Sunday, August 02, 2015

The Myth of the Constantinian Fall, the Myth of the House Church, and the Loss of the Sacred in Architecture


Ideas are more dangerous than men.  Men with ideas are more dangerous than those who are merely venal.

The Myth of the House Church

The word myth derives from the Greek word mythos which means "story."  Some stories are true, some false, and some just embellished.  Some stories tell us truth even though they do not recount facts.  Think of Aesop's Fables.  Nowadays, we use the term "myth" primarily for stories that are untrue.  That is the sense I will use it today particularly as such myths animate ideological folly.

There seems to be one thing that Fundamentalists, liberal Protestants, and liberal Catholics are united on: how the "pure early church" got corrupted when Constantine granted peace to the church first in the western empire and then in the east.  This myth provides the peculiar weltanschauungen of these three strange bed fellows.  

The myth proceeds as follows: In its first few centuries the church was simple and met in peoples' homes for a Eucharistic gathering that was very communal in the sense of today's suburban bon ami and bon homme.  Thus emerged the concomitant myth of the house church or domus ecclesiae, a term that never appears in early Christian literature.  The half baked experts of the 1950s and 1960s evangelized the need to return to these simple house churches.  In that era of the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary this led naturally to the Kumbaya, My Lord church, with all of us sitting around the camp fire and the tabernacle that houses the King of Kings exiled to a distant place like the Jacobean Prince of Wales

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

Architecturally, this led to the idea of very simple churches, often in the round, that emphasized the horizontal dimension of the liturgy and rejected the previous millennia of church architecture.  This mistaken archaism allowed penny pinching bishops to hire architects who built new churches by recycling blueprints for basketball stadia or similar structures. The style of these churches was austere Modernist architecture such as that of Le Corbusier conveying the same sense of the sacred as the equally functional parking lot. 

Steven J. Schloeder, an architect and theologian, demolishes this myth of the house church in an article for the Institute for Sacred Architecture, "Domus Dei, Quae Est Ecclesia Dei Vivi: The Myth of the Domus Ecclesiae." It is worth a close reading.  His research is well documented and liberates us from the sterility of our forty plus years in the architectural desert.  Schroeder's firm, Liturgical Environs PC, ( specializes in Catholic church building projects across the United States. He does what he preaches.

Note: the picture on the left is of Sant' Apollinare in Classe.  The turn around alter is a recent addition: the main altar is in the apse as befits a basilica.  Entering Sant' Apollinare in Classe or
Sant' Apollinare Nuovo give a sense that you have left this world and you have entered a heavenly world.  As Sacrosanctum Consilium teaches us, "8. In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle [Apoc. 21:2; Col. 3:1; Heb. 8:2]; we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory [Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:4]."