Intimate Presence of God
When I was growing up in rural Northern Ireland, you could tell what denomination a church was from half a mile away. Presbyterians worshipped in barns with balconies. Methodists worshipped in more modest barns, often made of brick. Baptists aspired to barns, but usually had tin sheds. Anglican churches all looked as if they’d been designed to roughly the same pattern too. There was the occasional long - limbed Georgian beauty, constructed when wealth and self-confidence were at their height, but most were of the school that I came to know affectionately as ‘stumpy gothic’. They had the arched windows, the vaulted ceilings and the flying buttresses but they also had a defensive rounding of the shoulders, castle-like crenellations, and from the middle distance, a certain suspicious squint. They seemed to be designed to function as trailers for the forthcoming attraction of heaven, with the added reassurance that heaven would be filled with People Like Us.
When I was at university, I was persuaded by my boyfriend to worship for a while at the Catholic Chaplaincy. This was a fairly large room in a converted Elizabethan half-timbered house. The
walls were bare, the altar was the focus and it was set up right in the middle of the room. The purpose of this light, uncluttered space was to promote community united by the sacrifice of the
Mass. Before that, I’d never really encountered a church that was designed not as the House of God but the House of the People of God. I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked it, but it encouraged me to ask questions about what exactly churches were for, for the first time. Recently those questions came back to me – along with a whole slew of new ones – when I took part in the Cathedral
Study Tour. This was a 10-day whistlestop experience of contemporary church builds, traditional cathedrals, and mixtures of old and new in the USA, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, France and the UK. The tour was a continual surprise. It is probably fair to say that some of the buildings which I had expected to impress me most left me cold and some of those which made me scratch my head in perplexity shocked me with their sense of the intimate presence of God. Among the latter, two stood out. One was Antoni Gaudi’s extraordinary Expiatory Church of
the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I’d seen this Cathedral as a student and it hadn’t impressed. It reminded me then of a sticky mess of chewing gum on a shoe straining to stretch between the
sole and the earth. Maybe it was the time given to us by the Cathedral’s chief architects and their infectious enthusiasm for Gaudi’s vision that made the difference, or perhaps I am just older and wiser now, but this time it seemed like an exuberant monument to faith in God and exceptional human creativity. Its genesis is a neo-gothic church but the impression it gives on the inside is
somewhere between a massive skeleton and a forest. The structural elements appear like the bones of the building while the columns of the nave lean in towards the centre like a canopy of trees in the romantic interpretation of the origin of the gothic arch. The church is a whole language of symbolism fossilized in a stone that looks like it might burst forth into life at any moment. The 12 spires represent the apostles, and their twisting forms metamorphose into trees, mites and crosses. Sculpture, text and organic decoration envelop every surface like the whole gothic style had gone to sea and had kittens. And yet, when I sat down and paused for a while under an overhanging ledge, with hundreds of tourists milling around me, there was the strong sense
of the presence of God as near to me as
my very breath. The other surprising experience was at the Pilgrimage Church of Mary in Neviges, near Cologne. From the outside, it looked unpromising- like a coal bunker designed by Josef Stalin. With its jagged and furrowed mass, it seemed as one of the most monumental and overwhelming manifestations of a modern church building I’d ever encountered. Once inside, the interior was carved out with natural light streaming in from dramatic allegorical windows. There was no geometric symmetry or rhyme apparent, as even the columns took on very different proportions, with chapels carved out of the random folds of concrete. Much of the church was in darkness, and revealed itself only gradually. This was intentional, and intended to symbolize that God is not domesticated or known easily and casually. The church was intended to draw in the visitor and replicate the experience of pilgrimage, with vistas half-glimpsed opening up more
The intimate presence of God (from page 1) fully when they were explored. It was a church full of movement, and it stopped me in my tracks with the overwhelming sense of the presence of God.
I am still processing the experience of the tour, but I am left with a series of questions, in no particular order. -How can a building transform the faithful from silent onlookers to active participants in worship? -The spaces that we worship in are not incidental to the theology that we espouse – they actively shape and mould it. It is vital that we understand our own theology and liturgical practice before we try to embody it in a building. -Where is the balance between light, humane spaces, intended to promote community and buildings intended by their sheer use of space to instil awe, a sense of the sacred and the presence of God? -What might a genuinely vernacular New Zealand architecture look like? -What is the balance between a church as a space for contemplation (as with Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church in Rome) and a building aimed to expand the experience of individual into a foregathered community (like the Pilgrimage Church of Mary at Neviges or Sagrada Familia in Barcelona)? -How can art be used to teach and enhance the experience of worship? How does it get in the way? The tour has left me with a particular appreciation for our architects and the fluency with which they could ‘read’ and understand particular buildings, and also for Marcus Read, our project manager, and his impeccable organization.
Ven Lynda Patterson - ChristChurch Cathedral