As a parish community we have been talking a lot more recently about church architecture. This is due, of course, to the need we face of repairing the exterior of the church and rectory, which has acquired the unattractive habit of having pieces of stone fall off.
Because what is ultimately driving this is a safety concern, we are only talking about renovating the exterior of the church and rectory. Nothing will be redone on the interior of the church worship space, though we may make a few adjustments to the bathrooms in the church, and repurpose some of the parish space on the first floor of the rectory. Also the small gateway (courtyard) between the church and the rectory may be changed.
Even though we are not touching the church’s interior, the inside and the outside of the church remain vitally connected. Several parishioners have made comments that the outside of the church should not be in dramatic contrast in architectural style, color palate and materials with the inside; that there should be consistency and coordination between the interior and the exterior. That makes sense to me, and happens to be a guiding principle for architects.
There is, however, another tradition that plays off the contrast between the exterior and the interior of the church, focusing on the theme of reversal. What is the front door on the outside of the church is really in the back of the church on the inside. And what is the back of the church on the outside is the front of the church on the inside. Not only is the architecture flipped in the church; so is the order of values. Outside the values of the world rule, and inside the values of the Kingdom of God operate (we hope!). Jesus repeated this theme constantly, reminding us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Outside the wealthy, the beautiful, the strong, the crafty, the “best people” rule. Inside blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers. It is a total reversal of perspective.
In many medieval churches the doors are ornately decorated, to symbolize the separation between the two worlds. Inside is the Kingdom of God, outside is the kingdom of mankind, and the place of transition (the doorway) is a place of tension. The church door marks the transition from the secular to the sacred, from the profane to the holy.
While I generally do not ascribe to this two story idea of the universe (the secular and the holy as distinct realms) and see the holy in the world and the unholy in the church, there is something dramatic and rather appealing about the theme of reversal of values and of what is important in going from the secular world into church. Having that conflict or change brought to mind is important and salutary. It challenges us to examine our priorities, what we really hold important and commit ourselves to, and that is a good exercise to engage in regularly.
So while we want the exterior and the interior of our church to not be in conflict, I think we also should recognize a certain tension between the exterior and interior of our churches, reminding us that we live in both worlds and need to reconcile the two.