A Great Building Disaster | Moyra Doorly | From No Place For God: The Denial of the Transcendent in Modern Church Architecture
The modern age has witnessed the construction of the most banal and uninspiring churches in history. The attempt to create a church architecture that would meet the needs of the age has resulted in churches that are unfit for any age. Contemporary church buildings, as well as being the ugliest ever built, are also the emptiest.
Many atheists used to say that whatever they felt about religion, it was impossible not to admire church architecture. But now there is hardly a Catholic who can admire (modern) church architecture. Today's churches no longer point to a transcendent God, a God who inspires awe, reverence, and wonder. Today's churches are geared almost entirely to the celebration of the people who happen to be present because that is where God now is, within the worshipping community.
According to G. K. Chesterton, "Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within .... That Jones shall worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones."  Men have always attempted to make magnificent and beautiful the buildings dedicated to the gods that are without. But when the god is within, what happens to the building? A glance at what passes for a church today reveals the answer, but the appearance is only a symptom. The underlying problem is that the contemporary church building is hardly a church it all. Instead it is more a temple to the spirit of the age.
When the liturgical revolution of the twentieth century deliberately shifted the focus of the Church's worship to God present in the people, this went hand in hand with a profound change in the idea of what a church is, how it functions, and the message it should proclaim. The modernizers claim, with justification, that church architecture has always responded to the needs of the times. Over the centuries, the Church has adopted the stylistic and aesthetic ideas of the ages and fashioned her church buildings accordingly, thereby creating an architectural heritage that includes the wonders of the Romanesque, the Gothic, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. Accordingly, the claim is that the changes being undertaken today are simply the latest in a series of adaptations the Church has made to her buildings and liturgy. Future generations will look back on the churches of today with the same admiration we hold for the great churches of the past.
In fact what has been done to the church building in recent decades, and is still being done, is unprecedented in the history of the Church. So radical is the break from tradition that the term "revolution" is barely adequate to describe what has happened. The later half of the twentieth century saw a lot of church buildings commissioned, designed, and constructed, the majority of them in the Modernist style, with its pared-down and stripped minimalism, its horror of ornament, and its rejection of narrative imagery in favor of the abstract. This was the predominant style of the twentieth century, and it could therefore be argued that today's baleful church buildings are simply the result of the Church having done what she has done for centuries, which is to embrace the architectural aesthetic of the age. Consequently, the merits, or lack of merits, of the Modernist style are merely a question of taste.
However, architecture is about more than appearances, and this is as true for the Modernist style as it is for any other. Of chief importance to the characteristics of any style of architecture are the spatial principles that determine them. The reason for this is that buildings, by their very nature, enclose space. There is no way around it. As soon as four walls are built and covered with a roof, space is enclosed. This is how buildings perform their function, which is basically to provide shelter and contain the activities carried on within them.
But the spaces that buildings create also carry meaning that goes beyond their functional use. Because the art of architecture is concerned with the creation and manipulation of space, the aesthetic of a particular style necessarily grows out of the same principles governing the use of space by that style. The appearance of buildings is therefore determined as much by the ideas about space that predominate in a particular age as it is by the tastes arid preferences of that age.
Therefore it is the adoption of Modernist spatial principles, as well as Modernist aesthetics, that sets the recent changes to the church building so apart from the historical developments preceding them. It would have been possible for the Church to have embraced one without the other, and this is what happened in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, before the Liturgical Movement promoting the revolution really began to gain ground. The first churches to be built according to the Modernist aesthetic may have featured plain glass instead of stained glass, large areas of bare concrete, and an almost complete lack of decoration, but they didn't make a full break from the traditional church form. If this had continued, if the Church had adopted the Modernist aesthetic and rejected Modernist ideas about space, then the solution to the current problem, the problem of ugly churches, would be simple. A restyling exercise would be required, that is all: a painting and decoration job, a makeover to render beautiful the bare concrete, the exposed steel beams, and the barren brickwork.
