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Hallo again to all.

A while ago we found ourselves in the capital of a formerly communist country in Eastern Europe. At the weekend, having finished our business, we explored this exotic city, and on Sunday we worshipped with the Anglican congregation that one often finds in such cities.

Church interiorWe are intrigued by the contrast between the tourist experience of visiting the lavishly decorated cathedral (almost a fairytale building in terms of its gold, stained glass, vaulted ceilings, statues, gargoyles, and art) and the stark stripped-bare church building where the vibrant congregation worshipped in English.

The country survived 41 years of communist rule, two world wars, and political instability. The Anglican congregation moved here and there, dissolved itself during wartime (lest they all be considered enemy aliens), went on hiatus when no chaplain could be found, and sprang back to life when and where it could. The church building in which we worshipped is rented by the Anglican congregation from a neo-Lutheran protestant denomination that owns it, though we have failed to discover the provenance by which they came to own a building that predates Martin Luther by at least a century. (It doesn't matter, of course, but we're curious and let ourselves get side-tracked trying to answer such questions.)

We've always enjoyed the majesty of old churches and cathedrals. Most of the old and beautiful Anglican church buildings are in Britain simply because until the 18th century there were almost no Anglicans anywhere else, so no one was building Anglican church buildings (majestic or otherwise) anywhere until then. But there are plenty of magnificent non-Anglican cathedrals in other countries where Christianity has had a foothold long enough. We try to visit them whenever we can, when we are lucky enough to be in such a place, but we've not found awesome cathedrals and breathtakingly architected churches in general to be good places to worship.

We regularly remind our readers that a church is the people and not the building. But it wasn't until this recent trip, to a country with a 42-letter alphabet, that it became so profoundly evident how irrelevant is the building to the core worship experience. The church, as you can see from the ultra-wide-angle photograph above, is spare and undecorated (click for a larger image). The pews are not ergonomic, and have no kneelers, so those brave enough to kneel put patella to plywood. There is no altar rail, so communion is administered by inviting the congregation to come forward in small groups and stand in a semicircle around the apse. The sermon was delivered from the lectern, presumably because the pulpit is (by comparison with the rest of the church) rather pompous.

But it worked; it worked wonderfully. The priest was enthusiastic and energetic and had a tremendous singing voice (he was almost a one-man choir). The sermon was excellent. The congregation was attentive, participatory, sang well, knew all but one of the hymn tunes, and welcomed us as visitors. We were at first slightly distressed that the announcements took more time than the sermon, but after noting that everyone in the congregation was paying rapt attention to the announcements, we came to realize the importance of those announcements in building and maintaining a sense of community among English speakers in such a place.

We don't see this as an ancient-vs-modern issue. The church pictured above and the nearby lavish cathedral shown below it both date from the late middle ages. It has a certain large-versus-small component; smaller churches don't need extraordinary sound systems, and there are plenty of examples of small majestic churches. It's probably a resource allocation issue. Connie Willis demolished Coventry Cathedral in 2047 and built a shopping centre. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but she got it wrong. She should have built a simpler worship building next door to Coventry Cathedral, turned Coventry Cathedral into a theme park, charged admission to that theme park, and used the revenues therefrom to fund the actual congregation, its building fund, its outreach ministries, and so on.

Lord knows enough churches are turning themselves into theme parks not even as part of a master fundraising plan. If it's going to happen, shouldn't it be done right? Just imagine Drayton Manor Canterbury or Thorpe Park Bath and Wells or Six Flags over Burlington.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 12 September 2010


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