Disputes Over Church Renovations

Readers may have heard reports about controversy surrounding the recent renovations to the cathedral in Milwaukee, USA. Closer to home there have been some notable examples of church renovation causing bitter disputes in and beyond local parish communities.
It seems that the church building is a real expression of faith for many people in the pews. Differences of opinion about the essentials of Catholic belief inevitably lead to disagreements about church architecture, so that the building or renovation of churches becomes the battleground for theological disputes.
Some people also seem to have a strong emotional attachment to particular items in their church and where they are placed. A priest recently explained to me that the long and elaborate communion rail had been retained in his church, despite the fact that it was quite inappropriate in light of post-Vatican II theology and liturgical practice, because it had been donated by the parents of a parishioner who threatened to leave if it was removed. For similar reasons, other churches still have statues in central locations in the worship space where they compete with altar and ambo for the attention of worshippers.
One parishioner was heard to complain when some pews were removed from her church in response to declining Mass attendance and the need to create a gathering space at the entrance, that she was obviously no longer welcome because “her seat” had been taken away.
Sometimes people react strongly to changes in church architecture when in fact it is the circumstances that has necessitated the change which is the real source of their anger or frustration. For example, a complaint about a church being reconfigured might reflect that person’s real concern about shrinking congregations, declining numbers of priests or consolidation of Mass times that has led to the change.
In the “good old days”, the parish priest and the architect would make decisions about church buildings. These days, parishioners rightly expect to have a say in what happens. While a wide consultation process is critical to a project’s success, open forums to discuss building issues do offer a avenue for people to vent the pain and anger that they might be harbouring. This is especially problematic when those in favour of having worship spaces which facilitate the “full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful” remain silent, sometimes because they are intimidated by a vociferous minority.
Conducting a process of consultation before building or renovating a church will only be successful if all parties are prepared to listen to other points of view and be open to new insights. It is important that people be catechised about the central tenets of Catholic faith and how this faith is given expression in liturgy and in settings for public worship. Too often in the past changes have been made without adequate explanation or sensitivity.
Rational and informed discussion can often uncover “win/win” solutions rather than “either/or” choices between the new and the traditional, for example setting up a special shrine for a statue instead of leaving it in an inappropriate place (because “it has always been there”) or removing it entirely. Finding ways of honouring the tradition while accommodating the new can help unify a community and put an end to unseemly wrangling about our places of worship.

Elizabeth Harrington