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Theology key to church rebuilding

The most important skill for a church building committee is the ability to articulate theological vision.

Peter Carrell  |  28 Sep 2011

In the rebuilding of broken churches, architects will be appointed and building committees formed, but what will guide construction?

Theology House and Laidlaw College in Christchurch planned jointly a day conference on Theology and Church Architecture on Wednesday (September 28).

About 90 people from churches all over Canterbury came together  in the Christchurch Chinese Church in Bryndwr – a very safe structure based around steel-girders.

Murray Rae, theology professor at Otago, trained architect and Presbyterian minister, introduced participants to the topic with a striking suggestion.

The most important skill set required for a church building committee, he suggested, was the ability to articulate theological vision. Practical matters needed to be entrusted to the church’s architect.

A vital role remained for practically minded people in the church, however: they should be appointed to raise funds!

Professor Rae urged the audience to do two things:

• First, to let design be driven by the answers to the question, “What is God calling us to be and to do here in our community?”

• Second, to involve all people in our churches in working out what kind of building we want our churches to be.

Professor Rae also made a telling observation about two major influences on church design in Aotearoa New Zealand – ‘temple’ and ‘meeting house’ – and asked whether we can merge them in our new and restored churches.

Mark Southcombe, a lecturer in architecture at Victoria University and also a practising architect and Catholic layman, took the conferees through a whistlestop tour of many churches, old and new, mostly from New Zealand but a few famous ones from far away.

He impressed on the conference that good things can be achieved at reasonable cost, with careful design and local input into building. With efficient case studies, he pointed out how some churches have succeeded brilliantly as sacred spaces for liturgy and functional spaces for community activities; while others, for want of a little more understanding, have failed badly.

A Baptist pastor in Botany Downs and practising architect, John McLean, challenged the conference to take on board the task of building churches in a postmodern and post-Christendom era.

Previously, churches were built adjacent to public squares with easy transitions between public and  communal sacred spaces. Now we need to make spaces that help transition from public spaces (often roads and streets) to the sacred, a special challenge now that sacred spaces have effectively moved from being communal spaces to private spaces.

Architecture can help reconnect sacred space with public space in our communities. Mr McLean showed examples, weaving them into a narrative of the development of his own church, Eastview Baptist, which is thriving in the rapidly growing Botany Downs – a living illustration of the overlap which is possible between mission and architecture.

Excellent outside voices in the morning gave way in the afternoon to a panel of local voices: Leo Hanssen (Majestic on Moorhouse), Chris Chamberlain (Oxford Tce Baptist), Rick Loughnan (Catholic Diocese of Christchurch), Dugald Wilson (St Mark’s Presbyterian, Avonhead), and +Victoria Matthews (Anglican Diocese of Christchurch).

As they shared their experiences and their theologies of rebuilding the churches they are responsible for, an emerging theme was ‘hope.’ We need not despair that the faith of Canterbury will never be rebuilt.

Final reflections? Theology is vital to the restored and new churches of Canterbury, the first step before any drawing takes place and foundations laid.

Together, the key presenters underlined that architecture can help express the answer to what God is calling us to be and to do as church in our community.

Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House and was part of the organising group for the conference.

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