Monday, October 15, 2012
House of God or the Church's House
In the beginning this was fueled by the modern idea that the early Christian community did not build church buildings, did not even consider church buildings, and saw the home as the principal worship space by design (as opposed to because they had no money or legal standing to build). Herein the archeology of the last 50-60 years has proven this myth false and rendered much of the premise of modern architecture obsolete. It appears that there were church buildings used for worship -- from the beginning. It began, of course, with the discovery of Dura-Europa and a church structure dating from 232 AD. That has been the spring board for a host of other buildings built or remodeled by the Church for use in the Divine Liturgy. Some of these were found in ruins but the majority have been referenced in Christian literature of the period. A great article in the journal for the Institute for Sacred Architecture tells the story well.
The problem is that we know very little about pre-Constantinian liturgy or Christian architecture. Yet from the scant literary evidence we do have, we should not reject the strong probability that even in the second century the Church owned land and built special buildings for the community. The earliest record of the special purpose church building seems to be from Chronicle of Arbela, a fifth-century Syrian manuscript which tells us that Bishop Isaac (Ishaq) (135-148) “had built a large well-ordered church which exists today.” The Chronicles of Edessa mention a Christian church destroyed in a city-wide flood around 201. Around the year 225 A.D. Christians acquired a piece of public property in a dispute with inn-keepers to build a church with the explicit blessing of Emperor Severus Alexander, who determined “that it was better for some sort of a god to be worshipped there than for the place to be handed to the keepers of an eating-house.”
Thus the disconnect presumed by modern architects who assumed that a focus on the assembly was the earlier direction of church buildings. It renders some of the old assumptions as suspect. For example, you can hear the bias built in through the comments of a couple of noted modern architects:
As Father Richard Vosko surmised, “The earliest understanding of a Christian church building implies that it is a meeting house—a place of camaraderie, education and worship. In fact, the earliest Christian tradition clearly held that the Church does not build temples to honor God. That is what the civic religions did.” This notion was put most forcefully by E.A. Sovik, writing: “It is conventionally supposed that the reasons that Christians of the first three centuries built almost no houses of worship were that they were too few, or too poor, or too much persecuted. None of these is true. The real reason that they didn’t build was that they didn’t believe in ecclesiastical building.”
If you plan on building a structure in which the principal activity is worship, specifically the liturgy, you need to read this article. Its conclusions are inescapable for those who would force upon the Church another structure ill prepared for the Mass, with a focus upon the assembly rather than the Word and Table of the Lord, of a scale that emphasizes the place of the people, and without ornamentation designed to communicate the tenets of what is believed and confessed during the worship that takes place within its walls.
If the domestic model has no sure foundation, then the arguments erected for rejecting the hierarchical and formal models of liturgy; for discarding the sacramental language of Christian architecture in favor of a functionalist and programmatic approach to building; and for dismissing any appeals to the rich treasure trove of Catholic architectural history and various historical styles are susceptible to falling like a house of cards.