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Manplan 5, Religion Part IV: ‘Buildings for Cult’

The free world of religion has given an important role to buildings for cult 

Originally published in AR March 1970, this piece was republished online in April 2016, along with other essays from the Manplan campaign

Up to now we have been discussing what will be the effect on the environment of the restoration of religion to its normal central position in life. Nevertheless the centrepiece of the discussion must be the actual buildings for cult: what will they be like? How many will they be? How will they be sited? 

Before we can get very far with this we must say something of what is going on among believers. Earlier on we have spoken of ‘Religion’ as though it were a single indivisible thing like mathematics or cookery. But it is a diverse thing, reaching man in the form of beliefs, diverse beliefs.

Though it is conceivable that the world religions might grow together and as a consequence of prolonged sympathetic contact ultimately become one, it is also possible that this may never happen and the new attitude of believers, one to another, does not require that it should. One thing quite certain is that any future change will grow out of what exists now: there is no likelihood that some ‘new’ super religion will grow up over against those now existing and replace them.

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At this point the discussion must shift to the Christian church. This is already well on the way to a practical re unification. The ecumenical movement is necessarily a slow process. The world of religion as now conceived is a free world: it cannot be subject to the pressures, the short cuts, the compulsion and the takeovers which characterize the worlds of politics and commerce.

Even so, it is already possible for the Christians to think of themselves as one and to plan their building programme, if not as an organic unity, at least as the concerted effort of friends. What is almost as important is the fact that the change in religious psychology also enables them to regard ‘themselves plus the other people’ as one. Though there is a legitimate sense in which the Christian church will always be in the World, but not of it, the old nightmare of sacred versus secular really has died the death.

 ‘Churchmen are very insistent that when they speak of ‘the Church’ they mean people, not buildings’

This second consideration is important because it concerns the ‘image’ of the church and therefore the figure the church building cuts in the landscape. Though there are in fact certain characteristics of buildings for cult which single them out from other buildings in the landscape, the current mood among Christians is that they see faith, belief, the Church, not as something which impresses from without, but as something which informs from within. Churchmen are very insistent that when they speak of ‘the Church’ they mean people, not buildings: and therefore that any buildings they may put up will be modest in size and mien and indistinguishable in style from other buildings round about. Is this a passing mood, or the reflection of a permanent change in outlook? It is probably more than a passing mood.

Re-unification with society is clearly seen as a permanency. On the other hand it would probably be unwise to see it as a vow of eternal abnegation. The anxiety of today’s Christians is that they do not give themselves airs, seem to lay claim to material power they do not possess or aspire to, or make the non-believers seem out of it. But it is at least possible that if society were to become re-integrated and if, for instance, a way of life and a way of doing things was generated which made ornament once more natural, then the Christian buildings of the future might become more obviously the descendants of those of the past.

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Though they differ markedly in kind, religious assemblies are very similar to secular assemblies in form. People need to be united in different sized units for different purposes. When we consider the religious use of space, there are four main orders of size :

Type A: The individual. The ‘assembly’ here is the assembly of the individual with God. The Oratory and the Shrine are the classic forms of this type in the Christian tradition. The changed character of the home and the huge increase in the urban noise level makes this a valuable environmental unit. It best arises casually, as a consequence of local enthusiasm, but, being small, is not difficult to fit in.

Type B: The learning? assembly. Because of the need for people to re-learn the meaning and purpose of ritual, this type of assembly is of immense importance in the forseeable future. Spaces must be small enough to enable those present to take part physically in what goes on (i.e. not merely as spectators). The prototype of this form of accommodation in the Christian tradition is the Protestant non-conformist Chapel of the XVII and XVIII centuries. Assemblies of this sort will be very frequent, each serving a few streets (i.e. about as frequent as public houses). They will tend to be multipurpose in character, serving a number of secular ‘small assembly’ uses as well (i.e. parties, games etc).

Type C: Large assembly. This will vary considerably in size since there are no functionally restricting factors. People feel a need to be gathered in very large units from time to time, to obtain a feeling of enlargement, of freedom from the domestic-size goldfish bowl, and of solidarity with great numbers. Performers at assemblies of this kind tend to have to be professionals. The parish church is one type of this sort of assembly at the small end: the Cathedral at the large end. At the moment this class of assembly is at a discount as it is not suitable for the sort of liturgy that today’s people need. Also, too often, congregations have to meet in buildings which are much too big for them, which is itself depressing.

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The kind of defect people are most conscious of now is that there are too many large churches offering Type C accommodation: and that these too often are in the wrong place, in city centres where Sunday congregations no longer live, or in remote villages from which life has drained away altogether. This is particularly an Anglican problem, presenting the diminished number of churchgoers with a grotesque maintenance bill and a form of accommodation which is much too large and basically unsuited to their regular needs. The huge cost of the upkeep of these much loved nodal points in the English landscape is the price the Anglican churchgoer must pay for ‘establishment’. The burden is proudly and admirably carried: but has it not contributed to a transference of anxiety for the welfare of people to the welfare of plant?

