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Dr. Ryan Turnbull presenting at 2024 Wilmot Lecture Panel

Dr. Ryan Turnbull explains the vocation of church buildings

The diocesan discipleship developer in SJC engages in an expanding conversation about the church

February 29, 2024 — 

Recently completing his doctorate at the University of Birmingham, Dr. Ryan Turnbull dives into his reasoning of why church buildings are becoming more vacant.  

Read below for Ryan’s discussion on this topic. 


Both ancient and modern philosophers have argued that paying attention to how we ordinarily talk about things can give us insight into the deepest reality of those things. This works, in part, because the way we talk about things and concepts reflects the myriad ways we actually interact with them in the course of our daily lives. Holding space for a plurality of meaning and use in the way we talk about something can be revelatory. With that in mind, I want to think a bit about how we talk about “Church”. 

There is a well-intentioned refrain about “Church” that I often hear repeated; “Church is not the building, it’s the people.” The point of such a sentence is to get us to let go of an, at times, idolatrous over-attachment to our buildings and focus again on the community of believers that make these buildings what they are. But as well meaning as this sentence is, it misses something about how we talk about the Church that I think is worth spending some time thinking about. 

When we talk about “going to Church” we usually mean a couple of things. First, we mean going somewhere, to some definite place where we will find the assembled people of God with whom we will pray, hear the Word proclaimed, and gather around the Lord’s table. This gathering is a public and political act, indeed, the Greek word from which we derive Church, ekklesia, originally referred to a gathered assembly for some public and political purpose. While this gathering can and does happen anywhere, the moment that this gathering occurs, it is no longer in a hypothetical “anywhere” but is in fact in a definite place. Because what the Church is, is this embodied gathering of the people of God around the material symbols of Word and Sacrament, there is always an implied place of gathering evoked in our speaking about “going to church.”  

Here, some might interject saying, “This is all very well, but if this implied place is a function of the gathering, then can’t this happen anywhere we gather?” And to that I say, “Of course!” In fact, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is quite clear that there is nothing particularly holy or sacred about the places where the Church gathers apart from our gathering to worship. Nevertheless, Anglicans also hold that when we gather to worship, we should give some consideration to the place where we worship. 

There are two major considerations for our places of worship found in the Anglican liturgy for the consecration of church buildings; one economic, and the other having to do with the right ordering of our worship (BCP 681ff). The rubrics insist that a church building should only be consecrated if the building is debt-free and if it has a reasonable chance of being set aside as a perpetual place of prayer. Throughout the liturgy, the Bishop walks around the various parts of the building and blesses, not the place as such, but the liturgical work that the assembled people of God will carry out in this place. In this way, the Bishop participates in an ancient biblical understanding of covenant, where the material objects of creation may be invoked as witnesses of the covenantal relationship being enacted between God and God’s people in a particular place (see Deuteronomy 30:19). So the place in a church where people are married is called to bear witness to the strength of those bonds, the pulpit is called upon to witness to the proclamation of the gospel, the table is called upon to witness to the mysteries of the Holy Eucarist, and so on.  

For Anglicans, at least, it is appropriate to talk about “the church” as a place we go to, precisely because it plays a role as a witness to our life of common worship. But our buildings also play another witnessing role, and that is to the economic justice of our communities. Remember, while the rubrics allow for a building to be blessed if it has not yet been paid off, it is supposed to be payed for before it is consecrated. This insistence on being debt-free is often overlooked, but it might well provide some key insights into the proper vocation of our buildings in the life of the Church. First, the requirement to be debt-free should temper our impulse to build idolatrous monuments that our communities cannot afford. Being beholden to debtors undermines the freedom of the Church to be the Church, and unfortunately, the Anglican Church has a long and checkered history of colluding with many of the worst impulses of the imperial state in order to secure funding to underwrite our undeniably beautiful buildings. It is also not uncommon to see Churches littered with plaques devoted to the wealthy benefactors and special-interest groups that have funded this infrastructure which seems, at the very least, to make a mockery of our Lord’s injunction not to “let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3) when giving of our material wealth. 

But insisting that our buildings are debt-free also has important positive implications. For a congregation that does not need to worry about servicing a large debt is free to give freely to the mission of the Church, to worshipping God in the beauty of holiness, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger. All of these activities require a place to do them in, and having a built infrastructure that enables the church to do this work is part of what is implied by the church being a political and public gathering in the world.  

The Anglican Church is in a time of transition to an unknown future. Part of this transition has been learning that the economic assumptions we used to have about our buildings no longer hold, for better and worse. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the Church simply does not need places to gather – for the Church is a public reality, and it is important that our witness be public too. Recently, our Bishop has invited us to ask the question, “What is the vocation of our buildings?” I think in asking this question we would do well to sit with the theological understanding of church buildings we have received in our prayer book. In so doing, we might just rediscover what it means to be ekklesia, to be the Church – a publicly gathered political body worshiping the risen Lord who proclaims justice for the poor. 


To learn more about Dr. Ryan Turnbull’s research, visit our website.  


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