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NO PLACE FOR GOD: The Denial of the Transcendent in Modern Church Architecture
Modernist architecture: stripping churches of the sacred
NO PLACE FOR GOD:
With Mass attendance declining and young people leaving Catholic schools without the Faith, and most churches locked during the day because only vandals would be likely to enter them, clergy, educationists and interested laity rack their brains for an explanation and a remedy.
While it may be too simple an explanation to lay the blame at the door of modernist church architecture entirely, Moyra Doorly, an architect, Catholic convert, and well known writer and broadcaster in England, argues convincingly that contemporary modernist churches not only reject the past, but discredit and destroy traditional beliefs by stripping churches of the sacred. The result has been the rise of the ugliest and emptiest church buildings in history.
In the past even atheists and agnostics found it impossible not to admire church architecture but now there is hardly a Catholic who can admire the concrete and futuristic buildings which seem designed to deny their spiritual function. Modernist churches with their carpets, functional furniture, sound system and meaningless daubs of paint on the walls no longer point to a transcendent God, a God who inspires awe, reverence and wonder. Rather, they resemble more a conference hall, lecture theatre or health centre. Only mosques and 19th and early 20th century churches proclaim on city skylines the presence of God amongst us.
One cannot blame congregations for breaking into animated conversations and sharing jokes before and after Mass on Sundays if the design of the church resembles a barn- like festive hall, or ignoring the Real Presence if the tabernacle is half- hidden, hardly noticeable, away in a dark corner.
The author shows how these modern churches are geared to 'the celebration of the worshipping community'. They look, not to the Transcendent God, but inwards towards the people themselves; they are 'temples to the spirit of the age ... they reflect the theology of the times'. But the spirit of the age is the celebration of people, not worship of God. Doorly quotes a famous passage of Chesterton's: 'Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within ... That Jones shall worship the God within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones worships Jones.'
Doorly is not content merely to criticise the appearance of modern churches but analyses the various modernist movements that have spawned modernist architecture, ultimately proving as harmful to the churches as it has been to the towns and cities of the world. She shows how underpinning the modernist movements are elements of Einstein's theories of relativity, theosophy, psychoanalysis and neo-paganism, and how many well-meaning leaders in the Church passively adopted the modernist ideas about space, form and function - ideas entirely in tune with contemporary self-reverence.
While the havoc caused by the massive urban developments and Brutalist secular buildings of the 50s and 60s has now been recognised as destructive of the environment, our dear Church, of its nature, always behind the times, continues to encourage Godless buildings in the mistaken belief that they reflect the 'spirit of Vatican II'.
The author shows, quoting extensively from Vatican II documents, how the so-called spirit of Vatican II has been misinterpreted and, in some cases, instructions of the conciliar and post-conciliar documents have been ignored in favour of the latest architectural fads.
The book is liberally illustrated with photographs of the worst excesses of modernist churches both in England, mainland Europe and America - and even in Rome itself. The trendy but dreaded word 'reordered' is used to describe how the interiors of churches have been desecrated and made 'more meaningful to the 'spirit of the age'.'
The traditional interior of St Joseph's in Bunhill, London, for example, was 'reordered' in 1970, stripped of its altar and furnishings in favour of a bare modernist sanctuary, and then restored to its former appearance in the 1990s by a more conservative priest. But the church was in turn reverted back to its former modernist appearance by another parish priest in 2002. Doorly reports that most of the congregation, in despair, has gone elsewhere.
If we in Australia may feel a little smug that these dramatic and neo-pagan examples happen elsewhere, we have only to look around us in the suburbs to see exactly the same uglification of churches in this country. The tide is turning back but not fast enough to prevent the dollars and cents of the faithful supporting buildings which the decision-makers believe reflect 'the spirit of the age'.
As Doorly says, 'the spirit of the age, any age, is something transitory, something that will pass away as time moves on.' For many of us - and one suspects the majority of the faithful - it cannot pass too quickly.
I cannot recommend this little book too highly. Buy two and send one to your parish council when a new church is being planned.
Tony Evans's first book 'The Conscious Stone' was on the architect Fr John Hawes. He is currently engaged in writing a biography of the 19th century architect William Wardell whose crowning works were St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney and St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 21 No 1 (February 2008), p. 16
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