Church architecture: An Exercise in Theological Discernment

Chapel of Saint Basil, Houston, TX

The following is an assignment which I've given to my class this week. Each student is required to write a 1,000-1,500-word evaluation of a specific work of church architecture. Since our class takes place in three different cities (LA, Houston and Colorado Springs), I've asked them to evaluate a Catholic church in their respective cities: The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, The Chapel of Saint Basel, and Saint Mary's Cathedral. Each represents a distinctive approach to church architecture; each captures a distinct Catholic sensibility.

As I mentioned in an email to the students, my hope is that this exercise will help them to be careful "readers" of spaces in general and of church architecture in particular. I encouraged them to attend a worship service if possible. If that was not possible, I asked them to sit in the space for a length of time, whether inside or outside the church itself, in order to get a "feel" for the space. I also encouraged them to enjoy this assignment.

Here, then, is the framework I asked students to work with as they completed their assignment, mindful that there was only so much that could be said in the given word-count:

1.    HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: In 250 words or so tell us something about the history of the space: how and when it was conceived, who the key players were, how much money it cost, where in the city it is set, anything significant about its setting, and perhaps any controversy around its construction or presence, and about the choice of name.

2.    ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN: In 250 words or so describe the primary features of the architectural design. Tell us something about the exterior and the interior shape. Tell us something about the materials used. Tell us if there is anything particularly noteworthy about this design. Please do not simply transcribe the official description that you find on the website. You may of course use some of what you find on the church website, but try to track down other information on the space or use your own words to describe it.

3.    CATHOLIC IDENTITY: In 250 words of so tell us what the stated intentions or purposes of this church architecture are. Tell us what key issues are at stake in these purposes. Tell us what key terms seem to pop up in official descriptions of it. What are the hopes and aims of the official leaders? What is this space intended to imitate in the history of Catholic church architecture (or not, as the case may be)? And who is this space intended to connect to especially, both internal to the congregation itself and to a broader audience (in LA or Houston or Colorado Springs)?

4.    THEOLOGICAL ISSUES: In 250+ words or so tell us what you think this choice of church architecture opens up for the people who gather there, theologically, relationally, spiritually, liturgically, missionally or otherwise? What possibilities does it close down or limit, again, theologically, relationally, spiritually, liturgically, missionally or otherwise?

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA

Saint Mary's Cathedral, Colorado Springs, CO


Melanie said…
Wonderful article in Christianity Today, David! So glad I saw it! Hope you are well. All the best, Melanie
Thank you, Melanie. Very kind of you.

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