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'Build my Church' - Some Theological Considerations on the Theme of Church Design

By Ian Green.


A Defining Activity

In 1961 Peter Hammond wrote

The next few years will almost certainly produce a further harvest of still-born essays in the various ecclesiastical styles, complete with gothic chairs, fifteenth century altars, and all the familiar stock-in-trade of the church furnisher.1

He was lamenting the divorce which, in his view, existed between theology and practice in relation to church design. Hammond objected to the notion that there was a 'proper' way in which to build a church. He was critical of the tendency, even after the Second World War, for churches to be built according to the 'correct principles' laid down by the Ecclesiological Society in 1846.2 Such principles were based on the architectural style and church traditions of the thirteenth century. According to Hammond an example of this archaic and dysfunctional approach to church design is found in the new Coventry Cathedral. He believed it

...contributes nothing to the solution of the real problems of church design and perpetuates a conception of a church which owes far more to the romantic movement than to the new Testament or authentic Christian tradition.3

Hammond was keen to ask the question, 'What is the church building for?' He advocated that the starting point for design is that of functional analysis, and concluded that '...the domus ecclesiae is a place for the corporate worship of the local Christian community'4. In short, he was saying that church architecture needs to be shaped by worship; it ought never to be the other way round. We should always start with that question, 'What is the primary purpose of a church building?'.5

Philip Will, however, makes the point that when it comes to church design, all too often 'expediency rules; virtuosity is feared; and mediocrity is comfortable and good enough'.6 He suggests that a church building committee should be asking the architect not 'How much? And how soon?' but 'What do you want from us?'.7 In other words the dialogue between church and architect must begin with a theological understanding of the building's function. It is interesting to note that it was said of Basil Spence, architect of Coventry Cathedral (the building so despised by Hammond) that he did exactly this. He fulfilled the brief given to him by the Dean and Chapter that

The Cathedral should be built to enshrine the altar. This should be the ideal of the architect, not to conceive a building and to place in it an altar, but to conceive an altar and to create a building.8

Hammond's call for Functionalism to be the prime consideration in church design does not go unchallenged. Today, perhaps because the Christian community feels its presence is being lost in a secular society, some writers are asking, ' there something wrong with a popular notion which suggests that a church should look like a church?'.9 For them a defining activity of the building is not only what goes on inside, but what message the outside offers society. Such a view, whilst not necessarily discarding a functional approach, is at least asking additional questions about the value of conventional, and therefore recognisable, church features.

Buildings Which Express God's Majesty and Mystery

Traditionally church buildings have tried to express something of God's majesty and mystery. This idea of misterium tremendum can be seen in a range of church architectural styles ranging from medieval cathedrals, such as Winchester and York, to the 'mock gothic proportions of many 19th century non-conformist buildings'10 such as Dagnall Street Baptist, St Albans. Peter Brook, writing about the theatre, says of the stage what Christians might want to say of the altar:

I am calling it the Holy Theatre for short, but it could be called the Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible: the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts.11

This is the notion that a particular place can become special for us - some might want to say holy - because in that place a sense of mystery is both explored and expressed. Such notions have normally led church architects to build great and lofty buildings, furnished with the costliest materials and fashioned by the best craftsmen. This was certainly the view of Basil Spence when he said cathedrals should 'speak to us and to generations to come of the Majesty, the Eternity and the Glory of God'.12

Not all sections of the church share the view that God's mystery ought to be the defining feature of ecclesiastical architecture. CH Spurgeon, the Victorian Baptist preacher and church planter, for example, insisted that his chapels adopted the architecture of a Greek gymnasium of learning. Spurgeon saw the church not as a place where the mystery of God is expressed, but where God's revelation is made known, and our learning takes place.13

Worship Offered by Minister and People

Donald Gray writes:

From the time of Constantine, when Christianity began to replace the pagan cults as the state religion, worship lost its domestic setting and became a public occasion.14

So, according to Gray, a building set apart for Christian worship anticipates use for primarily public, rather than private, celebration. However, the two-room principle of design, which meant putting the people in the nave and the clergy in the chancel, effectively excluded the congregation from the real centre of the liturgical drama. This exclusivity was swept away in the 17th century with the introduction of 'auditory' churches. Binney writes:

Wren recommended his own St James', Piccadilly, as a model; its rectangular plan with galleries on three sides and the altar on the fourth, holding a congregation of 2000, was 'beautiful and convenient and as such, the cheapest of any form I could invent'.15

However, by the early 19th century, as advocated by the Oxford Movement and the Camden Society, churches were once again being built in a two-room medieval design, with nave and chancel considered the norm.

