Our trouble with church buildings

Our trouble with church buildings

Bishop Stephen Hale is the Lead Minister of the St Hilary’s Network, and Chair of EFAC, Australia.

In 2017 I had a curious experience. My mother had passed away and the funeral was held at the church of my childhood and youth. The ministry and pastoral concern of the church was faultless and the service went incredibly well. Why was it curious? The facilities were more or less the same as when I last regularly attended nearly 40 years ago.

I’ve been at St Hilary’s for 8 and half years and we are just in the process of lodging plans for the redevelopment of the Kew Site in our Network of three sites. It has been a slow and at points painful process to get to this point. Our facilities have had very heavy usage over an extended period of time and it’s a joy that we have at last reached this point with strong support. Along the way we have had people leave because they in conscience can’t support a capital program.

These two stories illustrate the tension evangelical Anglican churches seem to have with renewing their facilities. For a range of reasons we seem to baulk in this area. We all know that the church is the people and the building is there to keep the rain off and we could easily do church in a rented space. Yet we have hundreds of buildings and they each are a statement or testimony to who we are and what we value. It strikes me that to visit many of our churches is increasingly a discontinuous experience for many non-churchgoers. Everywhere else they go in their life they go to fresh contemporary spaces that are fit for purpose and easily accessible. When they come to our churches they will often come to places that look tired and dated and are freezing in winter and an oven in summer. It is said that independent schools renew their facilities every 25 to 30 years. For churches it is seemingly every 50 or more years.

In one sense I’ve been spoilt, as I was Curate in a brand new church complex at Castle Hill and Vicar at a near new renewal at Diamond Creek. This shapes you. As Bishop I was involved in several processes that led to the closure and sale of some churches. Leading services of deconsecrating a church is a challenging experience.

If we want to connect in the contemporary era we need to give careful and active consideration to what sort of facilities we currently have and the best way we can renew and refresh them. Most of us do that in our own homes, why not the church? Most of us have leveraged off the generosity of previous generations for many years yet are reluctant to commit to the renewal of those facilities. Many churches have had ministers who were involved in the deferral of maintenance from one generation to the next and the cost of catching up is now considerable.

Perhaps we have a theological problem here? Perhaps our theology of church has flaws. In every generation the church has been involved in building buildings to meet in and we marvel at the best examples of these when we play tourist in many parts of the world. Would any of us be bold enough to build something grand and dynamic in our day? Visiting Barcelona a few years ago it was striking the impact on the waves of tourists entering the Sagrada Familia Basilica. They almost all fell silent and were awed and touched by being in that remarkable space.

Why should children participate in dynamic and interesting spaces at their school and then rattle around in dreary halls on Sunday? Do we need to reflect on how we think abut buildings in more than just functional terms. Are they in fact special spaces that enable worship, community and outreach? I’ve always said that it doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re hyper-liberal or hyper-reformed people seem to have an emotional attachment to their church and it’s buildings. Equally it doesn’t seem to matter if the building looks like a Telstra sub station built in the 1960’s or a beautiful gothic building built in the 1860’s people are still attached to the spaces.

In the new mission era we’re in we need facilities that are open and accessible. Facilities that can be used for all sorts of activities in all sorts of ways. Worship spaces that are flexible yet retain a sense of the sacred. We need a new culture of openness and generosity to enable our existing facilities to be refreshed and renewed as a matter of course rather than deferring it to the next generation. We need to refresh our theology of buildings.