A few days ago, on my economics and public policy blog, I wrote a post responding to a newspaper columnist who, responding to a recent column by the Bishop of Christchurch, argued that the fate of the severely earthquake-damaged Anglican cathedral in Christchurch wasn’t really a matter for Christchurch’s Anglicans. The building should be restored and rebuilt as it was, regardless of the perspectives, needs, and budgetary constraints of the community – the church, diocese and congregation – whose building it is or was. The proposed disregard for property rights was quite breathtaking. A commenter on that post, himself a member of the diocesan synod, indicated his assessment was that if synod members had a free choice, most or all would vote not to restore the building, but to replace it (with something both cheaper and perhaps more aligned to today’s conceptions of worship and ministry).
Having said all that, I’ve also gone back and read the bishop’s article in the Christchurch Press, and listened to an extensive interview with her on Radio New Zealand yesterday. She was quite clear that, while the decision will be taken at the diocesan synod in September, she herself would not favour restoring/rebuilding the old building. But, if so, I have to say that she makes a spectacularly weak case in support of her preferred position. At the end of the interview, half of me couldn’t help sympathising with the Jim Anderton/Philip Burdon position in favour of rebuild.
I know she was talking, largely, to a secular audience, in both her column and her interview. But the absence of God was striking. And the dominance of a therapeutic dimension was equally striking, and odd.
In the bishop’s column, the words “God”, and “worship” didn’t appear at all. There was nothing at all about beauty. They crept in towards the end of the radio interview, but as if she was a bit embarrassed to mention them. No doubt, worship does seen strange to a modern secular audience – and social work resonates easily – but the encounter with the divine, revealed in a crucified, risen and ascended Lord, is what we do. We confront sin, in our own lives in particular, and hear the words of forgiveness and absolution. In worship, we orient our lives towards God and his purposes.
But instead, there is endless talk about the “pain” of people in Christchurch, in the continuing aftermath of the earthquakes, the need for mental health support. Even housing shortages and domestic violence are thrown into the mix. I’m sure they are all real issues. And perhaps they always will be, in Christchurch and elsewhere – it was Jesus, after all, who observed that “the poor you will always have with you”. But is there a shred of evidence to suggest that money that might be raised privately, or even granted by governments, would otherwise be spent on those other pressing needs the bishop highlights? Frankly, it seems unlikely. Perhaps that is unfortunate, perhaps not. But it is almost certainly the reality. I don’t favour governments (central or local) chipping in for rebuilding the cathedral, but if they did the chances of it making any material difference to the subsequent year’s mental health budget is passsingly small.
The Bishop goes on
Imagine, if you will, the population of the city of Christchurch coming together once again in an effort to help one another, as we experienced immediately after the earthquakes.
Why can we not return to that heroic phase when caring for neighbour was not only what was being done across the city, it was actually what we wanted to do – that is, to help one another.
Perhaps it sounded noble and even prophetic when she penned it. But to many readers – Christian or not – it will simply sound unrealistic, perhaps even out of her depth, as if the bishop doesn’t recognise the difference between periods of immediate crisis and those of simple ongoing need. People behave differently. Sure, in many respects the gospel to supposed to look “unrealistic” – the crucified Saviour and all that – but that doesn’t mean every unrealistic conception is of God.
Never mentioned either, in all the talk of mental health needs, is the distinction between post-earthquake traumas, which will be with us for time, but which for most – but not all – will fade. There might well be a case for more government and private spending on such services in the next decade. But in considering what sort of cathedral building to put up, the church faces a choice about a building that it probably hopes will last for 100 years or more (most church buildings do). If you don’t think you want a Gothic Revival cathedral for the next 100 years – including perhaps because of the construction and maintenance costs – say so. But don’t try to justify a preference for a different sort of (long-lived) building by a current community spending pressure that will have substantially abated a decade hence. Apart from anything else, even if the church synod decides to restore the previous building, it would surely be the best part of a decade until the building was open for worship again?