Today a more practical approach is being adopted. Altars are being placed in the nave and new church buildings are often built 'in the round'. Both these tendencies suggest that greater thought is once again being given to how the whole congregation might be involved in worship. It is also the working through of the theological idea that liturgy is, quite literally, the offering up of the work of the people of God. This emphasis of the 'laos' within worship is found in a book by Maguire and Murray where they write,

When the Salvation Army forms a circle on a windy street corner it also uses a form with deep-rooted meaning. A place is made by the circle of people (where before there was only placelessness) for the time of the service; a centre is created. In the very simplest form a church is built.16

This inclusivity, reflected in both 'round church' and nave altar, takes seriously Kirkegaard's observation that we might think of liturgy as drama, with God as the audience and everyone in church as the cast17 . It also expresses, in the most obvious way possible, the idea that the church at worship is basically an Upper Room community18.



All buildings make some sort of statement and a church is no exception. Ecclesiastical design, especially the exterior features, will by intention or accident proclaim certain aspects of belief held by that faith community. Peter Hammond argues that

Bad churches do not merely corrupt the aesthetic sensibilities of those who use them; they obscure the nature of the ecclesia itself and of the gospel which it is called to proclaim and make manifest.19

Maguire and Murray agree20, and suggest it would be preferable to build no churches at all than to build those which, architecturally, 'speak' the wrong message.

Clearly, however, buildings are neither the beginning nor the end of mission. Buildings may play their part, especially in the facilities they offer and the architectural statements they make, but they are probably neither essential nor cost efficient when it comes to mission. Traditionally the congregation is 'dismissed' from both the building and the Mass with the word, 'Go', indicating that the mission of the church is to share the faith celebrated and taught at the service, with society throughout the week. With such an understanding in mind, the Church of England's report, 'Faith in the City', states:

Mission should include a ministry to the institutions which shape the lives of people... and an involvement in the processes of political life.21

To that end many churches are today setting aside personnel to work in sector ministries. A variety of non-church-based ministers now work as chaplains to shops, industry, hospitals, schools and prisons. They, along with the majority of lay people, fulfil the mission of the church outside its cultic context.

Roy Johnson says that 'among some American Brethren churches the phrase 'To the Glory of God and My Neighbor's (sic) Good' is seen as an expression of the church's purpose22. Viewing the church's mission in this light might lead us to the conclusion that all churches should be designed to be more than simply worship centres. The provision of halls, kitchens, cloakrooms, small rooms and even sports facilities needs to be considered alongside the design of the sanctuary. Such considerations will enable a local church to be used by the community throughout the week.


A fundamental aspect of the church's mission is that of commending the gospel to those at present outside its ranks. Yet it could be argued that many church buildings are threatening and unwelcoming to the newcomer. Ed Sovik believes that ecclesiastical design must be seen as a vital contributor to the effectiveness of the church's mission when he writes:

I have used the word 'hospitality' to describe that quality of architecture which seems to me best able to express the grace and generosity which are the nature of love. Hospitable architecture, like really hospitable people, is not imperious or overpowering; it does not press in upon you.23

However, Roy Johnson does not consider church design to be the most important issue on the church's mission agenda; he writes:

The appearance of a building should never become a substitute for an effective evangelistic program (sic) and a warm, welcoming atmosphere.24

Although no church would want to ignore Johnson's plea for 'friendliness', it is apparent that many in society consider church buildings to be both alien and threatening. So Methodist Central Halls were built to resemble theatres rather than churches. Today, however, even these buildings look out of place in the High Street.

It might be argued that, since few 'strangers' attend church these days, such an emphasis on welcoming the newcomer is misplaced. However, significant opportunities to greet the 'stranger' continue to present themselves to every church: for example, at weddings, baptisms and funerals, at Family Services and school visits. We should never underestimate the importance of the church's welcome expressed through both buildings and people.



