Moderator discusses the place of Church buildings in our emotions

Rt Rev Colin Sinclair, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, discussed the place of Church buildings in our emotions as he delivered the Scottish Churches Trust’s Marion Fraser Lecture on Thursday 10 October. As Kirk members continue to reflect on the issue of land and buildings through the General Trustees’ survey which closes on Thursday 31 October, we are publishing the original lecture in its entirety.

Rt Rev Colin Sinclair, pictured during the recent opening of the new St Rollox Church building in Glasgow
Rt Rev Colin Sinclair, pictured during the recent opening of the new St Rollox Church building in Glasgow.

“Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” - Shakespeare, As You Like It.

The challenges I face in giving this lecture are considerable. First of all, I have no architectural or surveying background, no interior design training, nor any background in ecclesiastical symbolism. In short, I have no professional expertise to bring to this matter at all. Moreover, I have almost no visual memory. I am singularly unaware of my surroundings and often miss the obvious. I have no imagination, either to recreate the past from a ruin or see the possibilities in a building for its future. Is it not time therefore for me to sit down and let others more qualified take over?

Yet here I stand and continue to speak, because, unqualified as I may be, buildings are part of my life. As a preacher, although I occasionally speak in the open air, for the most part I speak within buildings. I know from experience that the building has an impact on how I speak and how others listen. Coming into any building affects my mood. Sometimes, it can lift my spirits. Sometimes, I am brought to a sense of awe by my surroundings. Sometimes, I feel immediately at home. So the setting can give wings to my words, but, sadly, on other occasions, it seems to stifle them and render then totally ineffective. It is as if the words have a weight tied on to them and, when I speak, they crash down on the ground, not even reaching the people in the front pew (not that there are ever people sitting so far forward!).

By the building I mean much more than acoustics, temperature, or even appearance and state of maintenance, although all these can and do have an adverse effect on even the most resolute communicator. We should, out of love for our neighbour, do what we can to make the building assist and not hinder them. What I mean, however, is that within itself the building contains a residue of memories that can encourage or be forbidding. The walls speak. When I go into a building in which I have previously ministered, it is like greeting an old friend. I immediately feel at ease and the architectural distinctives, or even its idiosyncrasies, simply serve to make me relax and feel at home. But the building speaks not only to the preacher, but to the pew.

Of course we all know that congregations are a perverse lot. Those who can’t see often sit behind pillars, those with arthritic legs choose to haul themselves up the stairs to sit in the balcony, those prone to draughts sit close to the doors while those who are hard of hearing sit outside the loop system. That is what makes us Presbyterians! One of the reason we retained some pews was that some people do not feel they can worship God unless they are uncomfortable! But it is something else I am speaking about: for them too and probably more than for the Minister, the walls speak.

As a pastor I took a long time to learn this. Authoritatively, I would say, (and I believed), that the church is not about a building but about its people. In so doing I was unwisely dismissive of the physical space in which the people met. Looking back I see now that I was wrong. Buildings matter. Buildings speak. Buildings are expressive. A building says something.
They are, for those who worship in them, full of memories and in their own way an incarnation of the soul of a church community. In our mind’s eye do we not, from time to time, remember, as if they were still with us, people who once populated the pews, who have now grown up and moved on, or got old and passed on to rest in peace and rise in glory? The communion of saints can sometimes seem very tangible. We remember high and holy days, special services and sacred moments. For those who have worshipped in a certain building over a long time there are memories of perhaps a profession of faith, a wedding, a baptism, an ordination or even a funeral that no other building can evoke. Even ordinary Sundays leave their imprint, both in their regularity and also for those moments when the hair stood up on the back of our neck as we felt God was speaking to us.

I am, however, also committed to mission and want buildings to be used as a resource for a mission and a springboard to mission. I know we have too many buildings (often because as Presbyterians we split and then set up duplicate and competitive churches). I realise that they are often not in the right places. Our buildings were often erected to testify to an unchanging God but then, over time, the community reconfigured itself and we were left on the edge not the centre. I am well aware that they take up too much of our time and money to maintain. I accept what the General Trustees say, namely that we are not a building preservation society but a living church. We do need well equipped spaces in the right places. We do need to be sensitive to health and safety, to disability access, to audibility and visibility and comfort and all the rest. We need to be clear which buildings we want to invest in and why. We need to equip ourselves for the future. And yet…

Back in 1943 Winston Churchill, when the House of Commons had been seriously damaged by incendiary bombs, encouraged the rebuilding to be done in such a way that preserved its adversarial rectangular layout. He famously said at that time: “We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” And so they do. Speaking to one of the ministry team at my neighbouring church, the impressive and ancient St Cuthbert’s, he wisely remarked: “The building tells you what is appropriate and what is not in terms of worship and ministry. There are some things that the building will not allow you to do, even if you wanted to do them!” And he was right.

