Churches of the Future

We live at a time when nearly all the churches around us are closing down and are being left to rot. The less historical of these buildings, mostly left to us from the Victorian era, are occasionally given or sold to other Christian denominations or other religions. Usually, they are redeveloped as residential accommodation or business premises. With our dwindling congregations, who can afford the upkeep of most churches? It is a headache of most of the mainstream denominations and the Roman Catholic Church.

At the same time, only the more wealthy traditionalist organisations have been able to buy and restore old churches, or to build new ones to suit their numbers of faithful. Most of the Continuing Anglican Churches, at least elsewhere than in the USA, have had great difficulties in the matter of buildings and material resources.

One might ask oneself why we need churches at all. The answer is in one word – liturgy. Without the liturgy, a room in an ordinary house is enough to share the reading of the Scriptures and a time of prayer. The need for a church is both symbolic and practical. To celebrate Mass, you need an altar of the right height and a credence table. A rudimentary sacristy is useful unless the kitchen of the house and the bedroom wardrobe will be pressed into service to serve a dual-purpose.

Many Continuing Anglican missions are established in houses, and men and women can show extraordinary ingenuity when setting up a temporary chapel in a brightly lit room like the living room, and then the altar and other things can be stowed away when not in use, for example in the garden shed or the garage. The furniture is rearranged, and the altar put up against a window with the curtains closed. Another point of a church is to overcome the feeling of reserve we all have when we go into someone else’s home – respect of privacy, and particularly of that person’s or family’s bad taste in furnishings and decorations! A church is open to all, and it is the home of God, domus Dei et aula sanctificationis. The real meaning of the church is seen in the common for the dedication of a church in the missal. The church houses the altar and the liturgy – the sacramental presence of God – but also gives the worshipping community a place to go and identify with their faith.

Many local congregations are very small compared to the Victorian era or even forty years ago. Congregations in the medieval and Victorian parish churches, at least outside the big cities where parish leaders and clergy are particularly charismatic, are pitifully small. Continuing Anglican congregations may number only ten or twenty in a given place in the provinces, usually less than ten.

The cheapest way to have something like a church or a chapel is to convert an existing building. Some buildings are more suitable than others. Garages tend to be poky and squalid, built for a car, perhaps two cars and a domestic workshop for the handyman about the house. The thing that really kills a chapel is a low ceiling in proportion to the floor area and shape. Most garden sheds are too shoddy and are designed for keeping tools and machines like the lawnmower, perhaps with a shelf or two for keeping the geraniums out of the frost during the winter. Older houses sometimes have outbuildings with a greater degree of potential.

For up to ten people, I suggest a floor area of some twenty feet in length and twelve feet width. Everything will have to be very carefully designed, and there are usually constraints caused by positions of doors and windows, and sometimes by different floor levels. Here is a link to my own chapel. The building had all the potential, but there was no level floor, the walls were shoddily built and there is an ugly fibro-cement roof. I can’t remember what I spent, but it would be in the order of a few thousand Euros, mostly for preparing and adapting the building – doing all the work myself.

The alternative, assuming the availability of land and planning permission, is to build. The cost of building is usually prohibitive, and planning permission can be hard to get. There are also health and safety regulations governing public buildings, such that if they were implemented, it would be so much simpler to give up and abandon the project! The answer can be a “temporary” wooden building, assimilated to a garden shed.

Forget most commercially available garden sheds in kits. Often the kiln-seasoned wood is split and warped before you even start. The roof is often shallow-pitched and very low, and the whole is flimsy. I have one in my garden, which my wife insisted I should buy a few years ago – for garden stuff. I have had to do quite a few modifications to it just to keep it standing! The answer is designing and building in wood.

Some Western Orthodox in England have looked at this question in their site on Building a Chapel / Church. Making abstraction of the precise style of furnishing, the ideas given are very good. Find more ideas here [I’m not saying anything for or against this particular manufacturer and dealer – just drawing attention to the basic designs]. Here’s the famous Orthodox priest who did a wonderful job!

The first problem is land. The expensive way is to buy a plot of building land and obtain planning permission to build. If the building is public, it must conform to health and safety regulations, and the money will have to be available. The alternative is the use of private land with permission from the owner and the building being officially for private use. I defined my chapel, when I declared the change of use of the building, as a private cultural space. If the building can be assimilated to a garden shed, then nothing need be said to the official authorities. Keep it simple.

