The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Evensong      30th July 2017
Churches in France
Andrew Penny

At the service the congregation were given copies of pictures of each of the churches referred to.  It's not possible to reproduce them here but they can all be found by googling the name of each church.

L’Oratoire de Theodulph at St Germigny sur Loire,

La chapelle du College Jesuite, Nimes,

St Jeanne d’Arc, Rouen

St Bernadette de Banlay, Nevers.

 I started thinking about this sermon on holiday and I must admit to some dismay at the thought of saying anything interesting about the precise wingspan of Seraphim or the required materials for temples. But as our idea of a good holiday is one seeing as many churches as possible, I realised there could be some economy of effort, if I tried to say something about what churches (or temples and so on) can be for and to describe four (of which I have given you some pictures) of the most interesting and inspiring which we saw touring in France.

Christian Churches share some characteristics with Solomon’s temple. Solomon’s temple was to be a house for God, not literally but to hold the physical evidence, the earthly relics, of God’ greatest encounter with man, when he gave Moses the tables of the law. The Ark of the Covenant contained the proof of God’s engagement with his human creatures, and it required all the human reverence which wealth and artifice could devise.

This is not so far from the principal purpose of all synagogue and churches; the Torah scrolls are kept in every synagogue and churches in the catholic tradition will retain some of the consecrated host usually in a focal point of the church. In this both are attempts to hold, and thus to some extent limit God. Equally churches and mosques which seek to be suitable places in which to worship God, inevitably risk limiting God, as if some special place was needed to pray to the creator of the universe. Successful architecture of churches, synagogues and mosques succeed to the extent that they inspire awe and reverence or even seem to express something of the divine without being limiting or exclusive. The challenge is to be an enclosed space which reveals and expresses the grandeur and infinity of creation. It is, I admit, a tall order, but it is a challenge to which the greatest churches, and especially the greatest mosques rise magnificently.

Being in France, we saw no great mosques, and a lot of fine Gothic cathedrals, but I want to share with you this evening my impressions of four churches which I had never seen before. Three reached close to the sort of perfection I am looking for; the attempt of the fourth is instructive.

The oldest church we saw was the small 9th century oratory of Theodulph, at St Germigny sur Loire. The visitor could be forgiven for thinking he had somehow wandered into a Greek Orthodox church. It is a perfectly proportioned cross in a square, and although almost wholly undecorated now one can imagine how it might have been covered in frescoes depicting rows of saints rising to angels and archangels all worshipping the Pantocrator- the Christ in Glory in the dome high above. The decorative scheme of Orthodox Churches is usually intended to capture in paint and stone the moment in the liturgy which we call the Sanctus, when the congregation join with the heaven in praising God. There were no paintings at St Germigny, but the harmony of the architecture had the same - perhaps even a better effect. The little church managed to encapsulate not just earth but heaven as well. By a strange coincidence the only decoration was a fine mosaic (probably brought from Ravenna) above the eastern semi-dome of the Seraphim guarding the ark of the covenant - the very thing described in our reading this evening.

Similar in some ways, in expressing the grandeur and perfection of God in creation, but nearly a thousand years later and half as many kilometres distant, is the chapel of the Jesuit College in the southern city of Nimes. This is now deconsecrated and used for art exhibitions. The pictures of it unfortunately have bits of those exhibitions in them.  We saw it completely and gloriously bare, which allowed the pure shape of the space to speak without distraction. This is, I admit, rather artificial; this bareness couldn’t have been the architect’s intention and yet like the greatest intimate mosques it succeeded in expressing the divine in human terms. It’s a modestly sized space which allows the visitor to feel at home and not at all overwhelmed. Here the whole of creation was captured and explained in the harmonious proportion; this is what God intends the world to be, but experienced on a scale which allows the worshipper to feel he or she is significant and a part of the whole.

This sense of belonging, expressed instead by the accessibility and centrality of God among us is also the inspiration of two very different modern churches, both built shortly after the Second Vatican Council, and putting the Council’s teaching into effect, but utterly different in feel.

The church of Ste Jeanne d’Arc in is built on the spot where she was burnt to death for heresy in the centre of Rouen. The roof of the church rises dramatically like two entwined dancing waves, or colliding ships or, some think, the flames that engulfed poor Joan. Inside the wooden ceiling is even more striking as it sweeps up over the altar. The interior is set out like a shallow Greek theatre surrounding the altar with gently raked pews. The backdrop of the theatre is a wall of glass reusing windows from destroyed churches, but low enough and close enough for the visitor to see clearly what they depict. It’s hard to describe how the building draws one into its drama, linking heaven and earth as the altar will be used to reincarnate God at each Mass.

The church of St Bernadette in a working class suburb of Nevers on the Loire couldn’t be more different; a great concrete box like an opened and slightly bent box of matches. It's uncompromisingly stark, even ugly, strikingly so even among the fairly dismal council housing which surround it. There is drama inside, with subtle indirect lighting and pews raked down to the central entrance and then up again to the altar, on which the space succeeds in focussing full attention. But the deliberately untreated concrete makes the interior gloomy and too functional; it achieves the ordinariness, the everyday presence of God even in the drabbest surroundings, but failed for me to hint that this might be part of heaven too.

I hope these reflections may inspire you to think about what you want from churches in the way of space and decoration. Churches express in physical terms our relationship as individuals and even more as communities, with God, and that relationship is the at the centre of our belief. It matters to think about it. Amen.



After delivering this sermon I talked to Jules Lubbock, a self confessed “brutalist” when it comes to modern architecture. He has told me that the two architects of Ste Bernadette de Banlay, Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, both devout Catholics were building the church just after the Cuban missile crisis,(as well as after Vatican II, when the image of a bunker was more one of safety and refuge than it seems now. Jules also made me see the interior as a cave; the cave of Lourdes as the architects suggested, but I see it rather as the cave of the nativity (as visitors to Bethlehem will recognise). My sermon tried to suggest that enclosing God wasn’t what churches should be doing. But this cave is ambivalent.  This is not intended to be a cave which holds God in its depths, but one in which God can germinate in the dark, ready to burst out into the light outside. As I said, the altar is the focus of the church, and it is one from which we may be sent out in the power of the spirit to live and work to God’s glory.- even, especially, perhaps, from the safety of a bunker.


Print This Page

Sermons from previous years | 2017 |2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005