What I am trying to say is that buildings, church buildings, provoke an emotional response that is different from other responses. We can evaluate a building with professional eyes, we can look at it from a practical angle but we can also feel “connected to the building.” If we have to close a building, we are foolish not to recognise and respect the emotions that are tied to it. So while we may have to make a pragmatic decision about a building , if we forget the emotional and spiritual attachment people have to their buildings (and not just churches) we do so at our peril. As the current Chair of the General Trustees said to me in an email: “We invest some of our greatest creativity in our buildings, and, like all God’s creatures, we long for our own space and will protect it. And this applies to a group of Christians for whom the church building is their home and to give it up can often represent failure.” Then he continued: “So I am particularly concerned about how the church manages the reduction and closure of its buildings - of ensuring that this is not a brutal process, but recognises the huge emotional upheaval for people.”

However, what we cannot do is let the building take the place that rightly only belongs to the Lord. The Chair also said: “For many in a world of chaos, confusion and uncertainty, their church and its building may be the only thing which provides stability. Yes, we are wedded to our buildings. And the danger is that we may end up worshipping the buildings rather that our Lord. Icons can turn into idols”.

Take this Church, Palmerston Place. I first came here in 1980 as the Assistant and during my two years here, I was both ordained and married. The congregation was much larger then, but the building was tired. Instead of lifting you up, it dragged you down. After I left and the minister, John Cumming, who trained me, retired, John Chalmers was inducted as Minister. John would go from Palmerston Place to become, over time, Principal Clerk, Moderator of the General Assembly, Queen’s chaplain and currently Chair of the newly constituted Trustees body charged with the radical overhaul of our church. But one of his gifts, less well known, is that he loves to come and do things to church buildings. He had done it before in Renton before he came to Palmerston Place and he did it again when he arrived here. So, between my first time at Palmerston Place and the second, the building changed quite significantly - and it needed to change.

The organ consul used to be in the front of the pulpit and the choir sat facing one another in pews. That changed as the organ console moved to behind the pulpit, so that nothing came between the congregation and the Word and Sacrament. At the same time, the whole platform area was greatly extended, making it easier to encourage greater participation in the service by young and old alike. The pews from the centre were removed and chairs took their place. Interestingly the original chairs have since themselves been replaced as they were too inflexible, and would not stack. (It was also that people’s bottoms had increased and they needed more personal space!) John introduced a larger vestibule to make it easier for people to gather, to have space to be welcomed and be a more approachable entrance for visitors. He also created a new central aisle.

Yet when I came back in 1996, twenty-three years ago and fourteen years after I first left, unaware of all the building work that had gone on, I had two reactions. First that this was what the church was meant to look like. They had not imposed a new character on it but liberated the character that was there, but had been lost. My second reaction was relief that John had undertaken changes I knew were needed but which I would have been incapable of doing myself. Of course there were aspects I missed. There used to be a telephone in the pulpit, which, when you picked it up, a light shone on the receiver in the church officer’s room. I once had to ask him to bring in my sermon which I had left in the vestry, but I hadn’t bargained on him bringing it in on a silver tray! I suppose you could call it the “liturgy of the sermon!”

But for me there were three aspects that defined Palmerston Place and all three remained. For a church building should say something about the congregation; about the way they gather together for worship and about the role of God and the congregation in worship. In designing a church building a congregation should not only think functionally, but also theologically, about what it wants its building to say about its relationship to God, its relationship to one another and its relationship to the world.

We wanted it to have beauty and dignity and also at the same time warmth and welcome. We extended our vestibule and we deliberately chose to serve coffee and tea in the sanctuary after the service once all the music has finished, to link together our worship and our fellowship, our talk about God and our talk about life.

For me one of the strengths of this building is that we are not all seated facing the front, seeing more of the back of other people’s heads than their faces. We have come together as a family to worship; the semi-circular seating allows us to see other people.