I won’t go into all the technical details, but watch for the dimensions beyond which planning permission is required. If that is the case, perhaps the project can go ahead but for private use. Then you don’t need ramps for handicapped access and toilets all over the place!

For the design of the building, there are two possibilities: the timbers of the walls being strong enough to constitute the structure of the building or the need for a frame. I favour the latter. I also favour a pitched roof to give the impression of height even if the side walls are no higher than seven or eight feet. If you don’t want to freeze to death in winter or swelter in the summer, you will need insulation and interior plasterboard. The outside would be cladding with some kind of insulation against damp. The electricity needs only to be simple: lights in the right places and a couple of 13A sockets. Running water is useful but not essential.

For the furnishing, two terms apply – simplicity and good taste. Simplicity will also be less expensive, and the chapel should not give the impression of masquerading as a cathedral. If the project is built on owned and private land, it can cost as little a just a couple of thousand quid. Maintenance costs will be negligible. If the insulation is properly done, heating will also be economical.

This arrangement may only be temporary, but it gives a new mission the time to get established and grow before making more material commitments. How temporary? Human nature being what it is, what is temporary tends to become permanent, so the building needs to be good enough for, say, five to ten years. That being said, there are plenty of little wooden chapels in Russia and the Ukraine that have been there for centuries and withstood almost a century of Communism and neglect.

As mentioned, rather than buying a wooden shed kit, read up on designing and building wooden structures, acquire woodworking and joinery skills (evening classes at your local technology school) and build your own. Get the base right – either an insulated concrete base or a space under the wooden floor (which also needs both insulation and ventilation). The best thing is to have an experienced joiner (who might be prepared to negotiate his rates or work on a voluntary basis) and practically inclined men helping him.

Design the chapel carefully. There needs to be a sanctuary with the altar, and enough space for a dignified ceremony, and somewhere for the lay faithful to go. Simple wooden benches take less space than cumbersome pews and chairs. The Orthodox site gives some very good ideas.

For the furnishing, which is simple and in good taste, it can be bought second-hand or made. Avoid cumbersome Victorian styles! A sacristy isn’t essential and a simple wardrobe to one side would suffice: one side for vestments and albs, the other side with shelves. Don’t put fiddleback vestments on hangers! For this reason, gothic vestments would be more practical. There’s no need for a confessional – all you need is a cushion for the penitent to kneel on and the priest sits on any convenient bench. Think of it like a boat – space needs to be used, so you have units that double for two or more uses.

The altar can be made of wood, even plywood with varnish or paint. There are all kinds of tricks to give the right appearance. Get the dimensions right. Six feet long is a convenient size and enough depth for a corporal and the foot of the altar cross. If you use a hanging pyx, you don’t need gradines or the space for a tabernacle. The exact height is 95 cm, no more or less. Keep it simple. Use dossals and riddels, or a wooden reredos so as not to have an empty wall behind the altar. A window above the reredos is a plus, especially if the chapel is truly eastward-facing. For the consecrated part of the altar, you can put in an altar stone or use a Greek antemension. The altar should have a frontal. The credence can be a simple shelf attached to the wall to the right of the altar.

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13 Responses to Churches of the Future

  1. Good piece. Thanks for this good, practical information. You yourself have given us an admirable example of how to make it work.

  2. CredoUtIntelligam says:

    A very good post, but also very sad in that so many must resort to house churches. I will be attending a house church this coming year under a continuing Anglican jurisdiction (APCK). Still, thank God for what we have!

  3. ed pacht says:

    Is it so very sad? I’ve often wondered How much the church gained by having such large congregations and splendid buildings as the norm. Are smaller and more local congregations somehow of less value? I don’t recall that Our Lord said, “When two or three hundred are gathered in my name…” Until quite recent times churches needed to be in such a location and of such a size that the people could walk to them, and thus they tended to be made up of people who knew each other face to face in their daily lives. There were cathedrals, basilicas, and other major churches where the rites could be celebrated in elaborate splendor, truly a good thing, but we tend to forget how exceptional they were, and how humble the ordinary parish church was. To me there is something unnatural and unedifying about a parish like my own (which I dearly love) with a very nice building and a weekly attendance around 100, most of whom travel far and seldom see the others outside of Sunday services. If I read history correctly, it was only a very small proportion of Medieval clergy who were full time professionals in the modern sense, and the majority were local boys who had to scrabble for part of theor living, just as did everyone else. I do love the old church buildings, but I’ve often wondered if we would perhaps be better off with smaller, humbler, and more local congregations in neighborhood chapels. Perhaps we are being pushed in that direction so as to recover some of what has been lost.

