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Going to church

By Helen Watson White in Articles

Buildings and community : a Connections article

The word CHURCH (derived from Greek kyriakon, [house] of the Lord) has two meanings: (1) a building for Christian worship, and (2) the community of believers. COMMUNITY, like SOCIETY, has two meanings too: (a) a broad one and (b) a restricted one, as in a community of nuns or a society of people with particular things in common, like growing dahlias.

The Church is a worldwide community, based on the group in Acts that held all things in common: a commonwealth indeed, where different cultures are held together - or should be. But my guess is that the popular perception of "church" is of the small, exclusive one, not the broad ecumenical one (ecumenical meaning "for the whole world"). The reason for that is perhaps that existing church buildings play a major part in defining CHURCH.

Each building has a personality, declares a purpose, of a fixed and permanent kind. The theology of its architecture remains the same as when it was built, whatever changes in ideas, liturgy or biblical scholarship have happened in between. The building may end up misrepresenting - even subverting -- a community's values.
The neo-Gothic style that gave Dunedin's Victorian church buildings such impressive height derives from medieval times. When the great European cathedrals were built, people believed that heaven was physically upwards -- and hell was under -- that Jesus came down from God and returned there at Ascension, and that those who've earned the privilege will join the saints and angels in that airborne company when they die. (Heaven was not for everyone in Protestant churches either).

Of course these massive churches are magnificent -- breathtaking in fact. I am therefore one of the volunteer team keeping the doors open at St Paul's Cathedral, and sending visitors on to St Joseph's, First Church and Knox as well. These buildings are not [yet] merely museums, displaying the best in art and craft. Representing diverse and active faith communities, they are big and bold enough to assert a real ecumenicity. The fact that thousands of overseas visitors appreciate them endorses this inclusive meaning, but with doors closed they look as inviting as a prison in the rain. That is unfortunately how some older churches look all the time.

The imposing doors and the vertical character of the theology informing stereotypical church architecture do nothing to make people seek "church" in the sense of an available community. Community - having things in common - is a horizontal concept, as in school fairs or fun-days, food festivals, multicultural celebrations, where everybody's walking around and meeting others on equal terms. Buildings with spires or even just high roofs can give the impression they're not for ordinary people, and large spaces can be daunting (and cold).

Yes, I'm talking about the proposal to demolish the Wesley building and replace it with a facility for community support. Although I'll always love Dunedin's heritage buildings, I warmly endorse the inclusive "horizontal" theology of the proposed village, which frames a local response to known local needs.

A church has long since stopped being the "house of the Lord" in the sense of the Jewish Temple. Remember only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies where God's Presence resided - and then only once a year. The specialness of Catholic and Anglican church buildings, and of the sanctuary within (where in my youth only male priests performed particular rites) was a historical remnant of this idea. I'm sure the idea most people have of church relates to worship of God at the top of a hierarchy, at the top of the world. They'd be less aware of the saying "Where two or three are gathered together, there am I", associated with the hospitable, community-based teaching-centres, the synagogues.

The horizontal Methodist message is clear: Finding good in everyone, Finding God in everyone. It's a great antidote to the idea suggested by the super-tall St Paul's, that God only deigns to be present in a palace, or we're not good enough for God. Touchstone has carried some inspirational articles about churches incorporating community centres. I say bring it on!

-- Helen Watson White, 7 June 2009

(Photo of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Dunedin, by Richard Cannon)