Secondly there is the dove in the ceiling. This can be easily misunderstood, as when the decorator reported “Aye when I was up there I gied your pigeon a dicht!” Even by those more theologically aware, it is often assumed, on a casual look, to be the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, descending as it did on Jesus at his baptism. Not so! Look closely and you will see a leaf in its mouth. This is a dove from the story of Noah, carrying a leaf to give hope to those on the Ark that the waters were receding and that the earth was returning. Land would soon be possible. This church was, when built in 1875, the flagship for the UP denomination, who like so many, not least at the famous Disruption of 1843, left because they wanted the people not the laird to choose their minister. (The UP church was formed in 1847 by the union of the United Secession Church and the Relief Church), But their leaving was always with regret and their hope, like the dove, was one day to return. And so it did. In 1900 it merged with the Free Church of Scotland to form the United Free Church of Scotland, which in turn united with the Church of Scotland in 1929. I believe passionately in the unity of the church and the dove reminds me when I preach and pastor that I am called to all God’s people and to those who have gone far away. Our aim is to stay together, to pray for and welcome all who want one day to return.

Thirdly is a little piece of paper, typed in a day long before computers. It was stuck on to the side of the pulpit with sellotape when I came to Palmerston Place and may have been put on by one of my predecessors, John Cumming, Graham Hardy or even William C Macdonald. It is a quote from the story of Jacob when Jacob, exhausted from fleeing his brother after stealing his birth-right and blessing, goes to sleep with his head resting on a pillow. Suddenly, he sees a ladder coming down from heaven and angels ascending and descending and he says “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Those are the words I read the first time I went into that pulpit and they both frightened and encouraged me… and they still do. Though this building has changed and is still changing, the essence of the building remains the same – the part that engages with my emotions. Above all, my longing when we worship is for each of us to suddenly be aware “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Mind you, emotions can blind you to what is before your eyes. I was speaking at the Port Stewart Convention a number of years ago. This is Northern Ireland’s local Keswick convention and for those who attend regularly it is a sacred place, where they have often met with God through the worship and preaching. The Chair, knowing I had been Chair of Spring Harvest, another large convention, asked me what I thought. Without thinking I simply said “You need to cut the grass in the tent!” Then I added “and replace the pews with seats!” Their feeling for the place had blinded them to the fact that standards and expectations had risen. They had remained as they had always been as they were scared to change in case they lost what was precious. That is a false view of tradition. Tradition at its worst mothballs the way things were done in the past and loses sight of the faith that established them. It turns a sanctuary into a museum. Tradition at its best embodies the living faith of past generations and faces, openly and courageously, the challenges and opportunities of the day. It will be willing to change, if required, sometimes quite radically, so that in fresh ways it can convey the same heart and the same gospel and so be faithful to its tradition.

However, I want to make my point by focusing on an extraordinary example of the place of buildings in our emotions, with the fire that ravished Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The fire during Holy Week in April earlier this year provoked a world-wide response. The then Moderator, Rt Rev Susan Brown, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, encouraged churches and cathedrals, where possible, to ring bells at 7pm on April 18 for seven minutes to show solidarity and sympathy with France following the devastating fire. No lives were lost, no-one was injured, but the story dominated the news for days at the time. For this was no ordinary Church. It is one of those sites that transcend nationality and culture. Dominating the Paris skyline for eight centuries, there’s almost no chapter of Church history the cathedral doesn’t somehow capture and reflect. It has given its name to one of the country's literary masterpieces, Victor Hugo's novel “Hunchback of Notre-Dame". Notre Dame has always been more than just an assemblage of stone and stained glass. It is also a monument to a specifically Christian past.

Dr Susan Brown wrote at the time: “The world has been shocked and saddened by the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. The reaction is so great because the Church is more than 'just' a building. Many buildings, as well as being worship spaces, are a celebration of the gifts of stone masons, carpenters, glass makers, artists and musicians. They also house history and Notre Dame is one such church”. Notice the key words “The Church is more than 'just' a building” and clearly this one was.

One commentator, Stephen McAlpine, wrote perceptively “Paris, and the world, lost something more than a wonderful piece of ecclesiastical history and architecture overnight. It lost yet another link with a transcendent past that was once so usefully beautiful”. Tragically, he continues, “So many tourists down so many years have walked past – or through – Notre Dame, having “seen” it. They have seen its beauty, but it has become a “useless beauty”, an end in itself. And even more so for the decidedly secular French, those purveyors and traders of all things beautiful. A building once dedicated to the glory of God, a call to look up to the transcendent, has become over the years an end in itself.”