  4. Francis says:

    The word “conventicle” has always fascinated me. Truly, early christian meetings and liturgies during the persecutions were technically conventicles, if not of “hereticks”, at least of disturbers of the peace. The (theorisation and ) evocations of Christianity as a mystery religion by Dom Casel are truly edifying.

  5. Rubricarius says:

    Back to Duru-Europos in the future?

  6. Dale says:

    One cannot help but notice the sober, dignified beauty of your chapel compared with the Byzantine cluttered brick-a-brac of the “Western” Orthodox examples; one suspects that might have something to do with our “very meagre fare.”

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself!

    • ed pacht says:

      Dale, Dale, Dale,
      You often have valuable things to say, but can’t you ever resist the temptation to hurl insults? Do you have to judge everyone on whether they please your particular esthetic tastes? Yes, Fr. Chadwick’s chapel is exquisite, but I have been in Anglo-Catholic and (especially) Roman churches that are far more cluttered with bric-a-brac than any Western Orthodox church I’ve ever seen either in actuality or in pictures. Yes, I have some theological issues with Orthodoxy. Yes, some of their churches have a bit more Eastern influence than I prefer. No, I am not going to become Orthodox, but I believe in treating people with respect for being what they are, and I’m getting tired of how you are always ready to turn any thread into an anti-Byzantine screed. Please, friend, continue to give us the benefit of your knowledge, but try to hold back from the snarkiness. This place will be a lot more pleasant and a lot more constructive.

      • William Tighe says:

        I wish Dale would condescend to tell us something of his “ecclesiastical history,” so that we might know, as they say, “where he is coming from.”

      • Dale says:

        Sorry Ed, but I really do not like the Byzantines. I do not like their bigotry, self-righteousness or sense of entitlement to the be the one and only true church (but of course, only limited to a single ethno-cultural expression). I also do not like the fact that so few westerners are willing to call them out of so many of their postering pretense. As for treating people with respect, the words I used came directly quoted from one of their own self-loathing converts. Sorry.

  7. ed pacht says:

    Dale, I’m not asking you to like them. I AM asking you to stop dragging us all through your dislikes no matter what it is we are discussing. You aren’t making yourself look any better than what you accuse them of being, and it’s decidedly unpleasant. I’m assuming there is more to you than that, and I’d like the chance to see it. I’m not becoming Orthodox. I’m not becoming RC. There are many disagreements I have with both, but I don’t have time to be always carping about what I dislike in either. I want to talk about what I DO believe, including what I have been able to learn even from those with whom I disagree, and I believe you have much more to share with us than merely whom it is that you dislike. That’s what I (and I’m sure others) want to hear.

    • I reply to both Ed and Dale. There is an amount of truth in what we’re all saying, but I think we can do better to get on with each other. I don’t have the experience of Byzantine Orthodox that Dales has, but I am aware that we are all more or less redeemed humans and try to defend ourselves from the bullshit life throws at us.

      We have a right to defend ourselves from those who metaphorically invade our homes and crap on the floor – “true church” apologists who are trying to persuade us that our way is bogus and that they have the monopoly over our souls. That is one thing. We can also defend ourselves from those who in our own Churches would want to manipulate and impose their particular view, be it traditionalist or progressive. In a word, we are free children of God and not servants or slaves.

      Another thing is to mock or denigrate other people’s “thing”. I am particularly fastidious about churches and furnishings, but I try to be tolerant of churches that don’t follow “my ideas”. We have above all to assume good faith in our adversaries and simply other people. People don’t have objective faults of taste or subjective differences to do evil.

      Dale has a point about converts, as those who go to any Church different from the one of their origins (institutional body or generic tradition) tend to become fanatical and justify their choice by imposing it on other people. There is no one pastoral solution for converts coming to any given Church, but I think the spiritual preparation and scrutiny should be lengthy, to study motives, and that there should be a policy of conversus tacet in ecclesia.

      There are points being made, which is why I’m not implementing moderation at this point, but we certainly should be courteous with each other, and reasoned and temperate in our arguments. That is a must in my blogospheric home.

    • Dale says:

      Ed, I only “drag[] us all through your dislikes” when the Byzantines post about how wonderful it would all be if we simply rejected our own cultures and joined their denomination etc., etc. Also, it would be better if you had not used “us” but “me”; simply trying to give your likes and dislikes more credibility by using a type of ad populum is dishonest.

      I would also like to mention that I do have experiences with the Byzantines that you obviously lack.

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