Why is that church so ugly?

Why is that church so ugly? May 26, 2014

Though America’s religious history is lively and contains record of fidelity, courage, even sanctity, previous generations of Christians here—even recent ones—built some awful-looking churches.

Churches that look like gymnasiums or strip malls, churches made of corrugated steel or dun-colored brick, churches crusted with decoration or lurid with lives of the saints: they make us ask what it means to “look like a church.”

Bethe Dufresne’s article, “Sermon in Stone,” in the current issue of Commonweal magazine, follows liturgical designers Lawrence Hoy and his mentor Robert Rambusch through some churches and, through them, church design after Vatican II: buildings designed for more lay participation, inclusion, focus on scripture and vernacular speech.  Right away, Dufresne shows deftly deflected conflict between the designers and a layperson (here described as a praying woman with Russian accent), who wants to see the twelve apostles installed alongside the Risen Christ.  Stupid idea, Rambusch pronounces, though not to her face.

That confrontation lays bare some tensions in church design: the gap between what seems pretty and what conduces to worship; between high art and theology, on one side, and popular devotion on the other; between current tastes and deference to past aesthetic sensibilities; between conviction that the Holy Spirit needs no ecclesiastical bric-a-brac to sear through a gathered body of saints, and that things—art, sculpture, color, space—help us think and pray appropriately.

Though the article particularly addresses post-Vatican II Catholic churches, Protestants can and should enter this conversation.  God can be worshipped anywhere, but of course it matters what kinds of building we make for worship, and how we adapt or scrap buildings that believers before us have so dedicated.  Who has wisdom to know what a church should look like, and authority to make it that way?

In Dufresne’s article, Notre Dame architecture professor Duncan G. Stroik provides counterweight to Hoy’s views.  Stroik regrets cases of simplistic design that followed Vatican II.  He contends that in new church construction now, the “traditional” is winning, ironically because younger church members like it; they reject the more modern styles they grew up in because they “want something new,” and what looks new to them is the old.   He notes more churches are being built in the American south, and parishioners there say they “want a Church that looks like a church,” which means “traditional.”

While this puzzle is not uniquely American, it does have some particularly American elements.   Americans in the nineteenth century wrestled to make distinctive art and architecture of their own, rather than just imitations of what was admired in Europe.  It is not surprising, then, that Americans now trying to describe what “looks like a church” envision something vaguely European.  Rambusch and Hoy regret “nostalgia,” a hankering after European styles—either those remembered by immigrant ancestors or seen during recent vacations—that gets expressed in what Hoy calls “Disneyland churches,” mass-produced styles modeled after European cathedrals, “imitations of Old World grandeur wrapped in faux stonework.”

Plenty of American churches were built by ethnic communities intentionally to resemble the churches left behind across the Atlantic.   But our “traditional” is complicated.  For many American Protestants, the traditional style is the bare, low, unadorned space.  Unlike some flagship Protestant churches in Europe that were Catholic first and then stripped for post-1517 use, many Protestant churches in America started with some of the attributes Vatican II aimed to nurture: spatial emphasis lay participation, community gathering around Word and sacrament.  The tradition for some American churches, Catholic and Protestant, expresses itself in architecture more modern than antique.

I think there is something worthy in the impulse to mimic older styles of church design.   It can carry gratitude for Christians who lived before, can foster fellowship with those who worshipped that way.  There is even something worthy in the visually regrettable mish-mash of styles that sometimes clutters long-functioning churches, Gothic pasted on top of Romanesque with Baroque curlicues—a kind of democracy of the dead, in Chesterton’s formulation, linking believers now with those who have moved on.  Maybe that clash of styles is less repugnant to congregations than to artists or architects or historians, since Americans tend to lump them together in a category of bygones, the “traditional”—what my friend calls “ye-oldey” style.  To round it all out, there is  also an American style of church building, still quite popular, intentionally to make a church look as much unlike “a church” as possible.

And yet.  Young people raised in low-church, informal American worship spaces—functional ones, with lots of room for Sunday School and coffee hour and midweek basketball fellowship–can feel awe when they encounter those European cathedrals.   My husband and I have seen this reaction when accompanying students in Europe, many of them on first trips there, for me most recently with the Gordon College program in Orvieto, Italy.  The height, the vastness, the color, the symbolic richness are impressive.  After initial complaints about sore necks, and delayed wrestling with the contrast between the stuff in these Catholic churches versus its lack in theirs (mostly Protestant) at home, good questions arise:

How does this church recognize the presence of God?

How does it move believers together around sacramental food, the hearing of the Word?

How does it physically connect us with people here, and here before–our parents, their neighbors, ancestors, dwellers on the lands, missionaries, the early church?

How does it invite others in?

Is it beautiful? Should it be?

For students, this might be the first time these questions have obtruded.  Since an initial part of the exercise is simply trying to figure out what these old churches might be saying, some books can help.  Richard Kieckhefer’s Theology in Stone and Richard Taylor’s How to Read a Church  are two I have used fruitfully.   Not that it is best to get bogged down in this kind of translation.   The plain awe has value in itself.

It just depends what kind of awful you’re looking for in a church.



Browse Our Archives