Friday, July 29, 2016

Form Follows Function, Function Follows Form

Bethel Lutheran Church
Do you ever wonder why churches look the way they do? Ever think about the elements they have in common? Here's a picture of the church of my youth, I was the organist there for a time in my teen years. It's got the steeple out front. Steeples are supposed to point us to God, heavenward as it were. This church doesn't have any stained glass windows like many churches do. Being in Minnesota, this church had a large basement for potlucks, I don't know if this is a standard architectural feature for churches... Inside is a large room known as the nave [1] where the dreaded pews are, separated from a stage area known as a chancel [2]. All my life I didn't know what the words nave and chancel meant. The chancel has a sacred place known as a sanctuary [3] and an altar [4]. The altar in Christian churches is basically a table, whereas the altar in the Old Testament Tabernacle was basically a grill for cooking sacrifices. The sacred place can be simply a place consecrated for that purpose; or if your church is special, built on holy ground (maybe a miracle happened there), or contain the bones of a holy person.

A church wouldn't be a church without a pulpit, would it? It's located on the chancel. You may have bristled at me calling the chancel a stage, but in fact the word pulpit means stage or platform (Latin pulpitum). Here's the key thing - the chancel and especially the pulpit are reserved for the clergy. The choir and the organist also have their assigned places on the chancel. In many churches there is a dividing screen between nave and chancel. See picture.

A Rood Screen

By medieval times, worship roles for clergy and laity differed so much as to give rise to sharp architectural distinctions and even barriers between the two. Worshipers observed priests celebrate the Mass, through a lattice-work screen. The Latin for lattice, cancellus, led to the clergy side of the screen being called the chancel. The screen, when it supported a cross, was known as a rood screen.  Into the Chancel [5]

Model of Tabernacle
The modern architecture movement insists that form follows function [6], so these elements of a church must exist for a functional reason, as well as historical reasons. Christian church architecture should come from the Bible, right? Especially for denominations that assert they live by every Word of it. But no, naves and chancels are not in the Bible. How about the Temple or Tabernacle from the Old Testament? Did they form the pattern for churches to come? There are a few similarities like the altar I mentioned above, and an elevated Holy Place which only the priests can enter, but people went there for sacrifices, not weekly instruction. That was the job of the local synagogue. There was only one Temple, and it was in Jerusalem. So no, the Temple is not really a pattern for Christian churches.

Bimah - reading table before the Ark
How about the Jewish synagogues? Are they the model for Christian churches? No again. According to Wikipedia, "There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly." - Synagogue architecture [7]. The only constant feature of synagogues is the Ark, a chest to hold the Torah scrolls. Frank Viola asserts "It can be rightly said that Christianity was the first non-temple-based religion ever to emerge." Pagan Christianity? [8]

So where did the design come from? Actually, from Greek pagan temples called basilicas.

The nave of Saint Peter’s Basilica
The church edifices built under Constantine were patterned exactly after the model of the basilica. These were the common government buildings, designed after Greek pagan temples. Basilicas served the same function as high school auditoriums do today. They were wonderful for seating passive and docile crowds to watch a performance. This was one of the reasons why Constantine chose the basilica model.  Pagan Christianity? [8]

Wikipedia confirms this.
By extension the name (Basilica) was applied to Christian churches which adopted the same basic plan and it continues to be used as an architectural term to describe such buildings, which form the majority of church buildings in Western Christianity. Basilica [9]

Until the time of Constantine 325 AD, Christians met in small groups in each others homes, face to face, family style if you will. “The first churches consistently met in homes. Until the year 300 we know of no buildings first built as churches.”  Ante Pacem [10]

A lot of things changed under Constantine, especially in the church. Church (ekklesia) went from meaning an assembly (of believers) to meaning a building. The church went from meeting in homes to meeting in basilicas. The church split into a lay class and a clergy class.

Worship became more professional, dramatic, and ceremonial. All of these features were borrowed from the Greco-Roman culture and carried straight into the Christian church. Fourth-century Christianity was being profoundly shaped by Greek paganism and Roman imperialism. The upshot of it all was that there was a loss of intimacy and open participation. The professional clergy performed the acts of worship while the laity looked on as spectators. Pagan Christianity? [8] 

God had gone from dwelling in each of His people to being "accessible" only by the clergy class. Naves, chancels, steeples, stained glass are designed to inspire awe, but actually work to distance the laity from God.

Pulpit of  Eglise Saint Sulpice

The Protestant reformers made one important change to church architecture - the pulpit became the center of the building instead of the altar. In other words, the sermon was the star of the show. Preaching replaced rituals. With the pulpit the dominant feature, the clergy is elevated to a position of prominence, separating him and elevating him above God's people. And the congregation assumes a passive spectator role of pew potato, while the clergy, choir, and other musicians become performers.

Function Follows Form

After 1700 years of Constantine's influence on church architecture, it is very hard for us to think of church buildings any other way. It seems obvious that the clergy or "worship team" would be elevated, the sermon the centerpiece of the service, and the laity as spectators, doesn't it? So the layout of the church building makes perfect sense, right?  Or in the words of Winston Churchill "First we shape our buildings. Thereafter, they shape us."

But the church (the people) wasn't always so. For 300 years before Constantine, the church met in small groups, and interacted with each other so that "every joint supplieth". This is supported by the Bible, history and archeology.

My problem is that I don't know what to do with this information.  I left my childhood church in my late teens, and came back to "religion" ten prodigal years later, as a member of the Church of God, of which I am still a member, United Church of God to be specific. Church of God members strive to live by every word of the Bible.  For years, I would realize bits of Lutheran teaching followed me into the Church of God, like baggage if you will, and I had to correct my thinking.  At first obvious things like giving up unclean meats, and exchanging church holidays for Biblical holydays.  Later it would be more subtle things like bias against Jews and the Old Testament.

But could it be that some of my beliefs still don't come from the Bible? Some of my thinking about church may come from a lifelong familiarity with Christian church buildings, not from the Bible at all.

Gotta have a pulpit because there's a sermon.
Gotta have a sermon because there's a pulpit.