A sermon on Church architecture

Today I had to give two different sermons. In the Novus Ordo, we are celebrating the feast of the Assumption. In the usus antiquior, it is the 9th Sunday after Pentecost. Often, when Holydays are moved to the Sunday, it is the Sunday afterwards and therefore the usus antiquior Mass is that of the Octave, so the subject of the sermon can be the same for both forms. (It does not make much sense to celebrate a feast before its proper day.)

For the usus antiquior I decided to preach on the words "Domus mea domus orationis est" with reference to the theological and spiritual significance of the architecture of a Church. It may be of interest to you (and parishioners might like to follow up the link the Duncan Stroik's article.)
The house of the Lord
My house is the house of prayer (Lk 19.46) Yet many modern Churches that we see have the air rather of a sports hall, the lobby of a multinational company building, or a Eurostar station.

Since it is supremely unfashionable to regard the Church as a museum, it is ironic that some modern Churches look just like the hall of a modern museum.

Is our reaction to these brutally minimalist and ugly buildings simply a matter of bad taste? Is it that we are really just too uncultured to appreciate the brilliant intellectual statement that these buildings make? Or have we forgotten that the Last Supper was in a simple room and not a baroque basilica?

Well if you have to be part of the cultured elite to appreciate the beauty of a Church there is surely something wrong: we have failed to cater for the anawim Yahweh, the poor of the Lord. The use of the Last Supper as a model for liturgy usually neglects the fact that everything used for such a sacred meal as the Passover or the communion sacrifice would have been precious and of the best possible quality. Building a baroque basilica is simply an extension of the will of the Lord in celebrating the Last Supper with the greatest solemnity and splendour that was available to Him.

What I would like to focus on, however, is the question of whether our reaction to such buildings is merely a matter of taste. To say as much would be to miss the point of modernist architecture which is considered by its devotees as much more than simply a matter of taste.

Following Hegel, the modernists of architecture sought to create buildings that reflected the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, in which “modern man” was unique in history. The break with the past was a necessary and radical component of the thinking behind such buildings. Hence the appearance of modernity with a brutal and “scientific” style would avoid any traditional motifs because they would compromise our radical break with the past.

Furthermore, as in movements in the plastic arts (painting, sculpture and so on) modernist architecture tries to eliminate objectivity. A painter inspired with this way of thinking will avoid any realistic representation of things in the world. As Duncan Stroik has pointed out, an architect will attempt to eliminate the distinction between interior and exterior, floor and ceiling, window and wall – sacred and profane.

Le Corbusier famously considered houses as machines for living in. Just as the form of an aeroplane would be designed to fulfil the function of an aeroplane so a house or a Church would be designed for its function. The damage of this approach was compounded by mistaking the real function of a Church, thinking that it was for the gathering of people rather than for the worship of God – so the Church was built as a machine for assembling.

The modernistic way of thinking is radically opposed to Christianity. It is not simply a matter of taste but of philosophical and theological error. We do believe in an objective reality – and that not only material but also spiritual. We do value our continuity with tradition both in doctrine and in art and architecture. And we gather in assembly not simply to be an assembly but to offer fitting worship and sacrifice to the Most High God.

Therefore it is right that our buildings should have a human aesthetic, should recognise the distinction between ground and sky, Church and outside Church, holy place and profane place, earth and heaven. We do value elements of architecture from our own Christian past. Within that tradition there is a great variety. In the West, we are familiar with the gothic and the baroque, but these and other different styles of Church architecture combine common elements of beauty, symmetry and a yearning for the transcendent.

Here at Blackfen, we worship in a Church that is not of any great merit architecturally (it is not likely to be listed any time soon) but we do at least have symmetry, orientation (the Church faces eastward), and some elements from our tradition: the arch, the roof, the raised sanctuary, and a worthy attempt with our Lady altar to draw from the beauty of the past.

These things make it possible to love our Church, to feel at home, to be motivated to improve it little by little. Most of all, we try to uphold its fundamental purpose, affirmed by the prophet and by Our Lord Himself: Domus mea domus orationis est. “My house is the house of prayer.”

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