Why People are Attracted to Church Buildings

Church buildings-Fraser Watts
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People remain fascinated by church buildings, and visit them a lot, if often not when services are taking place.

They sometimes play an important role in religious conversion, and a particularly vivid account of that is offered by the novelist Susan Howatch about the role that Salisbury Cathedral played in her conversion to Christianity. She had moved to live in the circle of houses that surrounded the Cathedral, which was presumably not a random choice a first step in her engagement with that building. She took to walking round the cathedral, often at night when no one was there, first at some distance but gradually getting closer to it. Eventually she started to touch the walls of the building as she walked round it, using touch to develop her connection with the building. Eventually she went inside, though it was a long time before she did so. She tells of the process of spiritual development that accompanied her developing relationship with the building.

Susan Howatch describes a journey that involved both the physical exploration of a building and a felt spiritual journey. The two were closely intertwined. The journeys of spiritual and physical exploration are so closely intertwined that they become two aspects of one journey. The physical exploration is a metaphor for the spiritual exploration, but more than a metaphor. Physical exploration facilitates and expresses the spiritual exploration than is also taking place.

It seems that Susan Howatch formed a religious attachment to Salisbury Cathedral. She ended up almost hugging and caressing the buildings as she might do if bonding with a human attachment object. The buildings stood for the spiritual centre, or God, that they felt they were coming to know. The physical process of bonding with these buildings enabled them to enact and physicalise their religious bonding process. It is probably significant that the sensory experience of the buildings was tactile, not just visual.

Many experiences of church buildings are much more tentative and ambivalent. Attendance at church services is in decline in the developed world. However, it seems that people continue to visit church buildings as much as ever, but mainly not when services re being held. Some of this is surely just out of historical or architectural interest. However, in many cases there is probably an element of spiritual search in the mix of motivations.

The Welsh priest-poet, R S Thomas, has written a number of poems (In Church, The Chapel,In a Country Church, Kneelingetc) which capture brilliantly the wistful, uncertain longing with which people sometimes enter lonely village churches. One of the most poignant is In Church. It begins:

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching?

He waits and listens ‘to the air recomposing itself for vigil’. The handful of people depart, the bats return, and the pews fall silent, leaving only:

…the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross. 

The primary experience is of absence rather than presence

This is a very ambivalent attachment to a religious building. There may be a nostalgic memory of a significant spiritual experience in such a building, or a vague hope that such an experience might occur at some time in the future. But, for now, the most powerful sense seems to be the lack of such an experience. The primary experience is of absence rather than presence, but the absence does not seem to be absolute; there is still a sense of faith, and of a cross on which questions can be pinned. In this ambivalent religious attachment it is hard to distinguish between absence and presence.

There is a very interesting question about just exactly howa building acquires atmosphere, a sense of being a special place. It seems likely that several different features come together for that to happen. There is often a combination of a significant location, a significant history, an impressive building, and a distinctive and intensive pattern of usage. It may not be essential to have all four of those features but there are usually at least two or three.

A place ‘where prayer has been valid’.

A significant religious building that has been celebrated in poetry is Little Gidding, the focus of one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. Little Gidding was the home of the home of a small Anglican religious community, established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar. The church is a small but attractive building, with an interesting history, set in a beautiful but secluded location. It thus has several of the features that I suggest contribute to its genius loci. Eliot, when he visited in 1936, was evidently moved by that but also by the pattern of prayer that he sensed that taken place there. In a memorable phrase, Eliot speaks of Little Gidding as a place ‘where prayer has been valid’.

How can sustained prayer in a building give rise to that sense? One theory is that advanced by Rupert Sheldrake in terms of ‘morphic resonance’, a resonance that becomes attached to a building through what has been done there. It is a theory that makes path-breaking assumptions that some have found controversial as it allows for buildings to acquire something akin to memories. However, it seems to me that some such theory is needed to give a scientific account of how buildings acquire atmosphere, what in the 1960s used to be called ‘vibes’.