solemn, once u step into a definitive 'holy ground', you will keep the solemnity.

ChrisOw said...

I remember watching a travel program on TV and the two presenters were making their way across Morocco.

They visited several mosques along their journey, and I really in awe of the vastness, and the grandeur of the mosques. Those who built it seemed to spare no expense. The finest materials were used, and the best craftsmen and artisans employed.

Now Islam forbids any depiction of the Divine, yet there was no doubt whether from within or without that this was a house of worship. The buildings were such that even someone not acquainted with Islam in the least would ask, "Who is the great majesty that is honoured here?" or "Who is worshipped here?"

When we start building churches with nondescript exteriors and utilitarian interiors, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is "Who is present here?"

For Catholics who hold on firmly to the Real Presence of Our Lord under the Eucharistic species, that presence is a lingering one, not a transient one that is instantiated only when the worshipping community gathers. And the Eucharist will always be a Mystery. It is only hubris that will allow us to think we've got it all sussed out.

Now if Christ is sacramentally and myseteriously always present with us under the appearance of bread in our tabernacles, should our buildings not help to foster at once both the sense of nearness -- "I am with you always, yes to to end of time" -- as well as that mystery -- "The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world". The tragedy is that sometimes we go too far in one direction.

Yet I remain hopeful. The Spirit is always at work in the Church, conserving what is good, purifying what is not. The Church's great problems go far beyond architecture.

If indeed art imitates life, perhaps our buildings speak more of the beauty we see in our Christian lives than about anything else. We are mere pilgrims on the road towards the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

ChrisOw said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ChrisOw said...

Here is something from Crisis Magazine:

A quick Internet search of “Catholic Art” turns up a welter of offerings. True Catholic art—guaranteed 100 percent traditional—is easy to find. Online galleries offer “spiritual collectibles,” curative images (“The soulful image helps us heal”), and St. Jude Specials: “Buy-one-get-one-free on all St. Jude art products.” You are invited to “live your Catholic faith” with vendors’ T-shirts, prints, online frame shops, and no sales tax. At one Catholic superstore, you can add to your cart a sterling silver Della Fonte—not to be confused, mind you, with Della Robbia—Madonna and Child.

That is the kitsch from which I sought deliverance, wanting to begin a serious topic with a light touch. (Added since then are Pope John Paul II trading cards and Papa Ratzi memorabilia.) In all, the crudity of Dr. von Hildebrand’s reduction of my argument to “sing[ing] the praises of modern art” indicates a sour and constricted misreading.

The category “Catholic [visual] art” collapses into kitsch for the uncontested reason that the Church is no longer an animating force in the arts. Yes, there are Catholic artists. And, yes, religious subject matter occasionally appears. But where it does, it appears simply as part of the variety of modern art. It neither advances the iconography of Christianity nor expands the vocabulary of the visual arts.

Put plainly, the Church, at present, does not inspire great artistic talents. George Rouault and Graham Sutherland were among the last. This is not my opinion—it is a matter of historical fact. This ought to be a source of concern and honest examination, not an opportunity for nostalgic or self-congratulatory appeals to “Catholic culture” (frequently conflated with American Catholic culture).

ChrisOw said...

Here is the original Crisis magazine article which sparked off the controversy.

The Myth of Catholic Art: An Unmanifesto
By Maureen Mullarkey

Is there a uniquely Catholic approach to art? What is legitimate Catholic art? How can a Catholic make a significant difference in the artistic community? How should Catholics approach secular art? What might be included in a manifesto for Catholic artists? These questions are direct and compelling. They are also tricky to address because the assumptions behind them are complex and hidden.

To read the rest go to http://www.crisismagazine.com/april2005/feature1.htm

Br Lawrence, O.P. said...


If I may follow up on your thoughts... Pope Benedict actually suggests that the lack of beauty in our churches is a sign of our spiritual dryness. As a sacramental people, it is fundamental that we express what we believe... Thus, drawing on Chris' point, if there is a diminished sense of the church as the Domus Dei, the House of God and the Temple of the Real Presence, there will be a corresponding decline in the beauty and adornment of the sanctuary of that Presence. The loss of a sense of the sacred has also contributed to the prosaic form of our churches, void of any sense of awe and sacredness.

As such, the people of God who worship therein lose any sense of the awesome and holy God. The two are related and an integral, holistic and Catholic approach is to see that one contributes to the other. If you bemoan the lack of a spiritual renewal in your parish, build a beautiful church and that will re-invigorate the faith of the people!

This was the approach of the Catholic counter-Reformation, embraced especially by the Jesuits. Their baroque mother-church of 'Il Gesu' in Rome led the way in awe-ing people back to the Church of God!

If our churches are bland, pedestrian and ugly even, it is a sign of a spiritual malady. Yes, we need to sort that out but not at the exclusion of all others, including architecture... Not tunnel vision but a holistic and integral vision is needed.

Daniel said...

Hi Paul,

While I agree with Pope Benedict, that the lack of beauty in our churches is a sign of spiritual dryness, I really do not think that it can be implied that the return of beauty to our churches will bring about spiritual wealth. Rather, it is first the return of spiritual wealth that brings about the beauty to our churches.

Your thinking is very similar to that of my parish priest - build a beautiful church and that will draw in people and re-invigorate their faith.

However, I share Archbishop Nicholas' perspective - build up the people of God and a beautiful church will follow from there.

In response to Chris, I think that picture painted of JP2 in 2004 now on display at the Vatican Exhibition at ACM is very beautiful.

mochi said...

Perhaps we have fallen in the trap of thinking in absolutes?

Creating beautiful churches isn't necessarily going to lead to greater spiritual wealth BUT beauty can inspire spirituality. For example, beautiful music during mass can make it a more prayerful experience, more so than not-so-nice music (well, at least in my personal experience).

At the same time, I can see that increasing spiritual wealth in a community may or may not lead to the creation of beautiful things. I think that also depends on the community's willingness to invest (be it money or time) in creating beauty in their surroundings. If it is not in the tradition of the community to build extravagantly or to physically display their religious identity, then, it may never become a priority.

On a more practical note, it is a huge investment to build a church. Sometimes, it's not practical to wait for a spiritual drought to pass before we create a beautiful physical sanctuary. Are we then going to tear down the "ugly barn" once we reach our spiritual high? When do we get to a spiritual high? Who decides when we get there? What if we need to build the building NOW?

Yet, there is also practicality in building a church that provides its community with the most functionality. After all, it is true that the Church is its people and the church is just a place for the faithful to gather.

OK, so I'm really kind of being wishy-washy but I guess what I'm trying to say is: you can't have one without the other; it's the proverbial chicken or the egg question. Neither element necessarily leads to the other and neither do they necessarily exclude each other.


Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Mo, I agree. It is not wishy-washy but balanced thinking you espouse. Absolutes leads to fundamentalist thinking. I certainly did not espouse an 'either-or' viewpoint.

However, I would insist with the best of Catholic tradition, Von Balthasar et al. that true Beauty reveals God. If I may refer you to:

mochi said...

And insist you may.
Thank you for the link!