But the situation has gone far beyond that because the Church did adopt Modernist ideas about space, ideas entirely in tune with contemporary self-reverence. This happened with a vengeance during the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, when the development of a new liturgical style created the impetus for the complete dismantling of the traditional church form. As a result, the Catholic Church, which for nearly two millennia inspired buildings of magnificence and beauty, has reached the stage of building churches that are hardly churches at all. Because Modernist architecture is the architecture of Relativist space, by adopting the Modernist style, the Church has incorporated Relativism into her very fabric. That is the argument here. But what does it mean? What is Relativist space?
Relativist space is homogenous, directionless, and value-free. In other words, it is the same everywhere you look, and no part of it has any more significance than any other part. In the Relativist universe, there are no signposts and no obvious paths forward, because no place has any more or less meaning than here. In Relativist space, boundaries and distinctions are dissolved, and since the concept of a special place set apart is an alien one, sacred space, by definition, cannot exist. Therefore in a universe from which the sacred has been eliminated, the only place for the individual to look is within.
These are the ideas about space that are embodied in the Modernist style. They also characterize the model of the universe as conceived by the modern age. Space, that is, outer space or universal space, has a form and an architecture that is reflected in the architecture of buildings. The medieval cathedrals, with their verticality, their hierarchy of spaces, and distinctions between spaces were the perfect embodiment of the medieval universe, which was also vertical, hierarchical, and marked by distinctions between Heaven and earth, between the sacred and the profane.
That the Church has embraced the concept of Relativist space is evidenced by the liturgical revolution that took place after the Second Vatican Council. When the Church adopted the new liturgy, existing churches began to he "reordered so that they could best reflect new ideas about the celebration of the Mass, and new church buildings were designed with all internal layout that had never been seen before in the history of the Church. The casual visitor to the nearby Catholic church cannot help but be aware of the changes that were implemented, in many cases, against the wishes of the congregation.
The most obvious has been the reorientation of the priest so that Mass is said facing the people. This innovation says loud and clear that there is nothing to look to that is outside the community. It represents a denial of the transcendent in favor of the immanent. This is even more marked in churches where seating is arranged to create a circular or semicircular layout, where there is nothing beyond the priest at the altar than more people facing the altar. Circles by their very nature are inward-looking forms.
In existing churches, reordering schemes have seen elaborate high altars removed and replaced with new and much simpler table altars, which have been pushed forward into the nave so that the people can "gather round". The choir may be relocated so as to appear less distinct from the laity. Statues have been removed, frescos and murals have been whitewashed over, and sanctuary rails have been discarded so as to lessen the distinction between the sanctuary and nave. Pews have been taken out and replaced with plastic stacking chairs in the name of greater flexibility.
The aim has been to create a sense of informality and encourage spontaneity of worship, to break down barriers between the clergy and the laity, and to emphasize the church as belonging to the community by accommodating social activities into the body of the building. Churches, or rather "places of worship", are intended to be welcoming so that people can feel at home and relax. To this end, no effort is spared in designing new church buildings that do not look like churches and are hard to distinguish from the local library or health center. That is the intention. A church that looks like a church might put people off.
Internally, traditional linear forms are rejected as being too hierarchical and authoritarian. Instead, the preferred arrangement is circular, modeled on the theater in the round or the seminar room. How better to demonstrate the gathering of the community? The language is itself revealing. The nave, the sanctuary, the baptistery--these are out of fashion. The preferred term is the "worship space", which can double as a meeting area or a location for social activities.
It is not going too far to say that the new liturgy has an architecture, or a form and a structure, that can be examined for what it says about ideas of space. It is not within the scope of this argument to discuss recent developments such as the introduction of the vernacular into the Mass, or the suitability of overenthusiastic gestures during the kiss of peace, or whether Holy Communion should be received standing or kneeling, in the hand or on the tongue. For the purposes of this discussion, the most relevant question is to what extent the new liturgy reflects the preference for the relativizing of space that is the mark of the modern age.
The image of the "People of God gathered around the altar", which the Modernists have advanced as the inspiration for the new church building, could only be possible in a Relativist universe in which no absolute or objective truth can be said to exist out there and in which all reality is subjectively determined. Modernists claim that Mass facing the people was the practice of the early Church (which it was not), and that Mass was said facing the people in the Constantinian basilicas (which was not the case either).
