This, I’m afraid, is ecclesiastical ephemera at its most ephemeral (i.e. proof that a lot of the time the only good reason for studying church history is that one day it will help you win a pub quiz). However, I was moved to write this piece by one of Wayne Brittenden’s consistently engaging Counterpoint pieces on National Radio’s Sunday Morning programme (you can download it here).
Noting shrinking congregations and the financial burden imposed by post-Christchurch earthquake safety provisions, he suggested that denominations might put more thought into sharing church buildings – maybe dividing them up in much the same way as the grand old cinemas of the 20th century received a new lease of life after being divided into multiplexes (As a devotee of Mark Kermode, I’m aware that not everyone will accept the the claim that multiplexes represent a “new lease of life” for cinema).
Anyway, in the follow-up segment, Professor Peter Lineham expressed scepticism about the multiplex proposal, though he acknowledged that church-sharing was already happening all over New Zealand.
Although the examples that Peter offered were of Protestant cooperating parishes, it’s worth pointing out that there are also instances in which some of the ecumenically more stand-offish churches are in on the act as well.
For example, in Twizel, All Saints church is used by the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics — and, for all I know, by other denominations as well. A shortish walk from my house, Avondale Baptist Church (aka The Intersection), houses a remarkably diverse group of congregations, including the Ethiopian Orthodox, The ‘Indian Fellowship’ (I’m not sure of the denomination), a Korean Presbyterian church, a Tongan Wesleyan, and a Seventh Day Adventist one.
More to the point, I thought it was worth noting that there are plenty of more ancient examples of this kind of church-sharing, particularly in parts of the world where political circumstances have forced Christian denominations into these partnerships. They have usually been less civil arrangements than the ones found in New Zealand, but they’ve also lasted a lot longer.
The ecclesiastical multiplex par excellence is the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. For the first six-or-so centuries of its existence, this was home to a largely Greek-speaking congregation of the “undivided church” (a term signifying the Greek-Latin church before 1054, which conveniently forgets the great schisms of the 5th century). However, under Crusader rule – for much of the 12th century – The Holy Sepulchre became a Latin church. In the centuries after Muslim reconquest (read Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography for the unedifying details) the basilica gradually became the site of an uneasy stalemate, in which the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenian Apostolic Church, Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox were all able to gain control of a part of the basilica or the adjacent space (Ethiopian monks, for example worship in a small chapel that shares a wall with the basilica, but live in cells on the basilica’s roof; the Copts have their own lean-to shrine of the resurrection through which pilgrims can look through a hole in the wall into the Greek-Orthodox-controlled edicule over the supposed site of Jesus’s resurrection). As is well-known, this co-existence is occasionally disturbed by physical brawls among the custodians of the basilica, and since 1192 the keys have been entrusted to a local Muslim family; the Christians can’t be trusted with them.
A later example of multiplexing can be seen in the mediaeval church of St-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg. Along with all of the other Strasbourg parishes, this became a place of Evangelical or Protestant worship in the late 1520s. At this point Strasbourg was a free city in the (German) Holy Roman Empire. However, when Louis XIV annexed Strasbourg to France in 1681, the Lutheran congregation was forced to give up some of the space inside the church to house a small Roman Catholic congregation. Though the Catholics moved out in the 19th century and built their own (much larger) church of St-Pierre, the old church east of the chancel screen is still decorated in the baroque style of the Catholic parish, while the church west of the screen has the slightly more sober demeanour of a Lutheran church interior (no statues, for example). Apparently the two congregations had a fairly gentlemanly arrangement for sharing the keys.
My last multiplex isn’t Christian at all. It’s a striking arrangement I saw when visiting the largely Palestinian city of Hebron in December 2012. According to tradition, Hebron is the site of the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah (see Genesis 23; Rachel’s buried near Bethlehem). At various points in its long history, Abraham’s burial ground was marked by an Herodian shrine, Christian churches and Muslim mosques. Since the 12th century, it’s been the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque. At various times, Jews and Christians have been granted more or less restricted access to the site.
Today the Ibrahimi mosque is a tense site in a tense city. On different sides of the mosque, access is controlled either by Israeli or Palestinian soldiers. Although, as a tourist, I had free access to the mosque, Israeli Jews did not. However, part of the mosque has now been turned into a synagogue in which Jews are able to pray at the tomb of Abraham, at least. The synagogue is reached through a separate entrance into the mosque compound. On both the Muslim and Jewish side, worshippers are separated from Abraham’s tomb by a grille.
At the end of Sunday’s Counterpoint programme, Peter Lineham touched briefly on the possibility that Anglicans and Catholics in Christchurch might eventually replace their ruined cathedrals with a shared building, but he poured cold water on the idea; denominational sensitivities wouldn’t allow it.
Given the precedents, however, I’m not sure we need to be quite that pessimistic.