People can, and do, worship God on beaches, in wartime trenches, in home churches, in converted warehouses. In the strand of the church in which I was raised there is almost an unspoken preference for such places. Every single church building from my childhood was, and is, austere – and generally, not just austere but utilitarian and even ugly. We worshipped. Godliness doesn’t depend on place.
But that has never been the main stream of church architecture and thinking about spaces for worship, whether it is the tabernacle, or Solomon’s Temple, or countless churches and cathedrals across Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox (and other) traditions. Yesterday marked the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople, and the loss as a place of Christian worship, of the Hagia Sophia, one of the most beautiful places of worship ever.
As Vladimir of Kiev’s ambassadors wrote, more than 1000 years ago
Upon attending a service at the glorious Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople, they report:
And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.
Not every parish church, not every cathedral, can have the full beauties of the leading church of a wealthy and powerful empire. But then, rarely are places built specifically for worship cheap. And probably nor should they be – this is the King of Kings, Lord of Lords whom we worship. I recall reading once that Salisbury Cathedral, completed quite quickly for its day, took all the economic surplus from the surrounding area for decades. Simple but beautiful local parish churches can be as much of an offering for a small worshipping community.
There is a lot of pushback, especially among evangelicals, against this sort of spending. It is asserted that much of it is about social prestige, and rivalry between cities and leaders, as about worship of Almighty God. No doubt. But is anything we humans do done from totally pure motives? But there is no hint that Solomon’s temple, in all its glory, erected at vast cost, was something of which God disapproved. I struggled with these issues for years, until at last I read (well, noticed, probably for the first time) of Bezalel, in Exodus 31. When it came time to construct the tabernacle
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, or the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”
It wasn’t just a human offering – although that too – but omeone actively “filled with the Spirit of God”, and equipped to create something of great beauty.
Yesterday’s style of architecture aren’t necessarily today’s. Much as I love the choral worship of traditional Anglican cathedrals, it isn’t the only – or necessarily the best – way to worship, then or now. So it seems quite legitimate for Christchurch’s Anglicans to make choices about what sort of building will best serve as seat for the bishop, mother church of the diocese, and forum for congregational worship, that reflects the best of today.
What saddens me is that the bishop seems to have so little confidence in the importance of worship, in the place of beauty in the worship of God creater of all things, that she can’t speak that language when she articulates to a wider audience what the church is about. I don’t know much about her so this isn’t a reflection on her specifically, but often these days mainline church leaders seem to have confidence in the language of political action and social spending – bureaucrats of an NGO sector – than in talking about the God who has visited and redeemed his people, the God who calls us to worship, to repentance, praise, thanksgiving, eucharistic celebration, and the teaching, encouragement and rebuke, in the exposition of Scripture.
When that happens it is a shame. It subtly diminishes the glory of the living God, and speaks of any old gathering place or forum for the administration of good deeds rather than the glory of Christian worship. Of course, plenty of worship is mundane, but surely we look to leaders – bishops for example – to bear witness to the best of what do in churches or cathedrals, not to be (ever so slightly) embarrased by it. Jesus wasn’t embarrassed to have the penitent woman pour expensive perfume over his feet. It could have been used for mental health services – something of the sort was suggested at the time – but it was an expensive act of pure worship. When we build places for the worship of God, there is something fit and right about it being an expensive offering. That proposition doesn’t tell me – or the Christchurch – which way they should go, or how much they should spend. And the realism of a declining church, potential torn in two before too long, isn’t something it is wrong to take account of. But we worship the King of Kings. And we hold before us – and those to whom we bear witness – the vision of the John
- I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Brides can marry in jeans and t-shirtm but when they have the choice few do. The church isn’t the building, but all the way back to Bezalel, people have honoured God through their buildings, their art, their music, as well as attempting to live the teaching of Matthew 25. Creation is good. And the very best of created things, we offer to God.