Christian buildings, even those of great architectural or historical merit are always meant to be somewhat ambiguous. That ambiguity has been played out recently at St Pauls.
They are built to and for the glory of God but Christ redefined how glory can and should be seen in suffering humanity instead of religious buildings. Their solidly speaks of God’s faithfulness but struggles to say that God’s people have no abiding home on earth but instead as its stewards such people are citizens of heaven. The religious building reveals that it is not the church - the people are the church.
Amongst other things important sacred buildings can further reveal our tendency to idolatry (turning objects into God), our capacity to seek stability when life is more precarious like a journey, our quest for glory and inspiration wherein the beauty of the ordinary or the broken can be missed or obscured, our need for order when chaos may be a more accurate reflection of life. They tell of objective truth but that may seem inaccessible or even disconnected from human subjectivity. They are places of both the powerful and the poor but one can easily cloud out the other.
That ambiguity is further heightened through their core business being worship which of itself can seem worthless, bearing no overt sense of productivity. ‘Other worldly’ becomes a critique of such practice going on whilst the issues of the world are pressing. But ‘other worldliness’ is actually critical to all worship if that means connection with the world of the divine which stands as ‘other’ to the known and seen world.
I recently was speaking with a designer who had helped to build a new Hindu Temple in Leicester who spoke of how the identification of a particularly auspicious day within the Hindu devotional calendar became decisive in identifying the completion date for their building project. Excel spread sheets, quantity surveyor reports etc all had to be re-ordered in the light of worship.
The apparent pointlessness of worship reshapes the world by the bible being proclaimed and preached, praise offered in word, music and symbol, time reshaped by festivals, sacraments and stories of saints. Through connection with divine space, we can imagine a world which has become more divine – that also means more just!
So there is plenty of connection with the worship inside the cathedral and the protesters outside. Both perhaps have a pointlessness as core to their purpose which reveals one space embodying a world made new. We’ve seen the ambiguities of cathedrals and sacred buildings but we’ve also seen what sacred space can offer everyone.
© Canon DAvid Monteith, Canon Chancellor