Monday, April 15, 2019

Looking Backwards

I feel painfully ignorant to have been so unaware of the photography of Sally Mann.  Her traveling exhibit, "A Thousand Crossings," is in the MFAH just now; I got to see it last Sunday.  Most striking to me, aside from the photographs of her family, were the photographs of country churches.

I have to admit the arrangement in the exhibit of these photos was disappointing.  They were usually 8 x 10's, or about that size, but clustered in groups of four on the walls.  There was a film where the discussed her work with various people, and the pictures in the film were much larger, more distinct, even more compelling.  Photography is that way, unlike any other visual form of fixed image:  size can matter a great deal, and vary from reproduction to reproduction.  The church pictures would have benefited from the larger scale afforded some of the other photos.

But that's not the point; the point is how evocative these images were.  In the film, an historian explains that some of the spaces where the churches stand were places where slaves retreated:  into the woods, where they could sing and preach and pray and not be overheard, not be punished for violating "the rules."  There is a term for such places, now; unfortunately I can't remember it.  But "holy ground" would not be wrong; and on those grounds emancipated slaves, free to at least build churches, put their places of worship.  Not on roads to anywhere (Ms. Mann talks about finding these churches, not driving past them on even the remotest of back roads), and sometimes not feeding the life of the community anymore (many of them are abandoned, though that's not entirely obvious from the pictures).

They made me think of the church then, and the church now.  That latest craze in Houston seems to be for a church to own a strip center, in which it places (or removes; I've seen both happen) a building for church activities, among retail stores and restaurants.  The point is partly to prove the church is so full it needs outbuildings for its people (and when they quietly withdraw and return those buildings to retail use....?).  It is also, of course, to provide the churches a source of income, as landlords.  I wonder about the legal arrangements there, to be honest, as a church is not a partnership, and members are not shareholders; but so it goes.  Churches must have large attendance (a charismatic preacher is a necessity), lots of big buildings and amenities (one of the largest Baptist churches in town just sent out fliers to whole neighborhoods apparently within driving distance, which means miles away in my case, advertising their new coffee shop and bookstore facilities, just outside the main worship space.  Apparently attending church is now a social event equivalent to going to the theater; there's so much more to do than just get there in time for the show, and get back home again!).  And then there are the small churches, which seem more and more like soon-to-be abandoned buildings.

The church I served (and failed?  Let's be honest in our assessments, not belligerent) had an "historic chapel" as small, or smaller, than those pictured.  It was empty most of the time I was there; we used a much larger worship space, one designed to hold 300 people, built in the church's heyday.  That days is gone, now.  The congregation left there now worships in the chapel; another UCC church, a 'gay' church (the irony is the church, after my departure, blew up over a call issued to a lesbian pastor.  I'm not sure which was harder for them:  that she was gay, or that she was a woman), uses te chapel.  Whether they fill it, or simply occupy a pew or two, at best, in it, I cannot say.  But buildings reflect who the church is, and what purpose it serves; and the grand building with the tall steeple (the roof on the larger building at my former church would cost probably half the church's budget back when they had a full-time pastor, to replace.  Unaffordable, in other words; and now they can't afford a full-time pastor, either.) is the sine qua non of a church building.  When maybe our model should be the old, small building of Ms. Mann's photographs.

My grandparents went to church buildings like these.  Small, simple affairs with only pews to distinguish them as as churches.  My fondest memories of church come from such buildings; not because of the buildings, but because of the people within them.  These churches didn't demand much of their people, didn't create burdens to weigh them down (my former church had people in it who recalled the church splitting over the issue of carpeting the large sanctuary space; some wanted to spend the money, some didn't.  Parting easily two who were never joined, I guess; but I've seen that story play out in churches before.  My grandparent's church never had carpeting.  I suppose there's a small lesson in that.)

Architecture will not solve the church's problems today (and I mourn for the apparent loss of Notre Dame, even as I recognize all things must pass).

But the poet once called for "new styles of architecture, a change of heart."  And the simplicity of the old churches reflects a simplicity of purpose our churches could, and should, aspire to.
Notre Dame looms large in our consciousness because of Victor Hugo; not because of the significance of the building.  I must admit I'm glad I got to see it, and I'm sorry my wife and daughter may never have the chance to, now.  But Notre Dame was not an important worship space to most those mourning.  Reports are the Church has been pleading for funds to renovate it, a cost beyond the means of the local parish.  Apparently the fire was sparked by renovation work, which is even sadder.  At one end of the spectrum, then, we have a building of world cultural significance largely because of the work of a world-important author; at the other end, empty and unknown church buildings remembered only because a photographer worked them into a traveling exhibit of artworks.  The connection of art and the spiritual is not to be ignored here.  The extent to which art and religion make us human, should not be denied.  And Notre Dame is undeniably a culturally significant building; but is it spiritually important?  If it is, may it be recovered for those who need it.  That is the lesson I take from these photographs (of which I've only found two on-line to share with you).  That we must take what we need from the past, and establish our future in the present.  Should our future be the recover of grand cathedrals, in the image of steeple-topped buildings with shopping centers held as church property nearby?  Or should we take a lesson from these simple church buildings, once as important to their communities as the cathedrals or Europe were in their day.  The former were never cultural icons, but they point to the importance of church as an institution, perhaps to church as a place to go.

We've lost a lot of the sense of that:  "church as a place to go."  Perhaps we can recover it not by modeling our churches on the business of the world, but by recalling our churches as responses to simple human need.  My church in seminary had a bell tower with two bells:  once for calling people to worship (an ancient use, going back to the days when Notre Dame was being built), the other for funerals:  a clappered bell which was exactly right for starting the service.  It was a country church; bells mean quite a bit less in a city full of cars roaring by on ribbon roads.  But it still expressed a human need, for those who were there.  Perhaps the human need should be recovered from the consumer need, from the commercial need, even from the cultural need.  Perhaps we should consider the church as a place of simplicity, of humanity, even of recovery.

That's what people are mourning as they watch Notre Dame in flames.  Notre Dame was a connection to the past, even if that past owed more to Hugo's Romanticism than to history.  The past is something we need to constantly recover; that, too, is a human necessity, like art, like religion.  In fact we prefer our art to be old rather than modern, historical rather than au courant.  We need to constantly recover what it means to be human, to know the answer for the first time.

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