Chapter 52: the oratory of the monastery


The oratory is as its name signifies (a place for prayer). Nothing else is to be done or discussed there.

What’s so special about church buildings?

It is very cool and ‘progressive’ to be against church buildings. Who would want to have a church building?

All they do is bind a community to maintenance mindset and restrict funds! The church buildings were built in a by-gone era and are no longer fit for purpose!

The moment this conversation comes up amongst young, energetic activists who have the great desire to burst out behind closed doors to proclaim the gospel I begin to feel old, ultra-conservative. I am framed as someone who wants to maintain the status quo and am afraid of change and the great unknown. The problem with this is, that’s not true. I think that people attack the idea of church buildings because it’s an easy scapegoat for the lack elsewhere.

Buildings don’t stop mission/evangelism, people do.

It’s easy, in my mind, to blame church buildings for the lack of movement within congregations but I don’t think it’s the whole picture. It is more likely that it is people’s relationship with a building that is the issue into the building itself.

Buildings are important to me because space is important to me. As a theatre practitioner involved in design work and the creation of environments within which performances can take place, I love using the given parameters of architecture for the given purpose. Working with architecture is a creative process like all other arts. One doesn’t just impose ideas onto the material, one must work with the material and have a relationship with it; the artists must allow the material to contribute to the work. Too many congregations have an idea separate from their building, in the world of fantasy and then demand their building flexes to their desires. The issue is the materials they’ve got has a personality, a history and it is easier (and more fun) to learn how to listen to a space and create within it… You might have to trust me on that point!

In those regular discussions on church buildings and the overwhelming pressures they put on congregations I often bring it back to some basic questions:

What is their purpose? and what do they say to us?

Purpose is about function. If we are to judge something to unfit for purpose we should be clear as to what the purpose is. For me the answer to this purpose question leads us to ask another question: what was it built for? What was that original purpose?

Church buildings were built to accommodate the gathering of the Body of Christ, the disciples as they met to pray and worship together. That was the buildings’ purpose. Has that purpose now changed? The size of that congregation may have changed either that the people can no longer fit in or that it’s far too big for the numbers gathering. More often than not this is what people mean by church buildings being unfit for purpose (usually the latter unfortunately).

If the building is too big for the number of disciples gathering and, in actual fact, the group could meet in someone’s living room, then I’d suggest that be explored within the community. I’d suggest that maybe, rather than selling off the building too quickly a congregation may want to explore other ways in which the building could have a purpose, i.e. change the purpose of the building. What else could be put inside this building? What other purpose might it have for the wider society?

This leads to that second question, what do they say to us? If you look at the building what does it say to us and to others? what is the natural atmosphere of the space? What feelings are evoked within it?

There is no doubt that many congregations have treated the church building as a functional storage space which is also used for worship. The main body of the church building is cluttered with stuff that has not been used and is gathering dust. The church building hasn’t had a ‘spring clean’ for hundred years or so! The solution is not to sell the church but to tidy/clean and re-decorate. If we treat our church building like we would treat any home we wouldn’t abandon it so easily.

My answer to those basic questions lead to a creative process of ‘spiritual redecoration’.

What is their purpose? Prayer.

What do they say to us? Rooted peace.

To explain: The purpose of church buildings were to house the community at prayer. Yes, people can and should meet in homes throughout the week but in the past and potentially in the future there will be a community larger then any one home and it is a deeply spiritual experience to be surrounded by a multitude of pray-ers. Small communities are essential but there are times when you want to feel part of a large family and these buildings ensure there is a shared place where we can come together and celebrate and pray.

To get rid of them would be to create the question, where do we all meet which is shared amongst us? A nearby field? A hall? Ok but that then becomes the church building/the building which is shared by the church. We are privileged, due to the historic nature of our faith, that we have property which is to be used for that exact purpose.

If you ask most people when they go into a church on their own how they feel, they will say ‘peaceful’. They may have other feelings but people like the quiet atmosphere, the stillness (particularly if it’s situated in a busy city environment. People often talk about a place where they feel connected to history. It’s a humbling experience to be connected to a heritage.

People have been coming here for centuries!

Now we don’t want to keep them at that historical heritage position but connect them into the living heritage of faith through Jesus Christ. That is the work of the congregation. How do they use that historic connection and translate it to the living faith.

I am convinced that church buildings are a tool for mission if a congregation is intentional with how it creatively uses the resource. Redecorate. Reallocate funds. Be clear as to where things are placed what certain colours and textures say to people. Re frame the space to lead people into an environment where they can encounter the presence of God which is called down by the people of God in prayer and worship.


A parish church is still seen, even in this post-Christendom society, as a symbol of community, a focus of a geographical area. People know the local church building and have a bond to it (however frail that is). Churches, for many, still have connotations of refuge and safety, peace and stillness.

Many churches have been adapted to serve better as community centres and gathering places. This is great but we must be careful not to completely rid these spaces of that unique connection with the historic living faith. Church buildings lend themselves to places of contemplation and meditation, prayer and worship. If they become identified with just any activity then we will lose a rich resource which can easily be forgotten.

Holy Father, we thank you that you gather your people. We thank you that in these places you have met with your children and revealed your grace. We have been invited into your family and we meet in your household. May we always be inviting others to meet with you in these sacred spaces.

Come, Lord Jesus