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From the November, 2002 issue of Touchstone


Sacred Teepees by Dwight Longenecker

Sacred Teepees

Dwight Longenecker on Modern Church Architecture

I am lucky. My job as a charity representative means I visit a different Catholic parish every weekend. Traveling around southwest England gives me the chance to indulge one of my favorite hobbies: church snooping. Any church is interesting—even modern preaching halls have a homely silence about them. But I admit I don’t usually aim for the Methodist halls and Baptist chapels. I look out for the old-timers.

Church snooping here in England means pulling up in little villages to explore those humble historic treasures, the ancient parish churches. I never get tired of spotting the tower of a distant village, then pulling off the road, traipsing across the ancient churchyard to see if the door just might be open. Philip Larkin recounted the same gentle obsession in his poem “Church Going”:

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on,
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle clips in awkward reverence.

A New Style

But I’m in a car, not on a bike, and once I get behind the wheel again, I have to push on to my modern Catholic parish, usually one built after the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II brought a new approach to the Liturgy, and zealous clergy teamed up with trendy architects to establish a new Catholic style. They also wanted to make a political statement. Worship and churches were to be more “people-centered.” The result is an architecture that can only be called the teepee style of church architecture. The Catholic cathedral in Liverpool is even called “Paddy’s Wigwam.”

Built from modern materials of glass, steel, and concrete, these churches were designed to follow the new dogmas of egalitarianism and liturgical folksiness. Hierarchical ideas were anathema, and a shallow form of democracy ruled the day. Church architects followed Frank Lloyd Wright’s brutal rule of modern architecture—“form follows function”—and to facilitate the new understanding of the Liturgy, they built round churches with an altar at the center and the people gathered around. Suddenly it did not matter if a church was beautiful or not. It did not matter if it expressed the glory of God. It did not matter if it was an effort to reveal the transcendent beauty of worship. What mattered was, “Is it liturgically (and politically) correct?”

On my weekends exploring England I come across these round churches. Often they are plopped down like some huge concrete excrement in a mellow suburb of gracious Victorian houses fronted by rose beds and manicured lawns. Other times they appear in modest inner-city housing developments, and you have trouble distinguishing between the church and the multi-level parking lot.

I have asked numerous priests and people if they like our own cathedral, a monstrous sprawl of concrete that squats in a suburb of Bristol. Not one has said he loves it. The most positive response I get is from priests who say, “It works well liturgically.” That is fine, but it is not the same thing as loving a building. How can one love a building that is merely functional? Can one love a parking garage?

I have tried to love these modern churches because I dislike the tendency among church people to be whining antiquarians. I don’t believe in a golden age of religion, art, or architecture. I believe a man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies. I have therefore made a real effort to be open-minded. I have tried to discover the hidden greatness of our modern teepee churches. In the end I failed and have turned my energies instead to asking why exactly I dislike such churches. Why do they not lift the spirits? Why do we not find them beautiful? Why do they fail to reflect Christian theology and spirituality?

Perhaps the answer is that the teepee churches do not actually fulfill their function. If they are supposed only to provide a place for the people of God to gather around the altar, they fulfill their function admirably. But perhaps part of their function is to be beautiful as well. Isn’t a church more than a meeting hall? Shouldn’t a church lift the mind and heart to God? Shouldn’t a Christian building reflect the great Christian mystery and point beyond itself to the mystery of the Incarnation? In other words, perhaps I dislike round churches not because they are functional, but because they are not functional enough.

The Past’s Answer

The answer may be found by looking to the past rather than to mid-twentieth-century architectural manuals. I wonder how many church architects are actually well versed in the history of ecclesiastical architecture. The buildings they design indicate a complete ignorance—perhaps even a wilful ignorance—of this aspect of the great tradition. If I am right in this suspicion, are they not guilty of architectural iconoclasm? They may not pull down the old houses of prayer (though they often do), but their deliberate ignorance of the tradition indicates a similarly iconoclastic mentality.

They pretend that the idea that a church should be the gathering place for the people of God is somehow novel. But the tradition of Christian architecture has always promoted the communal worship of the people of God. The Christian tradition of architecture was developed from the Old Testament model of the tabernacle and the temple, and if we believe the Scriptures were given by inspiration of God, is it too far-fetched to imagine that the Old Testament actually provides a basic model for Christian architecture?

The book of Exodus gives detailed instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, and Solomon’s Temple was structured on the same basic plan. No one expects Christian churches to be Disneyesque reproductions of Solomon’s Temple, but the basic principles laid down in the design of the tabernacle and temple should inform Christian architecture.

