.Church: more than meets the eye, part 1
“Throughout this course, as we look at both spectacular and simple buildings, we never want to forget that the essence of the word ‘church’ is people.”
At the very start of the first of his 24 illustrated half-hour-long lectures in The World’s Greatest Churches course, William Cook makes the point that, “Churches were designed to hold communities of people.” As he explains, “The Greek word that we translate as ‘church’ is ekklesia, which can be more generally translated as ‘assembly’. In other words, the basic meaning of the word ‘church’ is not a building, but an assembly of people.”
Having gotten this bit of housecleaning out of the way, having declared this truth, Cook goes on, nevertheless, to show off dozens of church buildings…as you’ll discover if you borrow from the SSUC Library and screen this DVD set from The Great Courses enterprise. But he asks the viewer to wonder all the while, “How well does this building express the faith, values, culture, desires, and dreams, of the people for whom it was built?”
In this well-reviewed program—it gets an exceptional 4.9-out-of-5 customer rating—Cook leads, as The Great Courses has it, “a detailed tour of the churches and cathedrals that he, as a celebrated Christian historian and medievalist, considers to be among the most outstanding, memorable, and meaningful, in the world.” Take it in, and “you’ll come to understand the architecture, art, and theology,” and how these buildings “express Christian spirituality across an astounding range of cultures and periods.” Indeed, dozens of structures in 19 countries are studied, from the stave churches of Norway to the cave churches of Cappadocia, and all are “lavishly illustrated”.
This claim is certainly true: the viewer gets to see “nearly 2,000 vivid photos,” which Cook personally shot when he spent the money paid him to mount this course by venturing away to inspect for himself each and every one of these churches.
This, too, is true: “Professor Cook is ideally qualified as your guide….” Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Emeritus at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he taught for 42 years, he has, during all that while, “traveled throughout the world to experience Christianity in different cultural and political settings.” A multi-award-winning teacher, he’s led study tours in Europe and Africa. Certainly, he’s a favourite of The Great Courses: The World’s Greatest Churches is just one of nine courses he’s taught for the organization.
It was last summer that a Library Learnings essay was given over to The Great Courses: it introduced both the enterprise and the seven DVD-based programs that had just been added to the SSUC Library. It mentioned that more—all having to do with religion, writ large, like the first entries—would be forthcoming, including this one.
In speaking of churches, the course overview for this study refers to “their essential religious role”. This will be the matter that will be wondered about in the remainder of this multi-part jotting.
A children’s rhyme: “Here is the church…”
When, in 2017, Ashley-Anne Masters was called to Presbyterian Campus Ministry in Raleigh, North Carolina, the search committee found “especially meaningful” the notions which she, as keynoter, had spoken two years earlier at a youth conference: “May we never miss an opportunity to accompany someone through the wasteland…. For…amid the salty tears of exile and wilderness, God is faithful still.” Previously paediatric chaplain at a Chicago children’s hospital, Masters, in her new role, “loves hearing how students interpret the world,” she mentions on her website, “where they find hope, and how they feel called to bring about God’s kingdom of justice and love.”
It’s Masters who, a decade ago, pointed up—for nextchurch.net—a certain children’s rhyme: “A little rhyme I learned as a child goes like this: ‘Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people.’ There are hand gestures to go along with it to up the dexterity ante: face hands toward each other. Lock fingers together, facing down. Hold both index fingers straight up against each other. Fold thumbs inward against each other. The index fingers make the steeple, thumbs the doors, and the other fingers the people inside. When the thumbs separate, they represent opening the church doors to look at the people inside.”
But wait. She added a post note to her instructions: “While we’re at it, let’s tweak the rhymes we teach our children: ‘Here is the church. Here is the steeple. The doors open wide to welcome all people.”
Surely, a proper place to begin is with the definition of the word “church,” and this is the first of several found in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: “a building for public (usually Christian) worship”. The whole of The World’s Greatest Churches DVDs is built upon this sense of this word: “…a church is, first and foremost, a place where communities of Christians gather to worship, to give thanks, and to call on God for help.”
“Our world needs more inspiring, powerful spaces that really enable us to build community.” In so stating, the St. Catharines, Ontario, firm, Parker Architects, maintains—this in a 2014 blog posting—that a church building can be “so much more than merely practical square footage.” This architectural company, well-regarded for the many houses of worship it has designed, holds that churches “nourish the human soul”.
Could be. In a “once thriving neighbourhood [that] has been racked by generational poverty, addiction, and the forces of entropy,” historic St. Luke’s Anglican Church in the Old North End of Saint John, New Brunswick, was restored in 2020, Cole Harris reports. In a piece for livingchurch.org, he, the assistant curate, explains, “The physical proximity of churches may serve as a beacon of hope, not only because they house the community of the gospel, but because they stand as reminders that beauty matters…[and] as invitations to rest and reflection.”
True, St. Luke’s “mission remains central. We are called to proclaim the gospel, feed the hungry, and witness to the love of God. However,” he adds, “preserving the beauty of the past for the sake of the future—this might guide some searching hearts home, as well.”
Aaron Johanneck would agree: “In the busyness and craziness of our lives, what a gift it is to have such a place.” A priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, he, in a piece in The Prairie Catholic, tells that the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms a church as being “’a house of prayer in which the eucharist is celebrated…, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God….’” It also instructs that “’this house ought to be in good taste, and a worthy place of prayer and ceremonial.’”
