Notre Dame and the Theology of Sacred Buildings

18The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 John 2:18-22 – NRSV

 Most of those reading this will know that I spent a number of years as Director of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust (which has since changed its name to the ‘National Churches Trust’). In that role, I was responsible for making the case for protecting and caring for our sacred buildings here in the UK. The dreadful events of the last few hours in Paris challenge us to consider our relationship with such buildings in the modern secular world. (Click on the title to read more…)

Why would people care so much about Notre Dame, when France is very much a secular state and the numbers of people who attend churches and cathedrals has declined so much, both in France and in the UK? And, perhaps just as importantly, if the intention is to rebuild Notre Dame, in what way should that project proceed and what might be the impact on public perception of rebuilding in different ways? As I write this, the streets of London are blocked by climate change protesters. What do we think about the tragically-lost roofs of Notre Dame (affectionately referred to as ‘The Forest’) being made of literally thousands of oak trees, some of which were probably already 300 to 400 years old when they were felled? Can we justify replicating that? The thoughts that follow are meant only to encourage reflection of some of the questions that perhaps need to be asked, when considering this almost impossible decision.

When I was at the Historic Churches Preservation Trust I often heard views that can perhaps be summarised this way: ‘We’d be far better off if we didn’t have to spend so much of our time and money looking after these ancient buildings that no longer meet the needs of an active and modern Church of England’. It was almost a mantra that was trotted out to highlight how the Church of England had lost its way.

I think the first thing that we need to accept is that we should never forget that our buildings aren’t objects of worship, but neither are they white elephants.

One of the reasons why I find Bible literalism so out of tune with my own views is because we’re nothing as Christians if we’re not people of symbolism. Our entire faith and most of our church services are built around the symbolism of the cross, the bread, the wine, light, dark and so on.

So we need to remind ourselves and celebrate the fact that our church buildings are symbols of God’s presence amongst us as his people. In some parts of the Church of England, God’s awe, majesty and mystery have increasingly been downplayed, but I think it’s worth us remembering what effect Notre Dame would have had on a medieval peasant, at a time when almost all other buildings would have been, by modern standards, small, smelly hovels built of the cheapest possible materials. I think this might have been like our own generation in 1981 standing underneath the Space Shuttle and looking up, just before its first flight. We’re almost immune to wonder in our world as we take so much for granted. I can recommend, the next time you find yourself in a church or a cathedral to stand still and quietly allow the majesty of it to sweep over you. We need to relearn what was meant by their builders, that these buildings were meant to reflect in a small, human way, the glory of God in his majesty and mystery.

They’re intended to be places where heaven and earth come together; places of communication with and about God. The most remarkable Christian sites can be what have been referred to as ‘thin places’; places where the gulf between heaven and earth somehow magically becomes lesser. Such ‘thinness’ doesn’t rely on the age of the sacred buildings themselves. Those who’ve been to Iona in Scotland or Taizé in Burgundy in France, consider them to be remarkable examples of  ‘thin places’ and yet most of Iona Abbey postdates the first Christian worship at the site by many hundreds of years and the Taizé buildings are all post war and totally unremarkable.

Sacred buildings in both France and the UK vary from the colossal, soaring and ancient majesty of Notre Dame, to small humble buildings that don’t look as if they’ve been built upon the ground so much as to have sprung up out of it. Both can give us a very tangible feeling of God’s presence and a sense of God’s nature, if only we’ll allow them to speak to us, and not just view them as so much stone and wood.

We live in a scientific age, and many of our fellow citizens would scoff at the idea that buildings can reflect back the memories of some of the things that have happened in them. Many of us, however, wouldn’t find it difficult to sympathise with the view that the very stones in some places seem to sound out about what they’ve witnessed; such feelings can be very tangible. In the last few hours, experts have queued up to attempt to describe what it is about Notre Dame that made it more than just the sum of its stone, timber, glass and objects. They’ve referred to the sweeping history of France that was witnessed by its almost primordial timber roofs. Would brand new timber roofs trigger the same feelings?

I remember visiting a particular church in East Anglia, accompanied by a trustee of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust. The building was nothing special architecturally or historically, and it had a congregation on an average Sunday of around five people. I said that I couldn’t see how it could possibly be sustainable as a church in the long term, but we then went outside and I found myself looking straight at the grave of the husband of the trustee with me. She said quietly: ‘You see, James, for some of us this place is more than just stone and mortar’. I was suitably chastened. Nor do those associations disappear over time. It’s worth reminding ourselves that God came to be one of us in a particular place at a particular time. Every church is meant to be a tangible expression of God’s love, to remind us that he’s with us through the centuries, at our most important moments, often when we’re at our most vulnerable, as many on the streets of Paris must have felt last night.

But it’s also worth adding that these buildings act as a sign of the life of God’s love in the places where they were built. Church buildings are all about people, not just about architecture. It may be considered to be unfortunate that in English we have the same word that means church building, church congregation and church denomination. It can lead to misunderstanding, but it maybe points to an important fact; church buildings must be alive to survive to the next generation. I wonder if you’ve ever visited a closed church; it’s a desperately sad sight. And so it’s important that whatever the conservation bodies consider must be protected architecturally and historically for posterity, they mustn’t be allowed to forget that these buildings won’t survive unless they remain places which represent the love of the living God for the community in that place:

The Word became flesh and lived among us’. (John 1: 14)

And so at the start of this, the holiest week in the Christian calendar, as my heart goes out to the people of France, and remembering with affection the many visits that I’ve made to Notre Dame over the decades (starting with the blackened building of my youth before the cleaners managed to reveal the gleaming white stone underneath) I hope the French people and authorities will take their time to consider how God speaks to them now. I hope that they’ll consider the needs of their place and time, and reflect on what they hope to achieve from the restoration, before rushing in perhaps to try to replicate that which cannot be replicated.

5 thoughts on “Notre Dame and the Theology of Sacred Buildings

  1. What an inspiring sermon.

    I hope that what replaces Notre Dame is a sacred place that gives the people who visit a sense of awe and sanctuary. I also hope that the money spent on it does not outweigh our duty to charity.


  2. Marvellous, James.  A true reflection of what a Christian place of worship is. Could hardly bear to watch the news footage last night of the fire. Judith  


  3. When I go back to the village of my birth I try to visit the ruins of the old church that was completely gutted by fire when I was about 5 years old (the night of the fire is one of my earliest memories). As I rest my cheek against the oldest part of the back wall that remains I am thankful for the connection I feel to 1000 years of Christian worship that has gone on in that place – it’s one of my treasured ‘thin’ places & remains a ‘standing evangelist’!


  4. Thank you James for your quick reply to this devastating event.
    I have always been concerned about our beautiful buildings-particularly the ornate churches of the Latin countries of Europe, and some of the High Anglican churches in some poorer areas of the UK.
    Of course we are to give to, and serve poor people, but for many Christians a glorious building is a sign of the best worship that we humans can give to God.
    This sounds simplistic, but only God can guide believers into how they spend their money; no-one can be forced into giving in a particular way.
    Because some believers want to give money to restore Notre Dame, this does not mean people will stop giving to the poor. Each Christian must seek God’s direction for their own giving.
    Remember the woman who gave a couple of coins, and the woman who poured expensive perfume over the Lord. Jesus accepted both.



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