A Very Modern Church
Henry James contemplates the empty shell of Christianity
Take a trip to Rome and travel outside the city walls, far from the splendour of the Vatican and the beauty of the Trevi Fountain, beyond all of the medieval street patterns and squares, and you may encounter the underwhelming church of Tor Tre Treste.
Tor Tre Treste is not, to put it as kindly as possible, an area of Rome likely to inspire a second visit. A sprawl of high rise apartments and industrial buildings and warehouses, Treste sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, and ireflects the laziness and philistinism that characterised much urban planning in the middle of the 20th century. But in this nondescript location the lost tourist will find the Church of God the Merciful Father, known informally as the ‘Jubilee Church’ – for it was completed in 2003 to mark the ‘Great Jubilee’ of Roman Catholicism two years previously.
Designed by fashionable architect Richard Meier, the church is a construction of white concrete, notable for its distinct ‘shells’. These shells, three in total, are each taller than the last, and according to the website of the architect, symbolise the Holy Trinity. A reflecting pool is apparently intended to remind the viewer of the ‘role played by water in the sacrament of Baptism’. While the shells do provide a veneer of elegance the rest of the structure appears as a jumble of plate glass and odd rectangles jutting into the blue Italian sky.
In seeing this church you are left with no sense of awe or majesty or even spirituality. The church could just as easily be a conference centre for corporate events, a modern art museum, or perhaps if it were moved to a tropical island, the lair of a James Bond villain. It is a stark contrast to the churches found in the centre of Rome. No matter your beliefs, a visit to one of these older churches is an almost ethereal experience. You are transported from the bustle of the street to somewhere quieter and much more sublime. Whether it is the abundance of the candles, the simple beauty of the altar, or the marble statues – each feature seems made to provoke the feeling that there is something else out there, the mystic, the transcendental. Well, maybe I am overselling it a little. But whatever you want to call it, you are more likely to find it in these places than Tor Tre Treste.
This writer is a dyed-in-the-wool agnostic. I am hardly likely to be found in confession and my only real experience of religion has been Methodist Sunday school as a young child. Still, I am aware that the church is supposed to be the ‘House of God’. So if this is the case, shouldn’t said house be beautiful or inspiring? Ought it to attract rather than repel? If the church really is the House of God, then why saddle God with an ugly house? St Peter’s Basilica, with its rich exteriors and interiors, surely best encapsulates the spirituality a church is supposed to evoke. The Jubilee Church of Meier pales in comparison. St Peter’s uplifts those who approach it. Meier’s creation is a concrete mess that, if anything, will put you off going inside. The distinctive shells are like a veil the rest of the building uses to hide its shame to the outside world.
But it could be that the appearance of the modern church is simply a reflection of the health of modern Christianity. In trying to recall all the churches I have known recently, and the friends and acquaintances who attended them, what sticks out in my mind is that they seemed to have more of a community use than a religious function. Indeed, the website of Richard Meier suggests that the Jubilee Church was partly designed to ‘rejuvenate’ the community. It is not explained how this was intended to work.
The Baptist Church I always passed by on the journey to and from university was often full of practising bands and aerobics classes, while a Methodist chapel had a lot of notices on the outside advertising stuff like local fundraisers and book groups. A Quaker meeting house was emblazoned with social justice sloganeering, from Palestine, to Fairtrade, and the peril of ‘Islamophobia’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – a church should engage people who normally wouldn’t enter it – but at what cost? How far do you go until the church becomes wrapped in, and defined by, a soulless secular purpose it wasn’t made for?
The United Kingdom is now one of the most secular countries in the world, with the percentage of the population claiming allegiance to the Church of England dropping year by year. The leaders of the national church have tended to believe that the best way to win back the flock is to reject an austere, old-fashioned image and mould its views to better fit the reality of 21st century life.
A recent intervention by the Church of England illustrates the problem. Last year the church vowed to fight climate change and has since dumped many of its oil and gas investments – it has a £9bn endowment. Other Christian denominations have done the same. By making a song and dance about this the Church presumably believes its place in the national fabric will be better maintained. It will be more ‘relevant’. As it happens, the only Christian group I have come across – or rather has come across me – that seemed to have a proselytising drive, is The Church of Latter-Day Saints. Mormonism, ruthlessly-traditional-modestly-dressed-non-gay-marriage-accommodating Mormonism, is now one of the fastest growing faiths. It apparently hit 15 million devotees in 2013.
The modernisation strategy is an odd one. People who adopt a religion after a lifetime of indifference do so, you would assume, because they are dissatisfied with the secular life they lead and seek an alternative. The more the church tries to be relevant to an increasingly secular society the more it succeeds in becoming irrelevant. It has nothing to offer, so what is the point? An organisation with such a flexible approach to doctrine signals that its doctrine is not worth anything. People long for answers. They desperately crave a philosophy of life – not a wishy-washy church afraid of being seen as judgemental. A Church of England that blows with the winds of fashionable opinion only suggests weakness, pointlessness, and a lack of vitality. Much like the Jubilee Church, it speaks to nobody.
Henry James is a philosophy student in the Graduate School of the University of Amsterdam