Finding “church” in the out-of-doors
So, a church should show “good taste,” and be a place of reverence, yes? Well, there are just such sites in nature’s realm, places that inspire, radiate awe, command oblation: think of them as hallowed ground. In his newest book, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul—to be found in the SSUC Library stacks— John Philip Newell, once warden of Iona Abbey, the celebrated pilgrimage site in Scotland’s Western Isles, profiles John Muir, the renowned American naturalist. He, writing in 1876, spoke of “the forests and mountains as temples”. “Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is being preached on every mount, said Muir. Every mountain invites us to awaken to the divine.”
Surely, one such “church” is America’s Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. “It is so vast,” Redrock Adventure Guides’ Steve Howe declares, “that an adventurous soul would be hard-pressed not to find a dozen sanctuaries here.” So it is that, 101 years ago, Alfred Bryan [1871-1958], a Brantford, Ontario-born, songwriter and lyricist, penned a paean to this chasm. The canyon is speaking: “My solitudes are limned in muted symphonies, my silences are organ-toned. […] My twilight is the morning of the gods. I was before, and shall be after. […] I am a voice that keeps repeating, ’There is a God.’” And then there’s this, the poem’s most redoubted line, and popular on picture posters sold in rim-top gift shops: “I am ten thousand cathedrals rolled into one.”
“Chasm of the Colorado,” one of the monumental works by Thomas Moran [1837-1926], epitomizes the flowering of American landscape painting. Purchased by Congress, the work is displayed in the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
But one ought not become overly attached to such a building. For the National Catholic Reporter, Bill Tammeus, former religion columnist for The Kansas City Star, wrote how a decade ago a historic Presbyterian church in midtown KC burned to the ground. “I understand,” he acknowledged, “that as a people of faith we must drive the stakes of our tents into the ground loosely, and be ready to move wherever God would have us go. I really get that.
“But I also know that even nomadic people develop a theology of place and space. […] And somehow we must live in the tension between the holy space we have marked off, and the places to which God would have us go next. I sometimes just wish,” he ended his article wistfully, “that God weren’t so anxious to move us on.”
Still, in the aftermath of another church conflagration that destroyed a Metro Vancouver church a year ago—St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey—Bishop Anba Mina declared, “[I]t was a place where we built community, where we shared meals, where we married our youth, christened our babies, and welcomed newcomers to the faith.”
From bad to worse, maybe: folks in the West “aren’t building churches like they used to anymore,” Ben Leubsdorf pointed out, already seven years ago. Reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s Washington, D.C., bureau, he reported how, “Construction of religious buildings in the U.S. has fallen to its lowest level at any time since private records began in 1967. […] In terms of dollars, spending on houses of worship totalled $3.15 billion last year, down by half from a decade earlier….” What’s more, going forward “the level of activity will remain extremely low by historic standards,” Dodge Data & Analytics reckons.
“Driving the longer-term decline,” Leubsdorf explains, “is a slow but steady downturn in formal religious participation. […] Funding, in turn, has been a problem. […] [R]eligious groups that took in half of all charitable contributions in 1990 now get less than a third, amid a shift in generational giving habits. […] As a result, many congregations are in no shape to take on big building projects. […] [E]ven well-funded congregations have been rethinking the value of stained glass and pews.”
(Cartoonist Tony Cochran recently picked up on this fact of life in his comic strip, “Agnes”. The girl’s friend, Trout, leads off, asking, ”What’s in the bucket?” “A fish,” Agnes replies, “I am nursing back to health.” “Where did you find it?” “Behind the Baptist food truck.” “The Baptists have a food truck?” “Tithing,” Agnes affirms, “is way down.”)
In Leusdorf’s conclusion, he quotes Mark Betterson, pastor of the National Community Church in Washington: “‘We don’t want to be about a building. We want to be about loving people and serving people, and sometimes buildings can actually be a barrier to that.’”
“Church is more than just a building”
Composer Amanda Udis-Kessler, who lives in Colorado Springs, specializes in music and lyrics for liberal and progressive religious communities. Her many hymns and songs, played from the UK to Australia, are popular with United Church of Christ, Methodist, and Unitarian-Universalist congregations in America. Her “amazing work” is, according to the forward-looking Jim Burklo, “a gift to the whole progressive Christian movement.”
Of late, she’s “turned to composing COVID hymns,” Religion Unplugged reported in an April posting last year. As was explained, “Her ‘Church is more than just a building’ is a response to the virtual worship services the pandemic requires. […] ‘I’m trying to push boundaries a bit, but also remind us of what’s really important,’ she said.” You may like the lyrics of her song:
“Church is more than just a building, more than wood or metal or brick./ Church is how we love our neighbour. Church is how we tend the sick,/ feed the hungry and heal the suffering, welcome strangers, and give to the poor./ All our service is as worship, all our presence an open door.
“Church is more than a weekly gathering. Church is faith that’s come alive,/ filling hearts and minds with passion, peace, and hope that ever abide./ Even as the buildings empty, we are touched by the deepest grace./ When the holy lives within us we are in a holy place.
“We’re the church in the path we follow, showing care to those in pain./ In the midst of fear and sorrow, we’re the church and here we’ll remain,/ seeking justice, showing kindness, singing praises in all we do./ Church is more than just a building. It’s our work toward a world made new.”
“It is our consumer-mentality that causes us to think we need buildings,” corporate chaplain Ken Eastburn argues in the pages of Christianity Today. “Buildings can be great tools,” he wrote in 2009, “but the church gets by—no, the church thrives—every day without them.”
“In the final analysis,” Matthew French maintains, “buildings are superfluous to the church’s identity and function.” Writing in 2017 for methodist.edu, he concludes, “The Christian church does not consist of the building, but rather is defined by the individuals who come together as one in the body of Christ.”
To be continued. The second instalment in this essay about “Church” will be posted to the SSUC Library website [ssucedmonton.com/library] on June 24th. Come again!