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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-Dec-2004

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum


Page: 25

Wordcount: 1335

How great thou aren’t

Architecture, Arts & Entertainment, SUMMER SPECTRUM

Elizabeth Farrelly

Whatever happened to inspiring spirituality via awesome grandeur, asks Elizabeth Farrelly.

I’m thinking of starting a movement called Pagans for Proper Churches. PPC. Dark and lonely work, sure, but necessary – because everywhere, under every log and rock, nice old churches are being melted down into nightclubs or ad agencies while the new, bursting-at-the-seams versions have the common-or-corporate look so down pat it’s hard to pick ’em from the general high-street line-up.

Hard to pick, but they’re everywhere, and multiplying. The Real Life Christian Church on the road in from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport sits in a dry paddock, leaning-to against a discount Tupperware outlet: without the sign you wouldn’t know it from a fibro shed.

The Anglican Crossroads Church in Redfern does a convincing imitation of a laundrette, while the Church of God of Prophecy in Redfern apes a 1950s haberdashery. Waterloo’s Hillsong Church looks about as spiritual as your average dentist’s waiting-room, distinguished from its office-park ambience only by the vigorous upfront merchandising. And the Newcastle City Church, next-but-one to Fanny’s nightclub, has the same, low-rent cream look: aluminium doors, aircon, receptionists, flowers, muzak – while the same franchise in Maroubra blends right in between the greasy spoon and Noodle Boy. Paradise Church, South Australia, was deliberately desymbolised so as not to signify “church”, and Chinatown’s Central Baptist Church tags itself “the original Star Trek”.

Nor is it just the out-there evangelicals. With one or two exceptions, the dumbing-down is across the board. St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral now wheels its altar in as and if needed. The Catholic St Peter Julian Church in George Street, Haymarket, dresses as a 1960s city bank. St Mark’s Anglican, Malabar, could easily pass for pensioner housing.

And the new St Patrick’s in Parramatta uses a dog-leg axis, central altar, flattish ceiling and horizontal aspect to give the mystery-levels of a standard school gym.

Why would it matter? Especially to a pagan? Well, symbolism, mystery, cultural depth. Spirituality, even. Beauty. And the nagging intuition that they’re all somehow connected. The church of myth and memory is, as Rilke said of the tree, centre of all that surrounds it, focusing our aesthetic as well as spiritual hungers. And the tree, universal religious symbol, is an apt simile.

From Buddhism to shamanism to the esoteric kabbalah, the tree has signified centre, source and axis mundi (linking underworld, earth and heaven) over millennia, as well as knowledge, fertility and life itself.

In the church, the tree traditionally abstracts as both steeple and cross. These days, though, you’re lucky to get either. These days, we turn trees into toilet-paper and churches into lowest-common demagoguery, pulping both through the relentless numbers game. The times when sacred music, liturgy and architecture were troves of transcendent beauty are long gone, good riddanced by the ever-more-populist church herself.

It’s not that religious denominations don’t do church any more – far from it. Hillsong, for example, promises its yuletide customers “awesome church” in the same cheesy tones with which Viagra retailers promise “awesome sex”. It’s more that church-as-activity has come to preclude church-as-artifact. So that now, although the corporate Church is more publicly and politically apparent than for decades, the buildings themselves camouflage into the commonplace with an aesthetic language that is deliberately mundane. Not a steeple or stained glass window in sight.

But, you counter, isn’t this what Christianity is about? Isn’t it good that the church shrugs off its materialist trappings and focuses for once on content? Isn’t this what that nice Mr Cromwell fought for?

Well yes, and no. It may look like Reformation II, but the underlying theology is no new-Puritanism. A 10-minute sampler of Hillsong’s heady I Believe! with a big band, stage lighting and dry ice, shows that. Or a glance at its shop, with Bobbie Houston’s latest book, I’ll Have What She’s Having, titled for Nora Ephron’s famous orgasm joke. No, the new Church doesn’t deny the senses. What it denies is the traditional role of abstraction and metaphor – beauty, in a word – in engaging those senses. Just as the Bible is increasingly literalised, so physical churches are being systematically stripped of all penumbral and symbolic meaning. Why?

Populism, in a word. Without recourse to the stakes and thumb-screws of its bloodiest historic moments, the Church is forced to pursue popularity. And popularity, it is assumed, demands ordinariness. As Brian Houston, Hillsong Sydney’s head personality-icon, says: “We’re not anti-Christian symbolism. But most people see church as cold and austere. We want it warm and embracing.”

It’s Mohammed’s problem with the mountain: a problem to which the Church’s traditional answer has always been inclusion. Catholic means catholic, after all, because of the Church’s apparently limitless absorption coefficient, allowing it to envelop, over the centuries, a range of pagan ritual from pre-Christian sun worship to Haitian voodoo.

But this time it’s different. This time the core artefacts themselves are distorting under populism’s gravitational pull.

As South Sydney’s Anglican Bishop Robert Forsythe puts it, “function is creating form, and function is changing”. The Church’s centre, he says, is “no longer the altar but the audiovisual suite”. Or, as US commentator Leonard Sweet puts it, “church architecture must [accommodate] screens … The screen is the stained-glass window of the postmodern age”. Hence the easy alliance between the New Church and the McMansion: both revolve around home entertainment technology.

Such trends, needless to say, are American-led. As lead architect Ray Robinson of American Church Builders notes: “Following typically American trends of one-stop shopping centres, the contemporary church often incorporates cafes, gymnasiums, computer centres and even rock-climbing walls and bowling alleys. These facilities are designed to increase religion’s prominence in the activities of everyday life and develop a sense of community among congregations that can number well over 20,000.” Sounds harmless, if a little dull.

Underpinning it, though, is a profound paradigm shift. Abandoning the mystery, axiality and otherness of the traditional Eucharistic church, the new church models itself on human relationships. This changes everything.

The traditional, cruciform church plan can be read as a symbolic corpus Christi, making the altar rail, at the crossing or shoulders, a threshold not only between body and head but also between this world and the next; between humanity, if you like, and God. But the implied distancing and subordination (of humans to God) is no popularity cinch. So the new church exchanges vertical for horizontal, gloaming for daylight, otherworld to world; relationship with God, perhaps, for a “community of relationships, where people feel at home and welcomed”. Church, it seems, may these days be awesome, but not awe-full.

Monsignor Francis Mannion, founder of the US Society for Catholic Liturgy, calls this phenomenon “the cultural canonisation of the intimate relationship”. Just as the workplace has been domesticated by the tyranny of intimacy (flatter structures, domestic feel, etc), so the church. Which explains why St Andrew’s Cathedral has no communion table, but an in-nave tea-and-coffee table instead. So, where to from here?

The two extremes of religious buildings are usually seen as temple (house of God) and meeting house. Generally, the church locates itself somewhere between the two – making it, and its artefacts, sacramental objects. This cuts across Cromwell’s view of idolatry but supports St Augustine’s (and Plato’s) idea that the physical beauty of such objects, far from being diversionary, conducts both eye and soul to God. It’s what American sociologist Richard Sennett calls the “conscience of the eye” and it implies an important role for beauty and distance in church design.

This is clearly not the mood of the moment. As the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said: “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.” And it’s not likely the church will – or even should – change for romanticising heathens such as the PPC. But if postmodernism has any value, it should redefine “function” to include the therapeutic and spiritual role of beauty, and to recognise that proper job descriptions for both tree and church should surely exclude toilet-paper but, just as surely, include an axis to heaven.


PHOTO: High-street look: the Real Life Christian Church in Melbourne. Photo: Estelle Grunberg


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