Ecclesiastical architecture: time we understood its subliminal messages

Dave HallByDave Hall

Ecclesiastical architecture: time we understood its subliminal messages

There is a liturgy behind gargoyles, grotesques and gothic flying buttresses – do we really understand the agenda in the ecclesiastical architecture we admire and cherish?

That will be Dr Sanjee Perera’s question to visitors at the first-ever Ladies’ Day (12pm, Thu 17 Oct) at CRE National 2019.

‘Power and its values are celebrated throughout our historic church buildings,’ she will contend. ‘Feudalism, monarchy and elitism are intermingled with raptures of the divine. Concepts of womanhood and beauty are splashed on glass and masonry – as virtuous, demure, chaste, pale, gentle and genteel.’

Dr Perera, a research fellow in Cognitive Ecclesiology at the University of Birmingham, Philosophy, Theology and Religion department, will call for a fresh understanding of the history of our churches, country and culture. 

‘The fabric of a church, whether it is the pews, rood screens, altar, font, all speak to a liturgy – the story of our salvation. It is a door to the divine, it is an invitation. The pews say: “Come sit with us, lay down your burden and hear the good news”. The table says: “Come eat together as a family”. The font tells us we are washed clean.’

Dr Perera will explore the whitewashed cognitive impressions, values and meta-narratives that are subliminally imposed on us, – when we are on our knees, at our most vulnerable – and how these shape the values of a congregation’s collective conscious. She will take CRE visitors on a journey ‘through Victorian stained glass and alabaster angels in verdant graveyards’, to examine how goodness, holiness, beauty and virtue became synonymous with whiteness, and how this becomes a double burden for women and minority ethnic Christians.

In a programme of special presentations and seminars, Ladies’ Day at CRE will subvert the racecourse stereotype of ‘big hair and bling’ and, instead, highlight the contributions of women in church and society, especially those who have been forgotten or neglected.

The Bishop of Dorking, Right Rev Jo Bailey Wells, will speak on women in leadership. Project 3:28’s Natalie Collins, will speak on sexism and Rachel Gardner, director of Youthscape, will offer a new vision for women and inspire visitors to see that vision realised in our churches, communities and families.

• See the Ladies’ Day schedule here

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Dave Hall

Dave Hall author