Ghosts of power versus the spirit of community

Guest blog at Clayfire Curator [July 2011]

Architecture is always an embodiment of power relations, and church architecture, somehow, acutely so; perhaps because it deals directly with the relationship of a community to itself, its leaders, the world and God. Consider, for example:

  • a schoolroom layout - for those who want to teach
  • an auditorium with a stage and big screen - for those who want to spectate
  • the in-the-round mass of a modern Roman Catholic church
  • chair circles for small groups
  • the post-Reformation preaching box, to teach you to sit up straight and not be idolatrous
  • the plastic stacking chairs and demountable stage for fellowship in the local school hall

In the days of the Constantinian settlement, the newly established church took the Roman basilica as the model for its now-public buildings, rather than the house [one suspects, the dining room] that had been its previous abode. The basilica was a law court, and the Christians swapped the magistrate's throne for an altar and sat the elders in the tribune behind it, thus imaging God as both judge and Emperor, surrounded by His government. We have been haunted by that decision ever since. We still build our churches with an important end, where the leaders are and God is implied to be, faced by everyone else. Our buildings tell us that the people at that end are more important than the people at the other, have a greater right to speak and be heard, are more representative of God. To make a church look like 'a church' is to impose a set of implied power relationships on our community that may not be desirable or in their best interests.

There have been other models. After the second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic church promoted the centralised layout, putting altar and Mass at the centre of the circling community. Emerging churches have created spaces with no front or centre, all points and directions equal. However, despite our best intentions meta-structures reveal themselves. The centralised layout puts the priest at the centre, not just the Mass. The no-front layout exposes the tension between an assumption of no hierarchy and the reality of a team in charge [where shall we put the microphone?].

We mostly worship in the vacated shells of other people's spirituality. Our forebears often built as if they had found the final form, but finality sits uncomfortably with us. How shall we deal with change - material, societal, theological? More certain ages left us layouts that resist any change of church structure, pews and pulpits that are last defenders against heresy. Sometimes church communities get stuck in their communal life, not because of any will-to-power on the part of the leaders but because their buildings frustrate alternative relationships.

And then somebody invented the folding partition, and the stackable chair. And washable beige vinyl wallcovering, and the overhead projector. The community were set free. The sanctuary could be used as a schoolroom tomorrow, and a cake sale the day after, and no-one would guess that it had been a sanctuary, or a schoolroom, or a cake sale. They would be least likely to guess that it had been a sanctuary, and when it was it would still feel like a schoolroom or a cake sale. If the washable vinyl wallcovering, and the folding partition, had been printed with icons, maybe all the flexible events would feel like they were in heaven, amid a cloud of saintly witnesses. But the church is the people not the building, we say, and worship with our eyes closed.

But why try to do everything in one space anyway? Why assume the need to plan for big gatherings and single-point teaching? How about a church with no main church? Just numerous small gathering places. Different flavours, such as a teaching place, a party place, a meditation place, not in the same place. In my father's house are many mansions.

Consider St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. It isn't a single space, but nine separate churches sharing a platform. It's a multi-space not a multi-purpose space. So could we take St. Basil's as a model for our decentred, networked communities? Not one big space where we change the contents to do different things, but many small spaces with different contents and uses, and we move around? What liturgical game governs how and when we move from one space and action to the next? Do the spaces of this game need to be in the same place? Who is in charge, and how?