Thinking about church style

This is a first thought, because it will make my next blog post — about communion ware — make more sense.

When we think about what it means to be “churchy” we’re often — but not exclusively — talking about tastes and norms set by “the Ecclesiologists,” meaning that medieval-focused, Romantic movement that overwhelmed the Church of England in the nineteenth century. For them, there was one correct style appropriate for Christian churches — in a word, Gothic — whether that meant fully expressed in stonework, or vernacularized into the carpenter style. Think of pointed stained-glass windows. Why did this style cross the Atlantic and denominational lines? The prevailing taste, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses and the perhaps nothing so pedestrian as who the church architects and suppiers were. (This isn’t an original thought, and I’ve seen it in a few places, most recently in chapter two, “Capital Ideas: Building American Churches, 1750-1860.” of James Hudnut-Beumler’s In the Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar.)

There are noteworthy examples of Gothic Unitarian and Universalist church buildings, but so as not to lose the point: the creation of a common vocabularly of taste that’s hard to buck, save with variations, like the engrossed domestic style the Universalists seemed to favor, or the (later favored) colonial revival the Unitarians of Boston imposed on the Western churches who wanted financial support. And the less said about the post-war community centers hiding in their own private parksor forests — the  newer UU norm — the better.

This clip, from a 1922 issue of the Universalist Leader, shows that advertizers thought we might buy stained glass.
This clip, from a 1922 issue of the Universalist Leader, shows that advertizers thought we might buy stained glass.

Of course, those days may be declining: not a particular style or fashion, but the ability of churches to chose the shape of their buildings at all. I can all to easily imagine borrowed, rented or shared spaces being a part of the survival strategies of Unitarian Universalist (and other) churches in the all-too-soon future. Consider how many newer congregations meet in office parks or retail space.

Is short, design will have to be expressed in ways other than the building, and without the influence of an eccumenical community of tastemakers. It will be interesting what we come up with, and if we appeal to older and more humble models.

One Reply to “Thinking about church style”

  1. Ecumenical issues of (presumably) good taste… One can see that kind of phenomenon among many Gurneyite Quakers in the Mid-West who built meetinghouses between 1890 and 1930. Gone went the traditional Quaker meetinghouses (pragmatic, boxy, and largely unadorned, with ranks of benches, and sometimes no clear front [unless a facing bench for the elders marked off the front]). In came something more like what the general public of 1890-1930 would expect from a house of worship: bricks and stone, a steeple or a bell tower, stained glass (without images of people), cushioned pews arranged Akron style facing a definite front, and sometimes a pipe organ).

    Good examples of this architecture include the Winchester Friends Meeting in Winchester, IN; and Friends Memorial Church in Muncie, IN.

    Each represented an attempt to look like a so-called “real church”. Perhaps a plea for legitimacy. But I suspect that if each had to re-do their buildings for today, each would do something very different from what they currently have. Economics is part of the issue. But also, in an era where many Evangelical churches in the Mid-West look like aluminum sided pole barns, ideas about sacred architecture have broadened. And for that flexibility we can be thankful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.