There have been suggestions in recent church documents that church buildings are a ‘limiting factor’ on the growth and spread of the Christian religion. The idea that church buildings are an encumbrance rather than an aid to the practice of faith is not new, but in these days when maintenance of old buildings is seen as a drag on mission the issue has become critical. Are religious buildings such as churches important and, if so, what purpose do they serve other than as facilities for people to congregate in to perform their religious ceremonies? Are the buildings in which we perform our religious rites purely functional spaces, or do they serve a purpose over and above what happens within them? In this article I want to defend the idea of religious buildings as sacred spaces, places which open us up to that which lies beyond, and which enable us to experience time differently.
One of the first things that people notice on entering an old church or temple is its beauty. These buildings have been constructed with love and devotion and whether they are richly decorated or simple and plain they reflect the effort, artistry, skill, and imagination of those who have been involved in their construction. Many of our religious buildings are national treasures and some of them contain works of major artistic importance. Some people would say, of course, that our religious buildings are simply museums and that the monuments and works of art that they contain are simply a witness to the past. I would like to challenge that viewpoint, for I think that our religious buildings (and perhaps museums too in a different way) celebrate something that is timeless. Beauty is almost indefinable, and it catches people in different ways, but when we sense beauty, we know that we have been touched by something other than the ordinary and mundane. Religious buildings open our eyes onto a different world – a world in which the works of human skill and artistry represent something that cannot be captured in human industry. Like the poem, which seeks to capture something unsayable in words, so the religious building tries to capture in stone, wood, and other materials, that which is not in the materials. A church, you could say, is a poem in stone. Beauty is an expression of the sacred, which is why for a time some people thought that art was replacing religion as the means of exploring the meaning of existence.
Another thing that people often notice and remark upon when they visit a church or monastery is the stillness and quiet. Even infrequent visitors to churches tend to lower their voices and speak in hushed tones, as if noise would disturb the atmosphere. There are very few places that are associated with an atmosphere of stillness and quiet, with libraries being another traditional example, and these qualities create spaces for reflection. Religious buildings often have a calming and stilling effect and draw one into a reflective mood, especially when they have vast open spaces that encourage what might be called the ‘expansive mind’ – a mind that is drawn out of itself and into connection with that which is larger than the self. Even if they do not know how to pray, or what they are doing when they pray, many people want to light a candle and remember someone or something in the stillness, and the church may be the only place where they feel able to do this without fear of ridicule or embarrassment. Sacred space, it seems, gives people permission to be reflective, quiet, and prayerful in the general sense of offering their thanks or fears or hopes into the silence.
For those who visit our sacred spaces it is often not the worship or everyday activity that interests them, but a connection with history. Many visitors scan the memorials on the walls, spend time inspecting the tombs and engravings, and like to discover the history of the place. Churchyards draw all sorts of visitors, from those who come to sit and enjoy the quiet and the still natural surroundings, to those who come to try and re-connect with a loved one or remember someone they have known or heard about. For me, churches are places where history lives on. Visitors are surrounded by walls that have heard thousands of prayers and tread on floors that have been paced by countless predecessors, often leaving traces in the worn-away stones. Stained glass windows connect us with stories from the past, stories that many associate with the time of myth and legend, and they speak to us of the things we long for – healing, forgiveness, acceptance, and love. Churchyards remind us of the cycle of life and speak the language of peaceful rest to those who find the loss of a loved one hard. The witness of those visibly memorialised in tablets and tombstones is but a representative witness of all those who have come to rest in this holy ground. If for no other reason, the space is sacred because countless numbers have chosen to hallow it as their final resting place. This hallowed ground connects the living with the dead in a stream of prayer that continues down the ages. The hallowing comes not from any personal worth or privilege, but from the prayers that have been offered – prayers that remind us that we neither our own beginning nor end, but that we belong to the stream of life which, as believers would say, flows from the heart of God.
Most sacred spaces seem to be constructed in such a way as to lead us forwards or upwards towards an infinite horizon. The magnificent towering columns of a medieval cathedral or the remains of a medieval abbey leave us with a sense of the loftiness and immensity of being, a little like the view of the night sky sometimes does too. However, it is not just the immensity of the enclosed space of a gothic cathedral that shapes this infinite horizon, but the way in which we are drawn in and beyond by the central feature, whether it be an altar, a statue, a sacred repository, or the mihrab that points towards Mecca. Our sacred spaces speak to us of that which lies beyond our everyday, mundane lives, and they remind us that transcendence has always been one of the central features of the religious and spiritual search. At a time when the Christian religion seems to have taken a ‘this-worldly’ turn, focussing perhaps more upon human needs and worldly concerns than this sense of transcendence, our buildings remind us of what we are in danger of forgetting – that the religious instinct is an orientation towards the infinite and eternal. Whether the religious stories we tell ourselves are true or not, our religious instincts lead us to reflect on that which transcends our ordinary everyday lives and the superficial way in which we are often tempted to lead them.
Are churches that speak to us of beauty, that offer us quiet space and slow time, that connect us with the prayers of the ages, and that direct us towards the infinite horizon, really a ‘limiting factor’ on the growth of our religion? Or are they the safest point of entry for a sceptical and religiously semi-literate public in their search for meaning and purpose? Saving sacred spaces may prove to be the best means of regenerating people’s awareness of their own religious and spiritual instincts – that and the producing of worship to match the immensity, grandeur, and awe of our religious spaces. That will be the subject of my next post.