He went on to express this hope, “Yet perhaps, and it’s a slim “perhaps”, the deep grief that Parisians in particular feel, as they watch (Notre Dame) lose her beauty in one devastating overnight immolation, makes them wonder why they are so devastated. Wonder why it really matters in the scheme of a blind chance universe in which any idea of God has been pushed to the margins. Wonder why it matters that this church – and not the other lovely old churches in France that have been torched by protestors this past month – matters so much.

Perhaps there’s an ache in there for the transcendent. An ache that was deliberately placed in the building from its inception by its builders some 800 years ago. Builders who were as certain as the hand in front of their face, that the beauty of the building they were constructing, was, without the presence of the Most Beautiful Creator of all, simply a useless beauty. Indeed the men and women who built our medieval buildings crafted their work even in the parts of the building that would never be seen by the worshipper. For although they knew that their work would not be seen by people they also knew it would be seen by God.

It is a daunting task to build a cathedral - one that can take years and generations, involving the toil of multitudes; but a cathedral is a beautiful, eloquent, lasting monument built in remembrance and honour of God.

Not surprisingly therefore this building did touch many people over the centuries. As art historian Matthew Milner wrote: "Notre Dame was truly a work of devotion. Think about it -- how large the building was... the attention, the loving care that went into making it, ornamenting & maintaining it. This is truly an act of devotion; it is sacramental."

Gothic architecture has long reached where Christian missionaries would go but are not permitted: the minds and hearts of the faithless. The world’s grief over the flames at Notre-Dame de Paris revealed its power as far more than architectural style.

For the great medieval commentator William Durandus (d. 1296), the Gothic church took the shape of Christ’s body: the chancel the head, the transepts the arms and the altar the heart. And if the Gothic church symbolizes the body of Christ, to see Notre Dame burn this Monday was to experience Good Friday early.

The Gothic style has given the church a theology of glass and stone. Notre-Dame de Paris gave us the first example of everyone’s favourite art historical term: the flying buttress. These addendums to the nave projected more weight outwards, permitting larger windows that let in more light. The buttresses envelop the structure as if a massive spider were resting after delicately weaving the rose windows.

Gothic was meant as a term of ridicule, coined by an Art Historian to refer to the barbarian Goths. But like other insults, including the name “Christian”, it stuck. A century ago, Émile Mâle wrote this about Gothic architecture: “Even the modern man receives a deep impression of serenity, little as he is willing to submit himself to its influence. There his doubts and theories may be forgotten for a time.”

The global reaction to the burning of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris confirmed Mâle’s insight. But as a perennial expression of Christian faith, Gothic never dies; it only rests for a while. And like Christ this coming Sunday, it will rise again as President and people committed themselves to its rebuilding.

What I am suggesting however is this: in the Christian tradition, buildings are tied to faith through emotion as well as functionality. We need to respect this, not least when buildings have sadly outlived their usefulness and need to be closed. We need to understand this when changes are being proposed to buildings, so that the reason for their being is enhanced, not sacrificed. Those who use such buildings must clearly demonstrate that they are in sympathy with its purpose. Churches are a place to glorify God in worship, to gather the faithful in fellowship, to give identity to the surrounding community and to be a light to bear witness to Christ’s love in service and mission.

When news of the fire at Notre Dame went global, it was clear that some who were writing about it had no understanding of what it stood for or what it meant. For them it was just a building, a piece of art, a popular tourist centre in Paris but that was all. Is that what our churches are seen as today if they are seen at all and not airbrushed out of people’s consciousness?

In the old days, the church was considered the hub of the local community and had a big influence on the culture beyond the walls of a physical structure. It was the religious hub, the political hub, the economic hub and even the social hub of the community. The Church was known by the impact Christians were making as a community, in their respective communities. The question we might ask is “If your church burnt down this week, would anyone notice?” Would the poor notice? Would the schools notice? Would the hospital notice? Would politicians notice? Would your neighbours notice? Have we lost our influence or have we lost our focus?

