Occasionally I’ve been unwillingly drawn into discussion about the correct way to behave in a church building. It’s usually a disagreement between someone who views the church building as a place of prayerful silence and those who love to sit there before mass commences and chat with friends. Thinking about it, I keep returning to the Last Supper. That took place at a dining table of friends celebrating a religious and historical occasion. Until custom-built gathering places became the norm 300 years later, Christians gathered around the bread and wine in each other’s homes.
Australian Catholics have a history of both ‘house churches’ and purpose built churches. The first Mass in Australia is said to have been celebrated in 1803, not in a church but in the front room of a tiny cottage owned by the Davis family. It wasn’t till 1821 that the foundation stone of St Mary’s in Sydney was laid.
Early Catholic settlers, and in some cases our parents or grandparents, worked hard and sacrificed much to build churches that they felt looked like a church should. I have vivid memories of a country parish community being really damaged over a decision to move the altar into the body of the church, with seats placed around it. Heated questions were asked about who really ‘owned‘ the church – the parishioners who wanted a more user friendly space, or those who said that nothing should be changed . The reality is that some of our older churches, beautiful as they are, don’t meet our worship and gathering needs today
Even Jesus had trouble with his place of worship, the Temple in Jerusalem. The religious leaders used it as a means of commercialising and marketing the Jewish people’s access to God. A deeply disappointed Jesus responded to the injustice of that by overturning tables of produce and scattering livestock.
House churches may be the ideal, but we need the focus of a building that gives us the space to gather, celebrate Eucharist, farewell our dead, welcome our babies. We need to do that with dignity and a sprinkle of tradition. But we also need to do it as 21st century Australian Catholics. And when we gather, we also want to hear the Gospel message from both a masculine and feminine perspective.
A new podcast, Australian Women Preach, an initiative of Women and the Australian Church (WATAC) and the Grail, aims to highlight and share the voices of women breaking open the Word of God in words and ways that are meaningful to people today. Starting 8th March, weekly episodes will be released with preaching on the following Sunday’s Gospel. The initial episode features Jacqui Remond, co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, and Joint Co-ordinator of the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission for the Ecology Taskforce.
It’s a start, but it’s disappointing that an issue such as the place of women in the church, is also a source of division. There are those who want to keep hold of everything and those who would like to see sweeping change, those who would like a bit of both and those who find the whole religion thing irrelevant. For all of them the church building is something of a symbol. I would hope that the Church of the 21st century does not put itself beyond the reach of Jesus’ overturning hands.