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Churches as Spaces of Encounter and Challenge

Published February 26, 2020 by Tobias Müller

Churches, Cultures, Traditions, Encounter, Spaces

The following is an edited version of the opening remarks given by Tobias Müller on the occasion of the opening of the photographic exhibition on "Churches as spaces of encounter and challenge" by Dr Rowan Williams at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge on 10 February 2020.

Tobias Müller speaking at the opening of the exhibition

Distinguished guests,

it is my pleasure to welcome you to this opening of the exhibition on "Churches as Spaces of Encounter and Challenge" at the Woolf Institute.

Some of you might remember previous exhibitions here at the Institute, some images are still found in rooms around the building, of beautiful mosques and synagogues from across Europe.

Mosques, synagogues and churches share a rich tapestry of architectural styles, influenced by cultures and traditions across the globe. For instance, in this exhibition you will find a Catholic mission Church that is built in Xhosa design of several adjoined round huts. It also features a Romanian Orthodox Church from the 18th century, completely made of beautifully painted wood.

Selime Monastery, Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey (credit: Rodrigo Garcia-Velasco Bernal)

For a moment, I invite all of you to briefly close your eyes and think of the first church you ever entered.

What makes a church a church? And could one create a sensible exhibition on such a broad topic?

When we started digging the archives with our partners at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide (CCCW), we realised an important difference to our previous exhibitions.

Many churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America, for instance the Archdeacon Guillebaud Memorial Church in present day Burundi exhibited here, are the direct or indirect result of European colonial expansion and conquest.

Churches have been built in these areas often as precursor of, or on the back of, systematic discrimination, dispossession and violent oppression. The geographies of many churches, thus, still follow the patterns drawn by some of the most exploitative systems in human history.

At the same time, churches have also been the target of persecution and violent attack. This is exemplified by the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador, which hosts the tomb of one of Latin America's most famous (and possibly most recent) saint, Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Romero was shot by right-wing death squads while celebrating holy communion in March 1980, one of the key events sparking off the Salvadoran Civil War.

Or the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by members of the Ku-Klux-Klan as one of the first black churches in Birmingham, Alabama. The victims were four young girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

It becomes clear that making an exhibition about churches is never going to be a walk in the park, at times - pardon the pun - it may seem rather like a walk in the dark. Churches are part of the societies in which they are built, which inhabit them and which are consoled and provoked by them. They are located within the thickest everyday struggles and torment of human life, they move and get moved by it. And yet, they are also always an Other Place, a little utopia. This can be understood either as U-topos, the non-Place, or eu-topos, the good place (I'll deny myself the comment about the Greek syllable eu meaning good - EU meaning good).

But more than that, churches are spaces in which competing and conflicting orders of time and value intersect. They are, in the words of Michel Foucault, heterotopias. This means that they perform a specific function in our society. They conjoin timelines and contradictions in unexpected ways. Churches are places of the conjunction of the moment and the eternal, joy and sorrow, communion and passing, desperation and hope, profane and sacred, revolution and revelation, life and death, connect, unfolding a myriad of possibilities.

The images that you see depict churches that are located in some sort of flux, sometimes as rocks in the stormy ocean of change, sometimes as the waves themselves that bring about a new era.

As such, they are never neutral with regards to the world around them. Either they condone same-sex marriage, or they prevent loving individuals from partaking in the communion Christ has offered to all people. Either they call to stand up against the ravaging destruction of our planet, as in the image of the Extinction Rebellion priests celebrating mass on the occupied streets of Whitehall demonstrates, or they acquiesce into an unspecified optimism that only serves to perpetuate the toxic status quo.

We certainly have only managed to capture a little snapshot of what churches can be.

The first church you went into maybe carries within it stories that are as rich or even richer than the ones you will find in the descriptions of the images.

The invisible church, the kingdom of God with all its unconditional love for every human being, is something human beings can only hope to contribute to materialise with little glimpses, like stardust.

We decided to contribute to this effort by presenting a multitude of faces and stories. The interpretation of what "church" might mean in each cultural and political context is up to us. This exhibition hopes to offer some reflections on what we might want to avoid, and what we might want to do with this opportunity.

Tobias Müller is the curator of the exhibition and Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, where he is working on a project on Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State.

To visit the exhibition, contact

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