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Church asks parishioners to donate £5,000: Is this extravagance and is it wrong to lean on laity?

A question that's divided Christians since days of Martin Luther

By Clifford Smyth

Published 14/04/2015

Clifford Smyth is a historian and writer
Clifford Smyth is a historian and writer

"Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." So spoke Jesus, founder of the Christian Church. Yet Jesus himself never built an actual church building.

But it wasn't too long before the followers of Jesus Christ found it necessary to construct buildings where worshippers could gather to receive the ordinances of the Church, to pray and enjoy fellowship.

Over the centuries, as the Christian message of "good news" spread across the continents, styles of church architecture developed to express the theological outlook of the believers.

But, no matter the varieties of church buildings that we observe, from the simple structure of the ancient Celtic Church that once graced Devenish Island, to the great Egyptian Coptic Cathedral at Aswan, or the Vatican itself, one question puzzles the observer: who pays for all this?

This is an intriguing question, which has a sting in the tail. In the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, the Church of the Laodiceans is condemned for complacency and pride (Rev 3 v15 to 17). God is not impressed with vanity projects.

In spite of the measurable decline in Christian belief in the British Isles, a surprising amount of church building, renovation and reconstruction has been taken in hand by a variety of denominations throughout Ireland. The Presbyterians, for example, illustrate this trend with a number of old buildings which have been given what the fashion-conscious would call a "makeover".

Those hard, wooden pews have gone, to be replaced by much more comfortable furnishings. You would be hard-pressed to find Burns' beloved "creepiest stool" upon which the penitent sinner sat for all the unco guid to gawk at.

Meanwhile, the heavy and dour stonework has given ground to the innovative use of modern plate glass: let there be light.

Other denominations have turned warehouses and cinemas into places vibrant with clapping and praise bands. The contrast between present blessing and former business usage represents a physical transformation from worldliness to born-again piety.

It's a long way from the "tin tabernacles and wooden benches" of my childhood.

In the vast majority of situations, it is the congregation themselves who provide the money to fund a project which can be eye-wateringly expensive.

And this is one area where the cliche "singing from the same hymn sheet" holds true. If there isn't a sense that we are all in this together, disaster beckons.

The driving force behind any church building project needs to be assured that the parishioners, or assembly, fully support what is being done in their name.

Even one person taking up a radically different position can change history. When the Pope embarked on a building programme at St Peter's, he prompted a German friar by the name of Martin Luther to challenge the unbiblical manner in which the money was to be raised and an incident turning on the authority of Scripture eventually gave rise to the Protestant Reformation.

There is, as has to be acknowledged, an issue of conscience bound up with the matter of church building, which is why divisions can occur even within families, with one partner contributing while the other holds back.

A friend of mine was visited by his church elders. The delegation wanted him to make a long-term commitment to help pay off the proposed new manse. His rejoinder was that you could build 10 churches in Africa for the money.

Do churches in the West need elaborate buildings when Christians in the Third World live in the direst need?

After all, one of the greatest sermons ever preached was on a hillside under an open sky: "God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God." (Matt 5 v.8)

  • Clifford Smyth is a historian and writer

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