In recent weeks I have experienced one of the joys of visiting Europe – trips to visit cathedrals and churches in England, Barcelona, and Venice. These churches are amazing. The Cathedral in Ely dates back to the 7th century and is phenomenal. The La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a more recent church building designed by the amazing Gaudi, begun in 1882 and still under construction, and likely to be finished in another couple of decades. The story of the Gospel is inscribed in its facades. It is a truly astonishing building. The stand out in Venice was Saint Marco’s Basilica, the spiritual centre of Venetian culture developed since the 9th century AD. These places and other churches across Europe are full of elaborate architecture, art, sculpture, and laden with the stories of the gospel.
Yet as I wander through them I am always full of burning questions. First, there is the very fact that in many of the churches tourists are charged to visit them, and these places are not cheap to visit! Acknowledging that maintenance and building of these churches is extremely costly, should Christians charge people to come into their buildings? Is this a form of peddling the gospel? Is this the gospel sold out to consumerism?
Second, while the churches are full to the brim with tourists and the surrounding hotels, cafes, and restaurants are overflowing, the churches have few worshipers. We saw a decent crowd in the worship space below the La Sagrada and about fifteen at worship at Saint Marks. The Ely Cathedral had signs of a vibrant local church. Yet, in the main these places are tombs to a receding faith (in Europe), places of “spiritual voyeurism” and consumerism rather than worship. So, while to me these are amazing places, I feel in them a deep sadness that so many are turning from the faith that led to the building of these churches and denying the power behind it.
Third, as you hear the stories of these astonishing buildings they are usually stories of imperial power and the domination of the poor. Huge resources were plundered off other nations and the temples are as much a symbol of imperial power as places of worship. They were built on the backs of plundered wealth and servitude of the poor. Yes, they are glorious statements of worship, they are architecturally and artistically spectacular, but at what cost? I always feel great unease as I wander these buildings. What do they represent? How does God view them? Then again, people like my late Dad who had lost touch with any sense of Christian faith as he grew up in NZ find in them a point of connection to the divine. They awakened something in him. God works through these places. God can touch the hard heart through them.
Finally, the churches are full of icons, images, and statues. Mary dominates in many contexts. There are shrines to venerate saints and popes. There are many saints buried under their floor boards – sarcophagi everywhere. The images and icons really get me thinking of the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” I am torn at the majesty and wonder of these images, especially at La Sagrada where the gospel story is stunningly inscribed on the facades. These images, paintings, crucifixes, and stain glass windows can enhance worship if they are rightly understood as vehicles for worship. Yet, there is a fine line to our worship of the saint, Pope, or Mary, or God becomes limited to the image. I pondered whether it is legalistic to deny the validity of these works; or should I turn away seeing them as idolatry?
So while it is a glorious privilege to see these places and in many instances they take one’s breath away and bring a real sense of worship, they raise more questions than answers. Perhaps like everything we do in the name of Jesus, they tell the story of humanity – wonderfully and gloriously capable of great things, yet deeply flawed. What do you think?