Monday, November 16, 2020

The Temptation of an Edifice Complex

                                         Basilica of Our Lady of Peace -- Cote D'Ivoire

Because I studied art and architecture in my undergraduate degree I've always held an interest in the design of places of worship. I've visited some of the great cathedrals of Europe as well as more modern structures such as the remarkable Ismaili worship centre in Toronto.

In the late 1980's  I read about what a puzzling construction project in a small city in Cote D"Ivoire, an African nation. It was a Roman Catholic church to be called the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace and when completed it would be the largest in the world, surpassing even St. Peter/s in Rome. Cote D'Ivoire was only about 30% Christian at that time, and only half of them were Roman Catholic. It really was a vanity project for the president of the country who had actually been a benign leader, creating economic prosperity and avoiding the extremism and religious strife of neighbouring countries. He wanted a monument in the place of his birth, so he essentially created a city with a magnificent place of worship seating 18.000. Pope John Paul II came to consecrate the edifice in 1990. 

Recently I saw another article about the same church, nearly a generation after it was built. Today many of the government buildings in the city are empty, and the church attracts 300 to 400 for worship. The future of the church in uncertain in a country where there is now turmoil and fighting amongst religions.

While this building may seem like folly, and it really is, it is also a reminder that religions and religious people always run the danger of an "edifice complex", revering the structures of their faith to the point of idolatry. When Notre Dame in Paris burned 19 months ago there was an almost immediate commitment to rebuild in the neighbourhood of a billion euros. This is a staggering sum in a country which has become quite secular in its outlook.

                                            Notre Dame in flames 2019

Through the years I served three congregations which seated 400 people, one of which could hold double that number. Each is beautiful in its own way, and all have required lots of money to maintain and repair -- sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for certain projects. There were large congregations on occasion, even filling the sanctuaries, and one Easter in Halifax we had an estimated 600 in worship, but these were exceptions. 

I was often frustrated that it was harder to muster conversation about Christ's mission for the congregations as members wrung their hands about the buildings. In some of the smaller congregations of my first pastoral charge in Newfoundland any discussion of amalgamation was met with hostility because the buildings were cherished, yet two of the five are now closed. 

It never seemed to occur to folk that the Christ in whose name these churches were built had ambivalent experiences in places of worship, no Christian church existed during his lifetime, and he never owned property of any sort, as far as we can tell. 

I still love fine examples of architecture from a variety of religious traditions and always will. I also feel that we need to maintain a sense of perspective about the bricks and mortar, the vessels  in which the body of Christ is housed. Those vessels can take on different shapes and forms, as we carry out our mission of love and compassion in Christ's name. If we don't acknowledge this we too are engaging in the folly of an "edifice complex."



Judy said...

The buildings we worship in need to serve the vision and mission of the congregation... when they fail to do so, and become a burden, tough decisions have to be made - memories are cherished things, and often, connected to the buildings in which we experience the presence of God. But God can still talk to us in new [places and with new fellow travellers - this is the hard lesson we need to learn and accept with a sense of anticipation and excitement.

David Mundy said...

Well said Judy. We are called to live in a spiritual realm, not a fantasy world. Our faith can give us the courage for honesty and new beginnings.