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designing a church building

Our diocese, with 24 church buildings not able to be used because of earthquake damage, is setting in motion a process to produce some design guidelines as well as strategically planning into our new and unanticipated future. As part of that there are three forums (two in Christchurch, one in Timaru) each to meet around six topics (visioning; transcendence and intimacy; sustainability; sacred space; engaging the community; biculturalism three-tikanga and multiculturalism).

We went to one of these evenings and found the engagement stimulating and positive. Maybe 60 people were involved in the more than two hours we were there. There were good discussions about being environmentally responsible, about car parking, about flexibility, about being open and visible,…

People often had quite a parish-church-alone focus. My suggestion of school as an outreach and a possible need with shifting populations surprised some – even with a tradition of Anglican schools in our diocese. Integrated schools (the state-resourced, Roman Catholic model followed by some Anglican schools) was a new thought.

Good thoughts about community gardens, vegetable co-ops, integration with nature, visibility from outside in, children’s areas (inside and outside), safety for evenings…

I sensed that engagement and service out in the community was, certainly for some (many?), still for the purpose of growing the community of faith – rather than an end in itself. Will that get people back into church? People talked about how difficult it is for the unchurched to just walk in (should we have overhead projector screens rather than our many books?…) There were suggestions we need to visit other denominations to get a feel of what it is like to go to somewhere that you are not used to attending. I suggested that for many people it was more like our visiting the place of worship of another religion (Has anyone in this group ever been to the Christchurch mosque? No. What about the Buddhist temple? No…)

Interestingly, for all the strong energy about welcoming, the evening itself is a parable of the Anglican issue: We arrived at the place the meeting was advertised, but there was no sign indicating an entrance. We could see people inside, but not work out how to get in with the multiplicity of external doors. We actually went in to the wrong door – and there was a different meeting going on on one side. When we entered the hall where our meeting was going on (advertised as: “arrive and leave any time”) there was no one to greet us, no indication what to do. People were busy around six tables. We sat down at one table. There was no indication who was “leading” or if there was a leader – nor what to do once we sat down…

Emails have gone out advertising the evenings to local communities. The email has: “The forms relating to each of the six different headings are now available from the Design Guidelines entry on the home page. You are able to download any of the forms and complete and submit them, whether you attended a workshop or not.” When you go to the homepage you can quite easily find “Design Guidelines Theme Papers” From there you can download 6 pdfs. Now what?! Well, as far as I can see, this is what you have to do: (1) download all 6 pdfs (2) print off these pdfs (3) fill in these 6 pdfs by hand (4) scan these 12 pages – I don’t know how many average Anglican households have this facility, but our diocese appears to assume people do (5) add your 12 pages of your completed pdfs as attachments to an email to cptdesignguidelines@warrenandmahoney.com

Anglicans are not naturally good at seeing things from the perspective of the user. End of parable.

A lot of people wanted flexibility. Flexible use of space. Seats not pews (what about fire regulations?). To this I add: How do you promote a sense of sacred in a multi-use building? Our bishop after the earthquakes’ destruction is deconsecrating many buildings and writes, “De-consecration of a church involves a short service of prayer, Scripture reading, and a declaration which returns the sacred building to secular use.” In what way, then, do we use a “sacred building” for “secular use”? What distinguishes “sacred” from “secular”? The cathedral in the square was used for a ball, it was rented out for graduations…

As part of my contribution I am offering a series on architecture for reflection as we begin planning new church buildings. You are welcome to add comments at any point where you see them fitting. I stayed at the meeting longer than I had anticipated. There was good, positive energy. May this process go forward to some really stunning results.

ps. Update on rugby as a religion, about which I posted here, here, and here: on television (the programme “Close Up”) there was a good reflection on this.

pps. I just thought of another way you can deal with the Design Guidelines Theme Papers: once you download the pdfs you can copy and paste the content into an email. Once in there they become editable. But hey (to go back to the above parable) if the natural Anglican tendency was to think of how it is experienced by the new person (not the regular) wouldn’t it be online in the form of an online survey? Someone can let us know how many people returned forms from this online availability.

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4 thoughts on “designing a church building”

  1. I think good questions raise more questions! I had initially thought in terms of church halls and meeting rooms being “flexible” in their use, rather than the likes of graduation ceremonies in cathedrals. Would we be happier if the event is a traditional use of a church (e.g. a wedding, even if of non-baptised people – or a funeral of a prominent atheist, say, so long as it is led by an Anglican minister and follows pages in the prayer book)? I do think this is a great time to rethink lots of little details about the way we interact with the community and the obstacles we place in the path of potential visitors (and not just problems for wheelchair access), but it is also a time to think about the hard questions – what do we stand to loose when a church is made so “flexible” it isn’t a church.

    Possibly the gain would be people coming to know God that would not have otherwise, but what could easily be confused with that is seeing some people stepping into what we call a church building (to have a coffee, look at the art exhibition, listen to the concert, bring their children to the pre-schooler’s event) and then leaving again feeling no more inclination to return than to any one of many public buildings, not having experienced anything sacred, and perhaps having confirmed in their minds there is nothing special about Christianity. Yes, community events should happen on church grounds, and yes: it would be sensible to plan facilities to be financially viable in the modern world, but even more thought has to put into the big questions like “what are we primarily trying to do?”, and I’m sure that is part of the aims of this design re-think process, but it is going to take a lot more discussion and thinking. And so it should, of course.

    1. Thanks, Mark, you expand well on some of the questions in my post. There is a lot of talk about working ecumenically – even calls for an ecumenical cathedral. Even calls for an interfaith cathedral. What is our point of difference? Do we want a point of difference? Do we need a point of difference?… Blessings.

  2. Flexible space does not necessitate multi-purpose. A flexible worship space is wholly dedicated for worship but can change based on the worship taking place. For example facing each other for a responsive morning prayer; semi-circle for a focus on altar; and maybe even remove all furniture for stations of the cross or meditation.

    But flexible space should not mean that worship space also serves as a social hall.

    1. Excellent point, Joel. I have seen more than one community altering their worship space by liturgical season – with, eg., quite a change from Lent to the Easter Season. Blessings.

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