I’m doing a doctorate on English parish churches. The problem is with waving this about in public is that, let’s be honest, churches aren’t terribly cool. They’re not like particle accelerators. What should our churches be for? Should they be purely for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and allegedly dwindling Church of England congregations? Or should they be turned into secular museums? Or is there a middle way? I like to think that there is.
It might seem clichéd to preach a spiel about the sense of wonder around of a site that has been the focal point of a community for hundreds of years, but that’s only because it’s true. It makes churches invaluable for our culture, and it is why people loaded them with amazing art. Sure, it was often with a degree of self-interest: towering tombs of medieval lords, private pews of Georgian families, and Victorian memorial stained glass, but then no act can be entirely selfless. We can now appreciate the opportunity that disposable income gave artists to create works of inspiring and beautiful craft. I don’t think anyone would disagree, certainly for the Middle Ages, that some of our finest works of art can be found in churches, and are worthy of protection and preservation.
But there’s a thorny, often unspoken problem that exists even between people who are actually interested in these buildings: what goes on in them. However, I think that the tradition of performance is just delicate and worthy of preservation as material art. Religious ritual has the potential to move your senses, especially in a space built especially to accommodate it. Just like you can get a lot out of watching a guy pretend to be a Danish prince who does nothing about his dead dad for three hours, I think there’s also a great deal anyone can obtain from the universal message that you are not the most important entity in the Universe, yet there’s no one around you who is better or worse than you either.
Basically, I think that churches, even ones built relatively recently, embody history, art and ritual in ways that an institution like a museum cannot. They’re not just built for these things, but around them. They grew out of them, it’s what they’re all about. Something that exemplifies this idea is the Gothic style itself. There are Gothic buildings that aren’t churches, and churches that aren’t Gothic. But the style was first forged and popularised in them, and unavoidably accompanies them in the popular imagination. The key element of the Gothic, the pointed arch, acknowledges something beyond the rational circle, outside the initial boundaries of our understanding. It’s a style that appeals to contemplation, imagination and sensual excitement. This is what churches, as places, visual repositories and theatres, should aspire to be.