‘Units which are much too large, discourages them from forming a real community among themselves’

The problem of the Roman Catholics is rather different. They have too few churches. This arises because a perpetual shortage of priests compelled the bishops in the nineteenth century to adopt a sort of factory assembly-line approach to churchgoing. They built relatively few, huge churches in urban centres on the basis that the faithful could attend them in relays on a Sunday. Originally the faithful made it their business to live near a church, but later they became motorised and spread over a wide area. In the course of the years this policy became watered down, but its influence is still very apparent. It is unsatisfactory from almost every point of view. By compelling most of the faithful to go out of their immediate district to attend Mass, it insulates them from the rest of the community: by compelling them to attend in relays and in units which are much too large, it discourages them from forming a real community among themselves (the ‘eight o’clockers’ never meeting the ‘nine o’clockers’ etc etc): and as with the Anglicans it forces on them a Type C assembly as the regular Sunday thing when Type B- small enough for participation - would suit them much better.

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For the free churchmen the problem is different again. Because they are of many different sorts and because each sort is proportionally few in numbers, they suffer particularly from the greater mobility of populations: the congregations of free churches are always moving to a place where they have no church, leaving an empty shell behind them. If these are the problems, how can they be solved? A large part of them is due to the distortion of the community itself: to its agglomeration into huge, unmanageable, impersonal entities and to its consequent break-up into non-communities.

Caused originally by mass production, we have some hope of seeing it slowly undone as our approach to production changes. When this finally happens the work of the church -as that of all other social agencies-will be easier. In theory, at least, new buildings present few problems; but what about the old ones? The current bias against structures which are sound and old but for which no immediate use can be found is unjustified. In general principle, in a world which is always filling up with people there is always a case for maintaining sound structures, no matter how remote they may be; for the average chances of re-use at some future date are always high. A reservoir of well dispersed structures is one of the significant assets of any developed country. This is true not only of mediaeval parish churches, but of churches and chapels of subsequent date - and indeed, of other structures besides. The Ecumenical movement and the current lowering of the sacred secular tension create a new setting for church preservation and make possible a more rational sharing of responsibility.

‘Severance from church use creates extraordinary bafflement in the urban scene’  

It is unreasonable that the cost of maintaining these structures should fall on small groups of people who cannot make significant, if any, use of them; whose lives they consequently dominate, imposing a wrong image of Christian belief. In principle, therefore, the way should be open for putting churches on the same basis as secular buildings as regards public grants. As they are always ‘open to the public’, there should be no difficulty on either the public or the church side. All the same, the real problem is not maintenance of the fabric but restoration of these highly numinous buildings to their central position in life. The dual use of modern churches will lessen the churchgoer’s sense of shock at seeing obviously ecclesiastical structures used for other things. At the same time severance from church use creates extraordinary bafflement in the urban scene. It would be much better if churches are kept for the purpose they are best suited for-what we have called ‘Class C assembly’-and are edged back into the social centre by being made available to all who have a use for this.

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They could thus in some circumstances play a very useful part in the current phase of ecumenism. All communities in the forseeable future have a need for ‘learning churches’, that is, Type B assemblies. On occasion it might be convenient for a number of denominations (including the Anglicans themselves) to build these round the existing parish church. By this means services could be synchronised so that the different groups could meet in the parish church after them. The seating in the old church would be cleared, giving a better setting for the monuments, giving space for joint services - when the congregation would generally stand-and, for many other things besides. There remains one class of building problem to be faced: that of the very large assemblies in areas where Type C church buildings, either do not exist or are inadequate. Though ordinary religious life will flow mainly in small buildings, there will always be the great occasions.

‘The open spaces in the centres of our New Towns could be covered for use on great religious occasions’

It is inconceivable that we will build one-purpose hangars for this sole use and it is unlikely that worshippers would: feel at home in some other large structure built for a specific purpose-such as a sports stadium. Might not a return be made to the point where church building began? The Roman Basilica-the first large structures to be used as churches - were originally covered streets. This trick could well be done again. The open spaces in the centres of our New Towns could be covered for use on great religious occasions. To mark this use permanently, an oratory could be sited in the eastern enclosing side and with it vestries and storage. The side walls too would be the place both for whatever representations, posters, statues and so on the faithful may fancy and for the city’s memorials. Non-Christian religious buildings could also face the space and use it in the same way. But at normal times the place itself would be used as a market, a passage way, a place for sitting and a place for ball games (always more fun when visibly a hazard and a nuisance).