The basic plan of the tabernacle and the temple was that of an outer courtyard for the gathering of the people, an inner courtyard for the initiates, and the holy of holies for the priests, containing the Ark of the Covenant and separated from the inner court by a great curtain from top to bottom. This pattern gathers together the different functions of a house of worship. The outer court gathers all the people for the sacrifice to God. The inner courtyard sets apart a place for prayer and worship. The holy of holies sets apart a place of mystery and transcendence. The structure gives the sense that the temple is a “Bethel,” the house of God—that it is not only a meeting place of people, but also the meeting place of earth and heaven.

This three-fold structure also expressed the linear aspect of the Jewish (and later the Christian) religion. It provides a focus and direction for the worshiper. There is a front and a back to the church. There is a beginning and an end. The Judeo-Christian tradition is not cyclical. We do not believe in reincarnation and an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Some Native American tribes placed their round teepees in circles around the fire because they believed the whole of nature was cyclical. The ancient Jews and Christians gave their buildings a linear form to affirm that each individual and the whole cosmos has a beginning and an end—an Alpha and an Omega.

Up to the 1960s, whether the style was Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Neoclassical, or Baroque, the three-fold pattern and the direction were retained. In the Catholic tradition, the church could be broken down into nave (outer courtyard), chancel (inner courtyard), and sanctuary (holy of holies).

In the Catholic tradition, the tabernacle (where the blessed sacrament is reserved) is also placed in the sanctuary, where it symbolizes both the Ark of the Covenant and an extra holy of holies. Most even have a little curtain inside to reflect the curtain in the tabernacle and the temple. In the Orthodox tradition, the nave is separated by the iconostasis or screen from the chancel and sanctuary, the equivalent of the holy of holies, where the Eucharist is celebrated. Protestant churches did not follow the pattern so completely, but even they retained a sense of direction and focus with the people turning toward the Word of God, symbolized in the pulpit.

Inspirational Buildings

The self-help gurus tell us how our clothing influences the way we behave. They would probably also suggest that our buildings influence the way we behave. The modern architect’s motto is “form follows function,” but what if function follows form? A medieval church architect wanted to build a church “so glorious that it would inspire even the dullest heart to prayer.” If beautiful buildings can actually help inspire prayer, function does follow form. If this is so in a positive way, then it must also be so negatively.

In other words, an architect who takes no thought for beauty or transcendence can help destroy the idea of beauty and transcendence in those who try to worship in his building. Could it be that the dismal state of the Liturgy, the lack of reverence among both priests and people, and the lackadaisical attitude to the awesome mystery of our religion is inspired and encouraged by the brutal buildings in which we gather?

Does anyone stop to visit a round church simply to sit still in the silence and to soak in the spirit of the place? Does one look to a round church to contemplate all that lies beyond? Perhaps some people do. For me a round church doesn’t help me look anywhere but inward, for there is nowhere else to look. A linear church, on the other hand, directs my attention beyond myself. Furthermore, in a linear church there are usually side chapels, nooks and crannies where all sorts of treasures lie hidden. When you explore them, you may discover an unknown saint, a remarkable stained glass window, or a quiet shaft of sunlight filtering through to illuminate an ancient tomb.

All of this speaks of faith that is also more vast than we can imagine—a faith in which there are hidden treasures and undiscovered corners of delight. A faith where we can go “further up and further in.” In a round church there is no beyond. There is no “further up and further in.” There is only round and round. At worst, round churches are a subtle statement confirming the humanistic assumption that there really is nothing beyond this world, so we had better get used to it. They are buildings for people, not temples of God.

The ancient English churches I visit still retain the sense of being a temple of God. In them I want to sit still “where prayer has been valid,” in T. S. Eliot’s words. As Philip Larkin observed, in each church there is the “holy end,” which draws the heart and mind toward that “musty unignorable silence”—and beyond that to a land and a Lord beyond our imaginings.

It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in.

My plea is not to turn back the clock and construct mock medieval churches for the twenty-first century. Instead there must be a way to incorporate the beautiful riches of our architectural tradition into the modern world. Do we desire simplicity in our buildings? Nothing is simpler and more dignified than the ancient Roman basilica. Do we desire austerity and restraint? Nothing is more austere and beautiful than the great Cistercian churches. Do we desire an ornate celebration of life? Nothing is more ornate and glorious than full Gothic. Church architects must not slavishly imitate the past, but neither should they be ashamed to study the past and use the great examples of the past for inspiration.

If the tradition is rejuvenated in this way, the churches of the twenty-first century will be more than circular meeting halls. They may once more be temples of the living God, houses of prayer that point to God. Then, when we go up to the Lord’s house, we may say with the patriarch Jacob, “Truly this is the house of God, the very threshold of heaven.”  

Dwight Longenecker is the author of St Benedict and St Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way (Our Sunday Visitor). His latest book is More Christianity (Our Sunday Visitor).

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“Sacred Teepees” first appeared in the November 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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