A Thousand Years – A Thousand Churches:
Ten Years of Scotland’s Churches Scheme
A thousand years of surviving church buildings? Not quite yet. A thousand churches in the handbook? Yes! Ten years of Scotland’s Churches Scheme? Yes, yes!
In this 21st century we will celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Brechin Round Tower which is part of Brechin Cathedral – a Scheme member. Within the last few months the 1000th church joined us and in this year of grace 2006 we most certainly celebrate ten years of our Scheme. Surely this near coincidence of achievement is, at least, a good excuse for a party and a party in which many branches of the Christian Church and Judaism can all join as equals – perhaps the happiest example of wholehearted cooperation between religious bodies we yet have. For we have in common a faith in a living, loving, forgiving God, and a real desire to share with others the places in which we worship Him. Hospitality to strangers, and to those in need, is at the heart of our shared beliefs. Through the Scheme we can not only welcome people to our beloved churches, but also share our experiences, and enjoy the company of others of like mind in a way that transcends denominational and even faith differences. We can, too, be challenged and enlarged in our thinking by those with different perspectives. Welcoming strangers brings with it the chance to be surprised and blessed by the different and unexpected.
The division of time into days and years has a logic in the alternation of day and night and in the order of the seasons. That into decades, centuries and millennia presumably derives from our having (usually) ten fingers and ten toes. Though to an extent arbitrary, there is no doubt that the beginning of a new century, a new millennium, or even a tenth – or fortieth – birthday marks a watershed in the lives of individuals, groups and even of whole societies. But though these anniversaries are convenient milestones for marking our individual or collective journeys through the years, they have a habit of constraining our thinking about the past. Does not the relegation of 1999 and earlier years to ‘the last century’ give them a sense of the dead and gone, of irrelevance to now, which is misleading? ‘Now’ is merely the pivot between the past and the future, and ‘New’ has an inevitable transience, as does ‘Modern’. Our belief is in a God without beginning or end, so to us ‘now’ is rightly a moment in a long sequence of lives lived in that belief. Our ancestors’ belief in an eternal God and their disposition to come together to worship Him in permanent buildings has allowed the truths and duties of our respective faiths to be transmitted to us in a particular way, complementing oral tradition, written texts and iconography.
The implication of this is that places of worship have real and enduring value as statements of belief, and as evidence of how successive generations have sought to share and to communicate that belief. That is at the heart of their importance. Their form, furnishings and detailing are part not only of changing patterns of belief, but also of non-verbal communication of those patterns: the languages of art and of architecture and buildings are as valid in communicating as those of writing, speaking and of music, and can be as powerful, or even more powerful. The little stone churches of the 12th century and their greater contemporaries speak of the mystery of God. The soaring building of the high Gothic tells of aspiration amid growing prosperity.
The experimental church of Burntisland is evidence of shared worship round word and sacrament, and some 17th-century buildings strongly suggest that cultural, econo-mic and family ties with northern Europe were more important than those with England and its church. The many simple 18th-century churches are evocative of a thriving rural society, and of the physical and spiritual focal point of the preaching of the Word. Their large town and city counterparts tell of great mercantile and craft congregations, gatherings of people never hitherto brought together in such large numbers. Other 18th-century buildings remind us of growing diversity of opinion within the Christian polity, of dissent about
relationship between Church and State, of continuing loyalty to beliefs officially marginalized by the established church since the Reformation, and of the migration of other forms of church from south of the Border.