Spirituality includes both the definition and expression of faith. It is, therefore, a highly significant factor in church design. Ecclesiastical buildings can, at one and the same time, make manifest and mould our beliefs.

In his address to the National Conference on Religious Architecture at San Francisco in 1966, Robert Brown appealed for church buildings to '...reflect pilgrimage rather than arrival'25. Such a concept values the evolution of a building; it affirms an understanding of the pilgrim people of God as on the move. We see exactly this in most cathedrals. Nave, chancel, chapter house and tower might all have been constructed at different times and for different reasons. Part of a cathedral's romance can often be found in its use of eclectic styles and features. Brown, of course, was not talking specifically about cathedrals but about all church buildings. His appeal was that their effectiveness be constantly re-evaluated, and that those involved in the design process allow themselves the freedom to move on.

The reality is that many buildings, not only churches, go through this evolutionary process. Buildings are not necessarily dysfunctional just because they were not begun and finished in accordance with an original design. On the contrary, even if they give problems to the users, they are often described as having a 'life of their own'; they have evolved instead of standing still. Peter Brook, the theatre producer, writes:

I have had many abortive discussions with architects building new theatres - trying vainly to find words with which to communicate my own conviction that it is not a question of good buildings and bad; a beautiful place may never bring about an explosion of life, while a haphazard hall may be a tremendous meeting place; this is the mystery of the theatre.26

If the idea of pilgrimage, with its emphasis on moving on from the past whilst still affirming tradition, is such an important feature of Christian spirituality, how does one start when designing a new church building? Ecclesiologists of the mid-nineteenth century did not find this a problem; they simply re-invented a medieval past and prescribed it as a contemporary norm. As James White writes:

In little more than thirty years, chancels were considered a normal part of Anglican churches, and most Anglicans no longer considered crosses, stone altars, and rood screens as 'badges of popery'. What is perhaps more amazing, many of the free churches were building 'correct' Gothic churches with the neo-medieval floor plan of separate and distinct naves and chancels.27

There is no doubt that ecclesiologists of the Camden Society valued and imitated the past. They believed, however, that they were not simply copying the thirteenth century but applying some of its best principles to contemporary times. Nevertheless, today some would argue that such a spirituality actually stunted and arrested the evolution of church design. Indeed, Basil Spence considered it his task at Coventry 'not to copy, but to think afresh'28. And this understanding permeates the ethos of the 'International Style, developed to express a deliberate and total break with the past'. However, the choice between copying and thinking afresh is still a contentious one in church design. Some would argue that pilgrimage spirituality dictates a fresh approach and Christians ought to be unafraid to express our beliefs using new styles and contemporary materials. Others prefer to look back, seeing pilgrimage as a continuation from the past centuries of Christian tradition.

If the notion of pilgrimage spirituality is to be taken seriously, then congregations have to be open to the possibilities of evolution and change. Our church buildings have to be more than just historic time capsules. Gary Martin says exactly this when he asks the question:

Do church facilities serve a temple or tabernacle function? Are they immovable and eternal or portable and temporary? Today's rapidly changing society demands a tabernacle philosophy. The prevailing temple philosophy is bankrupt.30

Martin goes on to say that in his view, tabernacle-oriented congregations are able to cope with change, whilst the temple-oriented are shackled to their buildings. Indeed it takes only a minimal amount of ministerial experience to realise that many, if not the majority, in a congregation, have invested vast amounts of themselves into their church building. Nothing becomes more emotive than discussions about reordering the church furnishings and plant. We can all become dogmatically conservative and unyielding in our attachments to church fixtures and fittings.

The reality is that one person can turn a tin mission hall into their personal temple as easily as another might a gothic cathedral. Both will find their spirituality shaped accordingly and probably fail to understand the other.

World Affirming

Another aspect of spirituality which impinges upon the design process is to do with the whole notion of what makes for truly sacred space. There is a 'retreat' type of spirituality which would consider church buildings to be essentially 'separated' places. We escape into them from the world outside and, once there, feel safe and at peace; they become to us a sort of oasis or haven to tranquillity.

