Saturday, October 15, 2011

My Name is Ozymandias...King of what?

What is a "church"?

When Crusty Old Dean teaches his introduction to church history class, I break down what the word "church" means. For us who are inheritors of the English-Germanic language tradition, itself the result of who happened to invade whom, we have the word "church" that derives from "kirche" which in turn comes from the Greek "kuriakos." Kuriakos means, more or less, "the Lord's thing" -- that is, it refers to a building or a place. For those speaking a Romance language, the word for church is iglesia or eglise or some such cognate, deriving from the Greek word "ekklesia". Ekklesia means, literally, "those who are called out."

Thus is a fundamental difference in meaning: "church" derives from something that refers to a building. "Ekklesia" refers not to a structure, but, as the great Charlton Heston would say, "It's people!" (

This, however, is not C.O.D.'s introduction to church history class, though you are welcome to come to Bexley Hall and enroll, or take one of the online classes I teach for the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (shameless plug: and Rather C.O.D. found himself thinking etymology as he reflected on some old business.

I moved to Columbus from Madison, WI. For the past two years in Madison, I served on a part-time basis as interim Episcopal Chaplain at St Francis House, the Episcopal Chaplaincy at UW-Madison. Before I was COD, I was A.O.C. - Apparently Old Chaplain. A.O.C. made an outdated cultural reference (Steve McQueen) which the students didn't understand (Who is Steve McQueen? I was asked) which then followed by me asking the undergraduates at Theology on Tap (disclaimer: not actually called that since Theology on Tap is un-coolly copyrighted) how old they thought I was. The initial reply, "I don't know, fifty?" Thus A.O.C. was born.

But COD digresses in his AOC backstory. As part of my work as chaplain, the Bishop and I needed to address some long-term issues facing the ministry. One was that the endowment was not what it used to be, given the financial downturn and the fact that outside sources of funding and giving were not at the level they could be. Another was the chaplaincy itself. The ministry began in 1915, and, unlike many other Episcopal chaplaincies, it had its own dedicated building on campus. The original St Francis House was built in 1929, including a chapel, offices, and residential space for students and a house matron (not being pejorative; that was what she was called). Then, in the 1960s, the vision was for a downtown, university church that also had a chaplaincy. Thus a much larger sanctuary, with room for 150-200 people to attend, was added in 1965.

Here comes the rub: the chaplaincy in 2009 was not what it was in 1995, or 1980, let alone 1965 or 1929. The vision of chaplaincy in 1929, when it was built, was for a small chaplaincy at a small state university (St Francis House, surrounded by the campus now, was on the edge of a tiny cow college back then). It had room for 6-8 students, and an apartment for a house matron to make sure they were adequately supervised. There would be services on Sundays and times for supervised interaction in between, including regular high tea in the common room. The vision of chaplaincy in 1965 was very different: a Sunday morning worshiping congregation that also had an outreach to students.

I don't mean to overlook something important: both models of ministry worked for their time. Those services in the small chapel that only seats about 25 people, those high teas supervised by the house matron -- they were meaningful and important in their time. We had a funeral at St Francis House for a couple who met in 1941 at one of the chaplaincy's social gatherings and were married for over 60 years. For a time, the parish church model worked: in its heyday the parish church had about 100 people attending on Sunday morning.

The reality to me as chaplain in 2009 was this: the vision for campus chaplaincy had changed, but we were saddled with an aging set of buildings that were built for very different models of campus chaplaincy. So, after a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of visioning with the Board, we agreed to tear down the 1965 sanctuary, restore the 1929 chapel (a wall had been torn out to add the addition), move the historic house to a corner of the property, and use the remainder of the lot to develop student housing. We felt this would provide a revenue stream and provide new, safe, affordable student housing close to campus. We would have a wall of separation between the ministry and the development, since we didn't think we should be in the management business.

But -- and isn't there always a but? - one of our neighbors did not take to our plans. Our next door neighbor, Luther Memorial Church, was vehemently opposed to the development. They cited a number of concerns: shadows from the development on their sanctuary, increased motor vehicle (annoying scooters that college students drive in particular) and pedestrian traffic, parking issues, and concerns about the impact on the daycare center they ran onsite during the week.

Here again, I don't mean to discount their concerns. It's perfectly OK to have them. It grieves COD that the discussions between the chaplaincy and our Lutheran neighbors turned rancorous, culminating for me with the Pastor of the Lutheran church, speaking before the City Council, likening our proposal to battering him first with a baseball bat and then with a croquet mallet. It was shocking to me to attach this image of physical violence to attribute to the discussions to which I had initially been a part of; I was the one who met with him and informed him of the decision our Board had made. I felt personally accused.

However, COD has learned long ago not to take things personally. I kept thinking, though, as I watched the debates on the city level, at Planning Commission and City Council, unfold, while I sat watching online, sipping a wee dram of single malt. COD found himself thinking about buildings. St Francis House and Luther Memorial both moved to their current locations around the same time, more or less. The neighborhood changed completely in the past 100 years: what was overwhelmingly a residential neighborhood of family homes on the edge of campus had been taken over almost completely by the University, with the block we shared bounded by the business school, psychology and chemistry departments, and other student housing developments. This change hasn't fundamentally impacted St Francis House; in fact, it helped. Our constituency is students. But it has fundamentally impacted Luther Memorial: their parishioners, who used to live in all those single family houses, have been moving further and further from the church.

What bothered A.O.C. was not that our neighbors were opposed to the development; they have every right to express their opinions and do what they think is best for their community. What did bother A.O.C. was that St Francis House was somehow the offending party: repeated references were made to our development fundamentally impacting their community's ability to carry out their ministry. The problem, at least to me, was that the neighborhood had been changing for 100 years, and St Francis House seemed to me to be unfairly blamed, when in fact maybe we were just the straw that broke the camel's back.

Because, when it comes down to it, all of our buildings are just means to an end. When AOC was working with the St Francis House Board, I reminded them of Rick Warren and Saddleback Church's odyssey for a home. Saddleback Church, now with over 20,000 members, rented space for the first decade of its existence because Warren said the instant they acquired property and building, it would shape and define the ministry. AOC also talked to them about the mission of the church: God's plan for the world includes the church, but the church -- and more directly churches/church buildings -- are means to that end. Had AOC had his way, I would have torn the entire complex down and built a multipurpose building that included worship space, but, given the historic status of the 1929 building, would have been impossible to pull off in Madison (preservationists who never knew we existed would come out in force to prevent that).

Watching the final debates in the Madison City Council online, enjoying some Macallan's, I found myself pondering these words by the poet Shelley:

And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Wandering through Europe you see not only 1000-year-old Cathedrals still standing, but glorious ruins of once thriving churches. All of our buildings are temporal, all will decay and fade away, even churches. The challenge is to have buildings which are best in the service of the broader mission of the church.

BTW, Madison City Council approved the proposal, 15-4.


  1. It always saddens me to read stories of my fellow Lutherans acting in ways like this. But it is a story that is repeated over and over again in every church on every level. The building is sacred, the mission is not. And when we approach the Church that way, we are bound to eventually fail.

    Church buildings are literally walls that keep us out of the community. Now obviously, some sort of shelter is needed whenever people gather, so having a space to worship in is important. But humans are quite susceptible to pride, and it isn't long before the building, a visible sign of our accomplishments (and later a bitter memorial of the "good ol' days") becomes more important than the work that happens outside of it.

  2. Agree completely, ecumenicallife (though having read my post you could probably guess that). No need to apologize for fellow Lutherans; to paraphrase "Love Story,": We don't have to apologize for our denominations; if we did, we would never get anything else done.


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