By the end of the 18th century the design and scale of church buildings were being used to express shades of belief and of denominational aspiration in a very explicit way, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries the architectural languages being used became more insistent and more complex. Classical churches often expressed rationality, and frequently opposition to the undue influence of the State on church government. Gothic at first expressed the idea of continuity with the pre-Reformation church, but eventually became so accepted as an appropriate style for church buildings that as an external treatment it lost much of its original expressive meaning, and was embraced by most Christian denominations. In the late 1880s, however, the Ecclesio-logical Movement breathed new life into both Gothic and into the 12th-century Romanesque, with architects responding to more open briefs to create some of the finest worship spaces, visually speaking, ever built in Scotland. Some of the design solutions drew on English Arts and Crafts style; others harked back to Scots prototypes, mainly of the 12th and 15-16th centuries. The phenomenon was not confined to the Lowland cities: architects in all of Scot-land’s cities, and in some of the larger towns demonstrated a feeling for historical sources while at the same time creatively responding to up-to-date ideas about worship practice. During this period, too, migrations of Jews, Roman Catholics and Anglicans into Scotland brought variety and a new richness into existing and new patterns of religious expression.
The discontinuity exemplified by the Gothic Revival of the earlier 19th century was echoed in the inter-war period of the earlier 20th century. This was a time, after the tragedy of the First World War, for reappraisal, and a measure of retrenchment, culminating in the reunion of most of the Church of Scotland in 1929. Comparatively few churches were built during this period, and most of those that were were constructed of brick. This lent itself to round-arch construction, and hence to the Romanesque style, which with its intimate, almost cosy, spaces was reassuring at a time of economic and political uncertainty. Of the few architects that looked beyond cosy practicality, Jack Coia and A G R Mackenzie stand out, creating buildings with a timeless quality, which look outside Scotland for inspiration and symbolise new beginnings.
The Second World War not only marked the end of this uneasy period, but led to a period of physical austerity and visionary socialism, which in Scotland was not primarily atheistic: indeed many Scots responded positively to the asceticism and altruism which emerged as unlikely outcomes of the conflict. At first the most basic of buildings were put up to serve the new housing areas which were physical expressions of the largely Christian socialism of the period, and then reinterpretations of pre-war diluted Gothic emerged. Jack Coia’s firm again broke the mould with the French inspired St Paul’s Glenrothes, which released an extraordinary flood of creativity. Many of the liturgical, constructional and architectural ideas embodied in these churches were frankly experimental and some quickly failed, but there was no good going back to tradition, at least for the time being. When the time came for another phase of retrenchment, in the 1970s and ’80s, it was a new kind of conservatism that emerged, a domestic
system-built one, reflecting a loss of confi-dence in the outward expression of wor-shipping communities. Though mitigated since then, the residue of that approach is still with us in the new churches constructed in the last few years. It is noteworthy that confidence in new worship-space design is much more apparent in the buildings erected by the Muslim community within the past few years. There are real opportunities for cultural as well as spiritual exchanges within the multi-faith society which Scotland is becoming.
Now we have the within the Church of Scotland, a questioning of the role of buildings within that communion. It is right that conventional wisdom be challenged, and the relevance of many older buildings to the life of the Church in the 21st century be questioned. However, one must be aware of the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The success of Scotland’s Churches Scheme over the past ten years is evidence that love of buildings – of a wide range of types and periods – is an expression of love of God and of neighbour, and that buildings as places in which to give and receive hospitality and spiritual support are deeply embedded in the human psyche. If, as many believe, a kind of ‘Re-formation’ – a rebirth – of the churches is needed, it is unlikely that it can be achieved without new and in-spiriting buildings, and without retaining, in love, the best build-ings from all periods of the past. These are a vital part of our inheritance from those who before us knew and loved their God and their neighbours, and are thus as much worthy of our love and respect as exciting new expressions of what it is to be ‘Church’ in the 21st century.
And so a thousand years, a thousand churches, and ten years of Scotland’s Churches Scheme. All the religious bodies in the Scheme recognise festivals -‘milestones’ if you like – as important aspects of and encouragement to worship. So let us celebrate this milestone in humility, but also joyfully, and pray for the fruitful continuance of the warm cooperation and hospitality which is at the heart of Scotland’s Churches Scheme.
1000 Churches to visit in Scotland, Published 2006