Our influence as the Church and as Christians must continue to be focused and extended outside of the Church. Jesus says we are the light of the world. He does not say we are the light of the Church. We need to shine in this world and within our communities, which must go beyond just a building. If we continue to focus on being the light of the Church, our Church may essentially just be looked at as simply a historical building in our community. If, however, we are focused on being the light of the world - we can forever change the community, and many lives beyond our walls. Jesus didn’t just keep the Good News within the walls – we are here today having been impacted by what He did in this world.

One writer wrote “Crying for a building? Is this not ridiculous”, I thought, as I watched the dreadful sight of Notre Dame’s spire, tumbling down blackened by the engulfing flames. But the whole world seemed to be grieving too. I had fresh empathy for the Israelites who wept over the destruction of their Temple. Like Paris’ cathedral, Solomon’s temple appeared indestructible throughout generations: the unmissable stop on a visit to the capital; the emblem of their country and identity; a place to marvel at the beauty and meet with God. It would always be there – until it wasn’t.

The immense collective grief that was felt by those watching Notre Dame burn was surprising, though some of the earliest reactions involved noting that time comes for us all. Historical monuments have been lost to natural decay and fiscal irresponsibility. Historical edifices have also been readily lost to violent, purposeful destruction, too, more often than not by Western countries to non-Western ones. So you could expect someone to say that this church and what it represents had simply reached its inevitable end. Or a partial end. The path to an end. The bell towers are intact but wooden structures and some art, centuries old, are lost forever.

But, overwhelmingly, people mourned. There were almost three million uses (and counting) of the hashtag #NotreDame on Twitter, many users sharing photos or memories of visiting it for the first time. Gatherers in Paris sang “Ave Maria” outside as the building burned. Architecture and art invoke something in us; an emotional reaction we hadn’t thought possible.

When we collectively mourn a monument like Notre Dame, we aren’t mourning the literal, physical building. It is something more esoteric: it’s the loss of history, sometimes shared, sometimes complex, sometimes difficult. We mourn the loss of a testament to human ingenuity and resilience, and a shared desire to experience the physical manifestations of that remarkable humanity in person. We mourn the idea that some things — the most beautiful things, the things that those of us who’ve been lucky enough to see them will remember as long as we live — are meant to last forever.

Or was it something more – the faith it stood for, the faith that had been lost by so many, the wistfulness for a day when faith seemed easier, the longing for something to hold onto. No photo can adequately capture the enormity of a building like Notre Dame, because its significance transcends the physical. And that’s why its destruction is so profound.

Buildings are often the preserve of the professional. I am not a professional but I am also a stake-holder, and my voice and voices like mine, need to be heard. For many people a church is a sermon in stone. The outside appearance of a church speaks volumes - good and bad. Whatever the future for many of our churches, (and sadly that future is not bright), then we need to take seriously the emotional investment in them. If they must be closed, demolished or sold for other uses, then let us find ways of doing so that gives dignity and respect and allows us to draw a line and move on, not feeling as vandalised as the building itself. Never forget, as someone once wrote “Long before people could read, the Church was preaching the gospel. And to do so she used the very structure of her buildings to preach. Many of our older buildings are a sermon in stone and stained glass.” If it is to be updated, changed radically to fulfil its future, then let that also be done with respect for its past and let us seek to make as many links and connections as possible so that in both cases the “soul” may be preserved and the life continue. As the Chair of the General Trustees has written “We need more liturgy about letting go, about recognising the good things from the past, of telling tales as if we were at a ‘wake’ and about moving on in faith. There is bereavement here, but are we not people of the resurrection?” Faith and practicality need to walk hand in hand.

In September my wife and I joined the congregation of Monifieth in St Rule’s building, one of three that had made up the united charge eleven years before. This was to be their last service. Thanks were given for all the unique memories it contained. The Minister invited different members to come forward and carry precious objects that told the building’s story to the new purpose built building. Then, led by a BB pipe band, the whole congregation walked out for the last time and made their way in the sunshine along the main street to their new light bright, attractive and warm home in the heart of the community. The old building was hard to heat, it was dark, difficult to enter for those who were disabled and had only one toilet. However it was treated with respect, and to be part of the ending and the beginning was a wonderful experience. Tears at its passing were mingled with joy at the new Monifieth Parish Church and both emotions were appropriate as we consecrated the new to God.

At the heart of our Christian faith we believe that God became “embodied” in Jesus Christ. God could be seen and touched and known. Our buildings have often, in their own way, helped us to embody our faith and set us free to worship God. May they continue to do so, for the glory of God.

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