Do buildings matter, or don’t they?

We have begun a master-planning process to envision how we might adapt our space to the possibilities of mission and ministry in the twenty-first century (I know, we’re already 12 years into the century, but still). Such an effort might seem silly, even foolhardy given the times, the economic realities, and the decline of mainline Christianity. And then there is the question whether we should put time, effort, and money into buildings at all. As one Episcopal site recently explained “Why our buildings don’t matter.”

But let’s face reality. At the end of the day our buildings just don’t matter. The people outside our beautiful buildings are what matters. Because let’s face it—it’s all about relationships, not real estate.

Now, I’ll be the first person to say that our buildings don’t matter–“Where two or three are gathered” and all that. On the other hand, I recently saw a documentary on the architect who was responsible for what became the model downtown hotel–the Hyatt in Atlanta, with a multifloor open atrium and glass elevators. He said something like, in our society, public space is created by private people and policed privately. He was thinking about hotels and malls, of course. But it’s true.

Human beings have sought to delineate space for special uses from the earliest times. The great scholar of religion Mircea Eliade pointed out in The Sacred and the Profane, that one of the key aspects of human religious experience is the demarcation of the sacred from the profane. In traditional societies, even in pre-modern societies, sacred space was set off from ordinary space. He also argued that in the modern world, we’ve lost that sense of distinction between the sacred and profane. Our cities are planned on the grid system with each plot or block of equal importance. Madison differs from that norm in some respects, but the recent conflict over the right to demonstrate in the State Capitol suggests an ongoing battle between the notion of private and public space, space for civic engagement.

One of the remarkable things about church buildings like Grace is the way in which they continue to convey and communicate a sense of the sacred to people who have no sense of the holy. I’ve blogged about it before, but just this week, I saw it happening in the visit of a high school class from Lodi, WI, and in a funeral that was attended by hundreds. When people enter Grace, they encounter the sacred. That doesn’t happen in malls or schools or even in many churches that have been designed to look like movie theaters.

The question for us is how we can adapt our space to enable such encounters with the sacred, and to develop ways of helping people to move beyond an encounter with the sacred to encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ.

I’ve been interested to read about a recent report about the significance of Anglican cathedrals in English life and culture. The full report is here. Media reports are here and here. Remarkably, eleven million residents of England visited the cathedrals during the period surveyed. The report details how cathedrals have become sacred space for the nation, even for non-religious or non-Christians.

This report should give us Episcopalians pause as we reflect on the future of Anglicanism in the US but I’ve not seen much engagement with it on this side of the pond. Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Mary’s in Glasgow, Scotland, ponders the role of cathedrals in the rather different context of Scotland.

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2 thoughts on “Do buildings matter, or don’t they?

  1. Thanks for posting this interesting report. One of the more interesting observations was that:
    “In today’s world … travel is part of the holiday and people know what to expect
    because it’s in the guidebook. The unexpected experience is to fi nd that actually
    this place [a cathedral] does have a special spiritual signifi cance for you, which speaks to a
    spiritual sensitivity and yearning within you. You discover that this cathedral is a
    place of pilgrimage for you, as well as being a tourist destination.
    If the cathedrals are able to work with this duality of being both tourist
    destinations and places of pilgrimage, it opens up the possibility of encouraging
    a deepening of spiritual awareness and development.”

    I would simply add that the same thing also applies to many monasteries and even to many parish churches, which deserve to be appreciated both for their architectural beauty and historical significance as well as for their importance as sacred spaces.

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