“The Mother of All Churches" says the inscription over the doorway to the Basilica of St John Lateran. How so?
I’ve thought long and hard about the theology of the temple as I have led my own congregation in the building of a new church in our parish. You can learn about our efforts here
In the Scriptures we are called to be temples of the Holy Spirit, all of us are living stones built up into God’s temple. The church is a temple built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
Is there a theology of architecture? Are there any principles for a Christian church, or can you do what you want? Is Gothic or Romanesque or modern or baroque necessarily any better or worse? In fact, did you know there is a template for the temple in the Old Testament?
After all, if the Holy Scriptures are divinely inspired and some of the Holy Scriptures include plans for a temple, then maybe we ought to pay attention. The principles are laid down when God tells the Hebrew people to build first a tabernacle for their desert wanderings and then a temple which follows the same pattern.
The pattern is this: First, there is a large area for the people of God to gather. In front of that is another court where the dedicated servants of God offer the sacrifice. Thirdly, beyond that is the Holy of Holies. For millennia the Christian church followed this simple pattern with nave, choir (or chancel) and sanctuary.
Part of this pattern is the fact that the floor plan is linear–not round. Linear indicates a Christian theology of life. We are on a journey from A to Z from Alpha to Omega, from Baptism to Heaven. Round worship spaces are pagan and reflect a pagan belief in endless cycles of being etc etc.
The second principle is that the building is a sacramental space. Everything from its design to it decoration ‘incarnates’ the Christian truth. The furniture, art, objects, vestments–everything has meaning. Everything points beyond itself to some eternal truth.
The Scriptural support for a sacramental view of the temple comes from the gospels where Jesus speaks of the temple of Jerusalem and then connects it with his own body. “Tear this down and I will raise it up again in three days.” The temple is therefore not simply a symbol of the Body of Christ, but it is a sacramental sign of the whole church which is the Body of Christ and of the sacramental presence of the Body of Christ which dwells there.
Thirdly, the whole place should be beautiful. This is because it is not only a sacramental sign of the Body of Christ, but also because it is meant to be the threshold of heaven. It is the portal into another world. It is the glimpse of beauty here which points us to the everlasting gaze into the face of the Beautiful One in glory.
Needless to say Catholic Churches of the last thirty years or so do not exhibit this. Architects and theologians designed churches that look like enormous hamburgers, flying saucers, teepees or vast ice cream cones that have fallen upside down.
Carpeted, cozy and built on the cheap, they reflected a falsely egalitarian theology, a comfort zone church where the liturgy was “the gathering of the people of God” and the aim of the church was to get people together to make the world a better place.
The problem is–if I’m going to join a club to make the world a better place I might just as well join the Rotary Club, the Junior League of volunteer for the Peace Corps.
A beautiful temple of God reflects the same three principles in our own lives: we should be on a journey to God. Everything in our life should be radiant with deeper meaning and our lives should be “something beautiful for God.”
If so, then we will become temples of the Holy Spirit and the church will be that “radiant church without spot or blemish” made perfect by the blood of the Lamb, and each of us will be living stones in that temple.