However, Robert Brown called for a different sort of spirituality when he addressed the National Conference on Religious Architecture at San Francisco in 1966. As well as calling for church buildings to embody the idea that Christian congregations are fundamentally 'pilgrim' in nature, he also urged that ecclesiastical architecture should 'immerse us in the world rather than divide us off from it'31. Brown's spirituality is uncomfortable with the idea that a church is primarily a place in which to retreat from the world. He asks for a very different type of church when he writes:

How could a church be designed so that the world will intrude, as it must, rather than be obliterated, as it has often tended to be?32

Sovik considers any attempt by the Church to separate itself from the 'forms of the world as a sort of heresy'33.

This 'world affirming' spirituality, which blurs the distinctions between sacred and secular, can work itself out in a number of different ways. Some churches are built for multi-purpose use, acting as worship centres on Sundays and community centres throughout the week. Others will concentrate on their 'social justice' programme as much as their Sunday liturgy. Others will encourage the use of both 'secular' art and music in their buildings and services as a recognition that God's activity and character is not exclusively locked up in the 'sacred'.

Brown concludes his argument by quoting Bonhoeffer who once said, 'only he who cries out for the Jews has the right to sing Gregorian chant'34 . He is advocating a spirituality grounded as much in social action as in corporate worship or individual reflection.


Church architecture is in many ways like a pendulum, swinging to and fro. For example, the High Gothic style was challenged by the Puritan simplicity of the Reformation. However, by the nineteenth century the pendulum had swung back to some of these Gothic ideals of mysticism, grandeur and beauty. Church design is never stagnant, and since the mid-twentieth century there has, once again, been a greater emphasis on functionalism and practicality. It is a worthwhile debate.

1. Hammond, Peter : Liturgy and Architecture, William Clowes & Son Ltd (London) 1960 p 5  Return

2. White, James: Some Contemporary Experiments in Liturgical Architecture in Religion in Life Vol 30 1961 p 287  Return

3. Hammond p 6  Return

4. Hammond p 30  Return

5. Johnson, Roy: Build for Mission in Brethren Life and Thought 36 part 3 1991 p 227  Return

6. Will, P: Building for Time and Eternity in Theology Today Vol 19 1862 p 205  Return

7. Will p 206  Return

8. Spence, Basil: Phoenix at Coventry: The Building of a Cathedral - by its Architect, Fontana (London) 1962 p 16  Return

9. Mantle, John: Early Bird with Early English - Theology, Culture and Church Design in Theology 94 (1991) p 352  Return

10. Yorkshire Baptist Association: Christian Worship - Some Contemporary Issues, YBA (Leeds) 1984 p 11   Return

11. Brook, Peter: The Empty Space, Penguin (London) 1972 p 46  Return

12. Spence p 15  Return

13. Yorkshire Baptist Association p 11  Return

14. Gray, Donald: The Setting of Worship: Getting the liturgy Right, SPCK (London) 1982  Return

15. Binney, M & Burman, P: Change and Decay: The Future of our Churches, Studio Vista (London) 1977 p 130  Return

16. Maguire, Robert & Murray, Keith: Modern Churches of the World, Studio Vista (London) 1965 p 8  Return

17. Sovik, Ed: The Environment for Sight, Sound and Action in Dialog 25 part 4 1986 p 273  Return

18. Yorkshire Baptist Association p 12  Return

19. Hammond p 167  Return

20. Maguire & Murray p 9  Return

21. Central Board of Finance of the Church of England: Faith in the City, Church House Publishing (London) 1985 p 76  Return

22. Johnson p 228  Return

23. Sovik p 275  Return

24. Johnson p 228  Return

25. Brown, RM: True and False Witnesses: Architecture and the Church in Theology Today Vol23 1967 p 521  Return

26. Brook p 23  Return

27. White p 288  Return

28. Spence p 20  Return

29. Hollingsworth, Mary: Architecture of the 20th Century, Brompton (London) 1988 p 106  Return

30. Martin, Gary: Facilities for New Church Development in Brethren Life and Thought 36 part 31991 p 235  Return

31. Brown p 521  Return

32. Brown p 534  Return

33. Sovik p 274  Return

34. Brown p 527  Return

Revd Ian Green is Minister,Walsworth Road Baptist Church, Hitchin. This article was adapted from his MTh dissertation for Westminster College, Oxford.

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You are reading 'Build my Church' - Some Theological Considerations on the Theme of Church Design by Ian Green, part of Issue 11 of Ministry Today, published in October 1997.

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