I’m not so sure anymore. I used to be “Oh, it’s the new Jerusalem typified,” and all sorts of high language learned in seminary. But now I’m not so sure we need to have these fancy church buildings at all. Instead of being the welcoming halls of God, our churches are barred and shut and inaccessible.
I love cathedrals, but whether the church can afford them is uncertain. Big buildings are a big drain on resources. Old big buildings are a bigger drain – they require repairs and maintenance well beyond their net worth. Money shouldn’t be part of the reason for getting rid of them, though; there are other reasons I can think of.
The main one is their inaccessibility. Unless a cathedral is also a tourist attraction, they are shut up and locked during the hours not in use. This is so opposite to their purpose that it astounds me. Cathedrals, and churches in general, were meant to be public spaces. They were in use at all hours,with prayer, worship, eucharist, confession and people meeting casually. Markets grew up around the cathedrals, people were in and out of the building and the churchyard daily. Now they are big monuments to the past, more like museums that are opened for the public on occasion.
The Washington National Cathedral, the cathedral of my home diocese in the States, is focussing its mission more on drawing tourists than on outreach. Tourists bring dollars that support the infrastructure, poor people do not.
Do we need our church buildings? We need places to gather, but this barely used hulk in the middle of town doesn’t seem to have much purpose. Locked, cold, dark except for Sunday morning and the rare midweek service, it seems to be sitting there, not only eating its head off, but a recrimination to how we who call ourselves Christians have neglected the faith. Why isn’t that church open all day, every day, with people gathering for morning and evening prayer, Bible study, children’s activities? Because the faithful have left, or keep their faith for Sunday morning.
Even Sunday morning can feel cold and stark. When was the last time a stranger at church was invited to someone’s home for a meal? When did the whole church gather for a shared meal that was free to all, members and visitors, passersby and strangers? Well? When did your church last have an open meal for which they did not charge?
Churches have become fundraising institutions and not the Body of Christ.
Maybe every church that is costing its parishioners more than they give to the poor should be sold. Maybe renting the high school auditorium or meeting at the Lion’s Club would make more sense. And maybe the flock is small enough that they could meet in a living room. The Church is not the church. The building, especially if it is old, authentic, historic, newly built and full of gadgets, musty, dusty, haunted, expensive, state of the art, brass-plaqued to a faretheewell, or George Washington prayed there, is a monument to the past, perhaps a mystical future and certainly to the egos of its supporters.
I don’t mean just the ornate and ostentatious churches either. When I was a child, there was great debate in the Baptsist Church as to redecorating the sanctuary. Was the plain brass ‘resurrection’ cross a possible idol? Apparently not; it went up over the choir’s heads, seven feet tall, shining brass and backlit. The windows were ornamented with gold curtains, the pews covered with gold cushions. There was as much pride in that simple “not at all papist” church as in a forest of crucifixes, icons, and stations of the cross. It was superstitiously plain – we had debates over whether we could have pictures of Jesus.
So, is it time? Do we turn over our cathedrals and expensive empty churches to some non-profit historic society? Someone come up with an argument that is not pomp and circumstance, please, and tell me, how do we go back to the vibrant, open church? How do we unlock the doors?