Beauty is not enough for the Church

St Bridesæ a beautiful church

The National Churches Trust is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary and has asked 60 leading public figures, including the Prime Minister, to nominate their favourite churches. This is of interest in itself – you can see the whole thing here  – but it also gives us a snapshot of just how sixty random people feel about religion.

Many of the people who name favourite churches are people who have never been Christian, such as Ed Miliband (who is the only one, as far as I can see, who manages a joke), and Alain de Botton, so it is not suprising that their choices are largely to do with aesthetics or some sentimental association. There is nothing wrong with good taste, and it is nice to know that Joanna Lumley loves St Bride’s in Fleet Street, though it is important to remember that good taste is not a substitute for faith or morality.

One or two of the celebrities, and it is only one or two, actually make some theological points. Two Catholics, Alex Polizzi and James MacMillan, nominate churches because they are the churches in which they have received the sacraments, but Bear Grylls, an Anglican has this to say:

“This is my favourite because a church is made beautiful by the people inside and this church is full of normal, hard working but humble people who know their need for God’s help.”

His choice is Holy Trinity, Kensington, better known as Holy Trinity Brompton, or simply HTB. Bear Grylls, among his many other achievements, is something of a theologian as well. Kudos to him.

Also revealing theological depths is Eamon Holmes, who has this to say about Saint Patrick’s in Belfast:

“This is the Parish Church of my family and extended family. I was baptised here in 1959, and my father’s funeral service was from here – as will mine be.”

These words reveal a sense of identity and belonging, which is not specifically religious, but without which faith would be difficult; and then it goes on to reveal a sense of personal destiny: the God who calls us at the start of our lives will gather us in at the end of them, and both in the same building, a sacred space in which we encounter the divine.

I do care about Church architecture, and I am glad that the 60 people here seem sensitive to architectural beauty. But beauty itself is not enough; and likewise that some churches are socially involved in community life, to which many refer, is, of itself, not enough. A church to be a church must be a place of encounter with God. If it is beautiful it may help faciliate that encounter, but it does not have to be so.

What is discouraging about so many of the opinions expressed here is that they stop at the beautiful, but do not go beyond it; they stop at the social concern, but do not go beyond it. There is more to every church that the building and the coffee mornings. The structures are there, but the reason for the structures seems to have been forgotten. May God, who calls each one, give us back our faith! And may the Church proclaim the Triune God! For without Him no church building would ever have been built.