Another sign that the new liturgy reflects the Relativism of the age is the pattern of movements made by the various participants at the Mass. This pattern is generated by the constant coming and going and endless bustle that indicates the formlessness of Relativist space, its lack of direction, and its denial of the sacred. There is a constant movement from nave to sanctuary and back again, if indeed there is any boundary between them at all. Lay people enter the sanctuary to give the readings, and priest wanders about in the nave to deliver his sermon through a mobile microphone. Holy Communion is brought into the nave for distribution; and there is movement across the aisles during the kiss of peace. The flow of the Mass is frequently interrupted by every party having to do its bit. The whole thing seems scattered, its movements characterized by a breaking down of form.
The traditional linear arrangements had a structure and direction that could be readily understood and in which it was possible to be at rest. In a Relativist universe emptied of meaning, it is a very human response to fill the vacated spaces with noise and activity. Is it any wonder that the New Mass is the way it is?
There has been much discussion recently about how authentic the implementation of the Second Vatican Council has been. Did the Council intend the huge changes that have taken place, or have its documents been liberally interpreted and the results attributed to some indefinable and nebulous "spirit of Vatican II"? A detailed discussion of this is also beyond the scope of the argument here, but the design of the contemporary church building displays the influence of the spirit of Relativism at every turn. The styles of the past embodied ideas about space and Man's relation to God that were in harmony with the traditional teachings of the Church. It is possible to hold a personal preference for one or the other of these styles, because the theology they expressed remained more or less consistent. The Modernist church style, however, is theologically unsound.
Modernist architecture has been as harmful to the Church as it was to our towns and cities. We still have to live with much of the havoc caused by the massive urban developments of postwar decades, but thankfully many secular builders have abandoned the destructive ideas about space promoted by the Modernists. State governments and the architectural firms they employ also have moved on from Modernism.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for many of our church designers. Recent decades have seen fads in church design come and go, like the concrete Brutalism of the 1950s and '60s and the understated, civic look that was designed to disappear into the municipal background. Then came the homely, community aesthetic intended to be as unchallenging as possible and, most recently, the dazzlingly lit, white box which resembles the style of the latest art gallery or sushi bar. But no matter how the fashions have changed, the same Relativist ideas about space have remained. It is often said that churches represent "theology in stone" and that they can be "read" as such. If this is true for the Gothic cathedral, with its towering internal spaces pointing to God and its abundance of imagery offering instruction and inspiration to the laity, then it is equally true for the emptied church buildings of today. Emptiness can speak volumes, just as silence can be deafening.
If buildings speak to us, what does this new church architecture say about the state of Christianity today? It has been said that the motto of the modern age is "No particular place to go". In a Relativist age, the sign over the church door might as well be "Nothing special here". The new ideas about style and worship represent a profound shift away from the concept of the church building as a "House of God" toward the concept of a church as a place where the "People of God" gather.
Throughout the centuries, whatever the aesthetics and form of a particular style, whether a plain and simple chapel or grand and ornate cathedral, the church building was able to embody a vision that was both immanent and transcendent. In other words, "God is with us" and at the same time God is entirely "Other". But Relativism denies the transcendent vision and is all on the side of subjectivity.
By embracing the spirit of the age, the Church has necessarily become watered-down and bland, fearful of proclaiming the glory of God and anxious to please. By attempting to become more "relevant" to the age, she has only succeeded in becoming more and more marginalized. The church building, once the House of God and a foretaste of Heaven, is no place in particular and nothing special. The overwhelming impression given by the ever-decreasing numbers of people still worshipping there is of inward- looking and self-celebratory communities who barely know or acknowledge, let alone rejoice in, the presence of God or the great wonders of the faith.
Many commentators have noted with regret the elimination of mystery, awe, and reverence from the contemporary Church and her liturgy. Just as regrettable, surely, is the impulse toward self-worship that has declared the contemporary church building to be "no place for God".
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 81.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
How Should We Worship? | Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid, O.S.B. | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
Music and Liturgy | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Moyra Doorly, an architect who lives in England, is also a Catholic journalist and writer in the UK. She has written for various popular publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, and Tatler.
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