the missional critique of stained glass windows

I should say first up that I’ve grown to appreciate and even love stained glass windows. But in my time I’ve heard — and, especially in my younger days, made — numerous criticisms of them. Criticisms such as:

  • They promote idolatry.
  • They don’t ‘teach’ much of anything without significant interpretation.
  • They put off and intimidate unchurched newcomers.

I’m sure the list could be extended.

Although, I never really heard this one — let’s call it the missional critique of stained glass windows:

[T]he Church can never be satisfied with what it can be and do as such. As His community it points beyond itself. At bottom it can never consider its own security, let alone its own appearance. As His community it is always free from itself. In its deepest and most proper tendency it is not churchly, but worldly — the Church with open doors and great windows, behind which it does better not to close itself in upon itself again by putting in pious stained glass windows. It is holy in its openness to the street and even the alley, in its turning to the profanity of all human life — the holiness which, according to Rom. 12.5, does not scorn to rejoice with them that do rejoice and to weep with them that weep. Its mission is not additional to its being. It is, as it is sent and active in its mission. It builds itself up for the sake of its mission and in relation to it. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1 (pp 724-725)

What’s your feeling? Do stained glass windows risk undermining our identity, turning us in upon ourselves rather than turning us outward to face the world in mission and service?

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12 comments

  1. Is the critique here against stained glass windows or against a style of church architecture where the congregation can’t see outside & vice versa?

    Most SGWs I can think of are up pretty high to start with, so I don’t know whether changing them to plain glass would fix the “keep looking out” (unless you want to only save trees, not people).

    By the way, did you know that all the SGWs in st stephen’s at newtown, the church in the graveyard, were put in while the rector was evangelical, so they only have geometrical designs and bible verses in them: no people!

    1. Hi Rog,

      I take your point about the placement of most stained glass windows!

      My hunch is that it’s not the stained glass in itself that’s the problem — whether it’s ‘imageless’ or full of representations of people. I suspect Barth probably picks on stained glass as a symptom not just of a style of architecture but of a mindset that’s turned in upon ourselves rather than directed outward to those ‘outside’.

  2. I don’t think it’s a completely solid argument.
    In my mind, most stained glass windows are art. In most churches, they were put in when it was a commonly practiced art form that was used to express God’s glory and character. When Christian artists today create sculptures or paintings or (even music!?) to glorify God, is that also the church focusing too much on itself?

    You could say “yes it is”, but only in cases where people twist the purpose of the art so it is no longer about glorifying God. I think you could say the same about the windows. Some people twist their purpose, but that is a matter of people sinning, not a matter of stained glass windows being bad.

    1. Hi Alison,

      I think you’re definitely onto something.

      We may not do ourselves much good by busting out all the stained glass (and why not the walls while we’re at it?) and replacing it with clear glass. If we do that we could still end up sitting behind our massive viewing windows thinking things like, ‘Oh — how lucky we are not to be out there with all those lost people!’

      Perhaps the key to not being focussed on ourselves is to focus on glorifying God instead — particularly if we recognise him calling us to loving, joyful, self-sacrificial engagement with people on the other side of the glass.

  3. If we are talking about a missional critique, should we also think about how people would look into church through the SGWs?

    My home town, the places of worship look like this:
    http://www.leu6.com/strategy/2937

    So when I see SGW, I know this place meant serious business.

    When I see buildings look like business conference centres, it’d surprise me that people are in there doing business with God.

    But the funny thing is this: the ‘missional’ Christians want to reach out to those outside and think from whatever theological reflections and conclude that SGWs might be a ‘barrier’ for me.

    Anyway, if we are talking about the ‘mindset’, it is important to turn it outward. And I think part of turning outward is to imagine how the outsiders may look in the opposite direction, so to speak.

    1. Thanks, Leo. Very wise advice — rather than assume what people will want/find conducive to engaging with God and his people, we need to get much much better at listening.

  4. Just to get things going a bit more, I think that’s crap. I’m with Alison. I also think Barth’s got too many ideas going at once. Yes, church must be “missional”. But church has also got to be other things as well. It’s got to be a community of worship. It’s got to be a place of love of one-another (I’m pretty sure the “those who weep” in Rom 12:5 means Christians first and foremost). There is a way of being missional that makes you forget about everything else. If a church loses everything that makes it “churchly”, it ends up with nothing to offer the world except an image of itself. So I’m for stained glass (and I’m okay with pictures).

    æ

  5. Stained glass windows can point out as well as in. When writing a whole page of boring objective & verifiable historical and architectural stuff for the wider world about St John’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_John%27s_Ashfield), one of the few peeks at the gospel we teach was through the stained glass window (image and caption). Art is still allowed to say whatever it likes in today’s politically correct world.

    I think his analysis holds for doors… it’s good when they’re open.

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