Of Teepees and Tabernacles

The planned new church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, SC

We are building a new church in our parish. Go here to learn more about it. To lead the effort I have been brushing up and thinking much about church architecture. Looking around at the dismal buildings which have been presented as Catholic churches over the last fifty years, one has to ask where on earth the architects, designers and liturgists have got their ideas.

We don’t have to look far. G.K.Chesterton said ‘Every argument is a theological argument’, and the modern churches clearly reflect the beliefs of their builders. First, the builders and their buildings are fundamentally utilitarian. Driven by the unquestioned modernist dogma that, “Form follows function” they have designed not churches, but auditoria. Everyone can see the altar. The sound system is excellent. The toilets are capacious and clean. The air conditioning works and the roof does not leak and (most important of all) the building was not expensive. For an excellent book on what has happened to Catholic church architecture see Michael Rose’s Ugly as Sin.

When it comes to whether the church should be beautiful or not, the building committee have adopted the doctrine of Judas: “Why should the money be spent on costly ointment when it could be given to the poor?” In other words, let’s cut out all that beautiful stuff. That’s expensive. We need a few statues and vestments, but cheap, mass produced stuff will do. However, too often, once the cheap choice is made they forget the idea that the money saved was to go to the poor, and they pocket the savings themselves.

Then we mustn’t forget the liturgists who tell us that the Mass is all about “gathering in the people of God for a fellowship meal.” Therefore everyone must sit around the altar as a family. I actually heard one trendy priest explain, “When I am celebrating Mass I am like the shaman telling stories around the campfire with the whole tribe gathered around me.” On this pretext, on Holy Saturday this priest brought the new fire into the sanctuary of the church itself. I suppose it was unsurprising therefore, when he built a church that resembled a large brick teepee.

In fact, the teepee has it’s own theology and some anthropologists theorize that the native Americans built teepees which they placed in a circle around the campfire because they understood life to be cyclical. They lived in circles because life was a circle: birth, death and re-incarnation. Round and round and round we go and where we stop nobody knows.

The Judeo Christian understanding of the cosmos, history and God’s providence, however, is not cyclical but linear. We believe in an intelligence behind all things which has purpose and meaning and intention. Therefore we believe in a beginning and an end; an Alpha and an Omega. Consequently, those other tent dwelling nomads, the Hebrews, worshipped God not in a teepee, but in a tabernacle. I have never understood why Christian architects agonize over the basic structure of a church when the Bible itself (which they are supposed to believe is inspired by God) has a whole section on church architecture. One only need read the twenty-fifth to thirtieth chapters of Exodus to see just how God wants his house to be built.

Of course we need not build with skins of sheep and goats, or try to re-produce the temple in Jerusalem like they built Hogwart’s at Harry Potter world, but the basic outline is there, and the temple in Jerusalem was simply a grand and permanent version of the tent like tabernacle in the wilderness that God prescribed. The basic outline is a rectangle with a large outer courtyard for the people, an inner courtyard for the clergy and a holy of holies where God’s presence was focused.

For two thousand years the vast majority of churches–whether they were Byzantine, or Romanesque or Gothic or Baroque or Neo Gothic or Neo Classical (or a mish mash of the above) were built in this same, simple, linear, three chambered fashion. Continue Reading