Reflections on Church Architecture Provided by a Visit to my Friend’s Church

When I was in Germany last weekend I visited my friend Martin at his new job as pastor of the Evangelical Church in Dettenhausen. There are a number of features in the Church building that Martin pointed out to me that I found interesting, and which made me reflect on the physical arrangement of our Church building. So let me tell you first what I noticed and Martin said.

The Church outside has a bell tower with a clock, and a rooster on top. This is typical, as you would think, of church buildings in Europe. But why is this the case? Both symbols are meant as ‘warnings’ to Christian people not to be lazy, but to be awake, and to ‘watch and pray so that they fall not into temptation.’

All this public symbolism is quite striking. Here in Montreux, it is nice to be reminded that even though we don’t have a bell on our Church, St. Vincent’s Chruch does, and we can take a moment to celebrate weddings, and be reminded of deaths at funerals when their bells sound at times other than Sunday morning.

I was also reminded of the numerous times we heard the ‘Call to Prayer’ in Turkey. Muslims are asked to pray five times a day and we were often wakened in our hotel rooms by this call to prayer. Both cultures (Christian and Muslim) have as public symbols a reminder to stay awake and to pray.

Inside the Church in Dettenhausen, the ceiling is flat so that the building looks like a ‘hall’. There are many windows, but they are all clear glass, and at the front wall is a painted crucifix of about two thirds size. The font is also at the front.

The ‘hall’ effect of the Church is pure reformation. The main activity in a reformed service is to hear the Word of God preached. In order to do this, one needs a hall. The pulpit is also at the front as the symbol of the main activity of the congregation. The lack of other decoration makes this a focus of attention for the congregation.

Interestingly enough, the presence of the crucifix reinforces this idea: nothing should ‘distract’ us from perceiving Christ. The image and the preaching of the Word say the same thing. With St. Paul we might say ‘I resolved to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified.’

Martin said that the building of the Church has been influenced by the enlightenment. This can be clearly seen by the way that the windows are not coloured glass but clear and large. They let in a lot of ‘pure light’. You can imagine that, how after so long a period of religious war, people wanted to get rid of all the clutter and darkness of Church buildings, and let in some light! There had been too much killing in the name of the Church.

Our building as a 19th Century ‘reproduction’ has lots of stained glass. I quite like it because as Fr. Andrew has made clear in his book, the windows are a hymn of praise to God in glass and stone. We are surrounded by ‘a great cloud of witnesses’, and they encourage us.

The interesting thing about the difference in the windows has to do with the fact that in a stained glass window the ‘light’ that comes through is as ‘mediated’ light. That is, as the light comes through the window it is changed. We look, as it were, on the light and the window to reveal God to us. In an enlightenment Church we look through the window and behold ‘pure light’. For us, as for the Reformation, there can be no ‘unmediated’ experience. The Word of God comes to us either through preaching as a medium, or through some form of other physical presence, like a sacrament, or visually, through stained glass. But I don’t think that we could have built a church full of stained glass at the time of the enlightenment either. With them, we would have needed to let a bit of clear light into a muddied scene.

The story of the font is a testament to a wrestling with German history. During the period of National Socialism there was a swastika placed in the font. What a confusing symbol, but what a true expression of the intention of National socialism. People were ‘plunged’ into National Socialism at the same time as they were being ostensibly ‘plunged into Christ’. It is a wonder that the font did not burst apart with the inherent contradiction.

The question for the Church remained after the war: ‘What will we do?’ Some  The community decided that it could not deny this shameful part of its history by simply removing the swastika, because it serves, like the rooster, as a warning against failure as a Christian. So they turned the font upside down, and left the swastika there, only hidden. No German citizen today can be baptized into Christ without  having to come to terms in some way with their past. This action was the one taken by the Christians of Dettenhausen.

In the Church at Dettenhausen, the people follow the reformed pattern of sitting to sing, and standing to pray. There are no communion rails, because in, kneeling does not figure in their ‘theology of posture’ and communion is celebrated with the people standing to receive the sacraments.

What is this telling us? First, the standing to pray is a sign of the confidence of the worshiper, and a statement of ‘who they are’ before God. With Wesley, the reformed worshipers say ‘Bold I approach the eternal throne.’ That is how they receive communion: boldly. As well, the say that the whole Church is a ‘kingdom of priests, a holy nation’ so that as the priest ‘stands in the house of our God’ so does the whole congregation ‘stand’ to intercede for the world. That is also why we stand for the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.

But we also do a lot more kneeling. Kneeling offers the possibility of ‘inwardness’ and perhaps ‘lowliness’ before God that standing does not. Here we are in the tension between the ‘personal’ and the ‘communal’. As a significant time each week, the communion is intensely ‘personal’ and so kneeling might be a proper way to approach it. But this does not make the ‘communion’ ‘my communion’. The ‘communion’ is always ‘our communion’. The equality in the need for personal connection with God, and a communal expression of the ‘Priesthood of all believers’ means that we do not make a hard and fast rule about ‘kneeling’ or ‘standing’.

Martin made an interesting point about kneeling though. He said: ‘By kneeling, one cannot run away! There are two occasions that one ought not to want to run away from, where kneeling happens. One is at confirmation, where one makes a commitment to Christ. The other is in marriage, where one commits oneself to another person, in Christ.’ I wonder for us what we might want to ‘run away from’ that kneeling prevents?


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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