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Online Edition - March 2005

Vol. XI, No. 1

"How Great Thou Aren't"?

A lament on new church buildings

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

"I'm thinking of starting a movement called Pagans for Proper Churches", Elizabeth Farrelly wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Herald. "Dark and lonely work, sure, but necessary", she continued, "because everywhere, under every log and rock, nice old churches are being melted down into nightclubs or ad agencies, while the new [churches] have the common-or-corporate look."

The article "How Great Thou Aren't" (Herald, December 21), succinctly describes several examples of "desymbolized" new churches in Sydney: "a convincing imitation of a laundrette"; "as spiritual as your average dentist's waiting room"; a "horizontal aspect to give the mystery-levels of a standard school gym"; and "a 1960s bank". (Sound familiar?)

"The times when sacred music, liturgy and architecture were troves of transcendent beauty are long gone", the author laments. What these churches deny, she says, "is the traditional role of abstraction and metaphor -- beauty, in a word -- in engaging [the] senses".

Why would stripped-down churches matter to a pagan? She responds to her own question: she has a "nagging intuition" that symbolism, mystery, cultural depth, spirituality, and beauty "are all somehow connected".

Why are new church buildings "being systematically stripped of all penumbral and asymbolic meaning"? The author blames "populism" -- a search for popularity that demands ordinariness and lowest-common-denominator beliefs. The church buildings express a fundamentally changed faith. She quotes an Anglican bishop, who said, "function is creating form, and the function is changing". The church's center is "no longer the altar but the audiovisual suite".

Alas, Miss Farrelly believes this "easy alliance between the New Church and the McMansion" is American-led. She quotes an American church architect, Ray Robinson, as observing: "Following typically American trends of one-stop shopping centers, the contemporary church often incorporates cafes, gymnasiums, computer centers... These facilities are designed to increase religion's prominence in the activities of everyday life and develop a sense of community".

Underpinning this view, writes Miss Farrelly, "is a profound paradigm shift. Abandoning the mystery... and otherness of the traditional Eucharistic church, the New Church models itself on human relationships. This changes everything".

"The traditional cruciform church plan can be read as a symbolic Corpus Christi, making the altar rail, at the crossing or shoulders, a threshold not only between body and head, but also between this world and the next; between humanity, if you like, and God. But the implied distancing and subordination (of humans to God) is no popularity cinch", she observes.

"So the new church exchanges vertical for horizontal, gloaming for daylight, otherworld to world; relationship with God, perhaps, for a 'community of relationships where people feel at home and welcomed'".

Where does this lead? The author quotes the late theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar: "We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it".

Diminishing the real power of beauty is a serious matter, even for "romanticizing heathens" like Pagans for Proper Churches, the author concludes.

Miss Farrelly's "pagan" observations resonate with lot of Catholics on this side of the pond -- especially those whose parish churches and even cathedrals have been subjected to the iconoclastic "paradigm shift" of influential church builders and renovaters. Again, alas.

***

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