Seventh Heaven

Thinking Inside The Box

- Adventists and Architecture - Part One

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Yet a concern for architecture has never been free from a degree of suspicion...A thought-provoking number of the world’s most intelligent people have disdained any interest in decoration and design, equating contentment with discarnate and invisible matters instead.

- Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, p. 11 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2006)

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Functional buildings vs. mystical space

Enter an Adventist church in the western world and you are unlikely to stand and stare in wonder.  You are unlikely to behold anything which gives any particular pleasure to your aesthetic senses.   There is nothing of that awe which encourages you to speak in whispers as when you enter a Gothic cathedral or even an average parish church.  No dark pools of shadow. What you see is exactly what you get.  There’s no trompe-l’oeil here. Nothing to draw your mind and vision upwards.

There are of course some exceptions. There are some modern churches in Scandinavia which display an attractive minimalist elegance.  I have been fortunate to worship for some years in a church designed by a group of imaginative young architects. The central area of the building is based on a barrel shape surrounded by flat roofs but these are covered with grass for both aesthetic and environmental reasons. The play of light works well. It is an interesting space.

There are the occasional wonderful surprises sometimes. There are buildings bought from other Christian groups such as the Adventist church in Neuilly in Paris where I worshipped a number of times as a student.  It was bought from the Anglicans and originally built for the ex-pat community.  The eagle proudly supports the lectern.  The stained-glass windows filter light streaming in from the east. But Adventist churches rarely pay respect to such alignment.

And of course such a comparison is unfair.  Cathedrals and parish churches in the UK and beyond are wonderful vestiges of another age, an age well before Adventism came to exist.  Cathedrals performed important functions as state-of-the-art multi-media representations of the faith.  They were also statements of power and wealth as much as they were places of worship.  The divine and the secular were closely intertwined. But in the modern world they may be something of a liability, not ideally fitted for any contemporary religious purpose, and difficult to maintain. So they fulfil other cultural functions such as concert venues or museums – or they fall into decay.  And so Anglican churches have to be vigilant that they do not largely become the religious wing of the heritage industry. 

The comparison with the architecture of the established church is unhelpful. On the whole, newish-build Adventist churches are highly functional constructions, variations on the theme of a box, designed to provide their congregations with a central space in which to worship and smaller spaces in which to carry on other social functions and community services.  In that sense they are fit for purpose.  And those purposes are important.

Of course the choice of architectural style has a lot to do with money.  Adventist congregations often raise hundreds of thousands of whatever currency to begin a building project.  It usually makes economic sense to go for the cheapest design in terms of construction and maintenance.  Architects’ fees rise with the complexity of the design.  Adventists generally try to keep it simple. And, of course, many Anglican churches have to run major money-raising campaigns in order to protect the fabric of their buildings.  And many fall into a state of disrepair.

Architecture and Theology

This produces a complex equation rendered more so by the fact that it has partly to do with theology.  If the central imperative is, as in the case of Adventists, to pass on a ‘message’, a verbal message, an urgent message about the return of Jesus, considerations of style quickly become secondary.  Adventists are good Protestants, adhering tightly to the sola scriptura principle.  ‘In the beginning was the word...’ so begins the Gospel of John, and Adventists take it not only to refer to Jesus as part of the pre-existent Godhead but to the centrality of the Bible. Adventists firmly believe that the word precedes the image and the icon - though that commitment has to withstand the advent of computer-generated images.

Tabernacle and temple

The difference between tabernacle and temple is also significant.  The former was a portable tent-sanctuary built by the children of Israel to welcome the divine presence as they migrated from captivity in Egypt to settlement in Canaan.  It was built to certain specifications provided by God.  The Temple on the other hand was an elaborate holy place constructed over many years in Jerusalem and it spoke of settlement, of having arrived.  Adventists are likely to feel most sympathetic to the idea of a tabernacle, which is part of a temporary state of affairs because of our belief that life as we know it is a prelude to the coming of the kingdom of God.  We are but pilgrims here on earth. We think of ourselves as a ‘movement’.

Adventist attitudes to architecture also have to do with our Puritan inheritance.  Simplicity is all.  Any ostentation in building projects would draw criticism. In principle all emphasis on appearance is to be avoided.  And yet there is the balancing idea that the place of meeting should be ‘representative’.  It is a vague concept.  But it means that Adventist church buildings should somehow hold their own in the community of which they are a part.  If that means channelling some domestic finance away from family homes to the local Adventist church-building project many church members are more than willing to do it.

A further factor is our global culture. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is multi-ethnic in many places in the world.  Views as to what may be considered beautiful, fitting and elegant vary enormously.  This can generate a lowest common denominator approach to the life of the church, maybe even a sort of ‘dumbing down’. If you minimize the possibility that no taste shall be offended you minimize the likelihood that anything interesting will be created.  In the end it is what congregations experience in the box not the box itself which is important.

But there is more to it than this as the second part of this piece will show.

© 2018 Pearsons