As I announced back in May, I got to spend the second week of August in Oxford, England for the 2011 Oxford Patristics Conference. It was a fantastic experience, and it will get its own blog post soon (I should be able to return to more regular postings now that Flesh of My Flesh is back from her year abroad). Something I’d like to bring to the attention of both of my devoted readers now, however, is the amazing work St. Nicholas Orthodox Church did on renovating an existing church building. We attended Vespers there the night before we flew back to the States and got to see it all with our own eyes. Let me tell you, this really should be, I think, the model for what to do when you’ve got an existing church building that you have to figure out how to retrofit. (I hasten to add that I do not mean to say that there aren’t good examples of this here in the States; St. Raphael of Brooklyn Orthodox Church in Iowa City comes to mind, and actually the two situations parallel each other to some degree, both in terms of circumstances, outcome, and ongoing efforts, so my present discussion of St. Nicholas is not meant by any means to suggest that it represents something that nobody in the States has done.)
You can read the story about St. Nicholas Church for yourself, how they acquired the building and everything they’ve had to do to it, right here. I can’t really add to any of that, except that from what Fr. Stephen Platt told me, there is a garage next door that used to be the church hall back in the building’s Anglican mission days; he hopes that once the renovation work on the temple is paid off, they can buy the garage and turn it back into the church’s hall.
My own observations are that the community has done a marvelous job of entering into this project with faith, and by doing so they acquired a building that was within short walking distance of many of the colleges — and it’s a lovely walk, too, on a footpath that takes you through a field and over water and so on — and is right smack dab in the middle of a residential area where there are people rather than being in the middle of nowhere. It’s a church that can actually be a visible witness to its neighborhood, and uniquely so, since the neighborhood has seen everything the parish has had to do to reclaim the building from being something of a severely under-utilized eyesore.
I will also note that they’ve made it a point to first and foremost treat the building as a place of worship, and they have prioritized their efforts accordingly. I am familiar with phased church building projects where the approach is, “Well, people come to church for services, but they stay for everything else a church does, so best to build something that one can get by in for worship and that maximizes the ability to do all of the ancillary things. Then you’ll grow faster and can build the temple down the road.” I humbly submit that this approach doesn’t really work, at least not from what I’ve seen. The Church is first and foremost a worshipping body, not a coffee-drinking body, and when you put what is supposed to be our first priority in second place so that the men’s group has somewhere to meet, I think people sense that. Worse, from what I’ve seen, the ways you have to rethink your liturgical practice in a setting you’ve built only for the bare minimum of accommodation have a nasty tendency to become permanent. This means that if the day ever comes where you get to build the permanent temple, you’re already wondering, “Well, why do we need [X component of ecclesiastical architecture] anyway, when it adds another $250k to the price and we’ve learned how to get along just fine without it in our existing space?” By contrast, St. Nicholas has prioritized the liturgical function of the building over secondary activities, and it shows with the care they’ve put into their furnishings. They’ve clearly been able to do a lot with what resources they have, and they’ve also shown a lot of forethought in leaving the walls white so that they can be frescoed later.
You can see all of my pictures of the church here. One more thing — as you can see from the PayPal button at the bottom of their page, they are still fundraising to pay off the five-year loan that allowed them to finance the building purchase in the first place. Whatever they can’t pay off in that timeframe (that is, by November 2013) will probably be converted to a standard bank loan, but obviously it’s a burden that it would be better to not have to carry for such a community, particularly if they hope to buy the hall in the future. I encourage anybody who is able to contribute something to this ongoing effort.
While the existence of two (well, three) Orthodox parishes in Oxford may have come out of difficulty (and I won’t elaborate; you can find the story elsewhere if you like, and I myself am not certain I understand everything), God seems to have turned it around for good. May it continue to be so!