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The Church's Edifice Complex

Among first century Greeks the word "church" had nothing to do with a structure used for religious purposes. In fact, it had nothing to do with religion.
Its literal meaning was of people in groups, gathered together for a common purpose. Thus a city council meeting would be a "church" of citizens gathered to consider matters of public concern. Calling religious-purpose buildings "churches" began about the fourth century of our Christian era.
The earliest Christians, who were Jews, worshiped in synagogues and private houses. The oldest building identified by archaeologists as a "church" is a house in present-day Syria with an interior wall knocked out. Rituals tended to be simple, and symbolic religious accoutrements in the space were minimal.
As Christianity became the privileged religion of the Roman Empire, simple utility was superseded by buildings that made a "statement"; they became architectural expressions of cultural taste and values, and reflections of status and affluence.
So church buildings morphed from being utilitarian places that provided meeting space to elaborate and sometimes opulent expressions of piety and doctrine. The epitome of this trend was the medieval cathedrals, almost worlds unto themselves.
The growth of American Protestantism, when fine points of theology and doctrinal differences required five Methodist, seven Baptist, and at least two Presbyterian churches in a town of 4,000 population, having a "church of your own" was more important than the quality and usefulness of the building. After all, pre-destinarian Calvinists could not properly worship with people who held an Armenian maybe-yes-maybe-no view of eternal salvation.
Church building proliferated in Europe during the religious churnings of the 17th and 18th centuries, as steeples sprang up rarely farther apart than a half-hour walk. Many Church of England village church buildings were gems of architectural genius, substantially built of stone and huge hand-hewn wooden beams, with exquisite hand-carved furnishings: like hundreds of miniature cathedrals strategically spaced along rural roads.
As transportation became less problematic for rural families, many of these buildings became redundant. Not long ago you could have bought an 18th century Middlesex church and rectory for less than it would have cost you to repair the windows or heat them for one winter.
Americans usually went for function and appearance over quality. Square wooden boxes with pitched roofs and faux steeples sprang up like Kansas sunflowers, and had about as long a useful life. Some were reincarnated as residences or restaurants. I rather enjoyed the salad tossed in the pulpit of a South Carolina church-cum-oasis for gracious dining, but had a negative visceral reaction to martinis mixed on the altar. Amateur local theaters now offer melodrama from a dais where fiery revival sermons once called sinners to repentance.
One beautiful and costly Missouri church building — where half a century ago 500 weekly worshipers filled the place — now has one tenth that number huddled together like a covey of quail on a cold day. They can’t afford to maintain it or sell it for what it would bring on the local real estate market.
If I were pastor of a congregation today, faced with a need for enclosed space, I would probably try to move the membership away from the "we-must-have-our-own-building" sentiment, to take a long-term lease on a commercial building. If they already have a once-useful, attractive structure which changing neighborhood demographics and economics have turned into an albatross with a voracious appetite, I might suggest they just sell the beloved pile of bricks and mortar where four generations have prayed, and free themselves to be The Church rather than a money pit cadging cash from the faithful to fix the impossibly expensive slate roof, solid copper guttering or sinking basement.
We do, understandably and rightly, love our beautiful, familiar, comfortable sacred space. So I would have to tell the folks that there will have to be a few more funerals before that can happen.

Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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