Last night the architect Rodger Woods, who is retired from Woods Parker Architects in Calgary, ( spoke at St. Philip about the connection between church buildings and the community of faith that worships in those buildings.

Here are my notes from Rodger’s presentation:



Rodger currently worships at St. James Anglican Church in NW Calgary. He worked as an architect throughout Western Canada for 30-40 years. He is presently retired but still very active.


Done a couple of hundred churches in my career.

Why do we bother with church buildings?

In the first centuries of the Christian faith, church buildings didn’t exist and yet Christianity blossomed without them. The first church buildings were peoples’ homes. This worked out well because the homes were organized around a courtyard which typically had a fountain at the centre serving well for baptism.

Buildings have communicative value. Our building speaks to people on the street.

Our building also shapes the way we think about ourselves.

In Western Canada in church architecture there is an ethos that ugly is particularly spiritual. Evangelical churches are content with being amplified theatres focused on performance. Everything that is meaningful happens from the front and is projected out onto the observers in the congregation.

In liturgical churches, the building itself is the backdrop for the drama of the liturgy. So it is important to think about how the building and the liturgy fit together.

When we begin a church building project we are not interested in developing a shopping list. When you start a project you are making a long term commitment to how your church is going to operate. It is a great opportunity to do some strategic planning.  Why are we here? What is the story we want our building to tell?

We need to start with a wide net and then narrow it down to a place where we can achieve a general consensus. If you don’t have an approval rate higher than 80% it is not going to get built. You need broad consensus about the vision. The process has to develop consensus.

You need to smoke out veto holders. Find out who the people are who consider that any exercise to change the building is the consequence of “them” “Them” is the people who have joined the church since I joined this church and who want to change “my” church. They should find some other church, rather than messing with mine.

Any kind of church development project is a process like a funnel.

Every church I have ever worked with has considered itself to be a private club for their benefit of its members.

Finance – Operating budget and capital budgets are two separate things. You cannot relate them closely. In terms of operating budgets, churches should never go over tree times the annual budget for a capital expenditure. If you go over three times your operating budget you are moving into danger territory.

In new projects it is preferable to develop a new building that can be added to in the future, rather than trying to do to much at the outset.

Develop a master plan and develop incrementally. When a congregation carries a lot of debt debt load the church does not have a lot of curb appeal. When newcomers see that every person in the congregation owes $50,000.00 it is not very appealing.

There is resistance in episcopally governed churches to giving to capital projects, because someone else is going to control the building.

I am a great believer in professional fundraisers. They work well. It seems counter-intuitive to think of paying a consultant to encourage your own people to give money. But good fundraisers are helpful in providing a good assessment of what kind of capacity the congregation has for giving. In every congregation different people have different capacities for giving. The anonymity of a hired person, helps people open up providing greater accuracy in determining how much people are likely to give.

There is an important relationship between liturgy and architecture.

I want to focus on a recent project I have been working on with St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Community in Calgary ( This church illustrates the strength of coordinating liturgy and design. Since Vatican II Roman Catholics have done the best job of thinking about the relationship between church structure and theology. Anglicans need to give more thought to this.

What story is our building telling? How does the church structure communicate or fail to communicate the Gospel?

The design of St. Michael’s is linear – the story we are telling has a beginning and an end. Coming to the church is a process of coming from the outside and becoming associated with a worshiping community and entering into a space in which worship takes place.

Churches should be transparent. When you drive by you should be able to see that something is going on there. A lot of retail studies indicate that people are reluctant to enter spaces that they don’t already understand visually. If they can’t get information before they enter the door, they are unlikely to enter.

By the time you get to the door you should be able to see all the way to the altar.

There is a hierarchy of spaces. You come from the street meeting people in a plaza space, then entering an inside area which further consolidates the community, providing a gathering space.

When you enter the actual church at St. Michael’s, the first thing you see is the baptistry. Baptism is the rite of initiation into the church. Every time you enter or leave the worship space, you have to pass by the baptistry.

The baptistry is a pool big enough for immersion of an adult. It has an entry stair and an exit stair. You come in one side and exit on the other side of the water. It is cruciform in shape with water always flowing, always bubbling, and overflowing.

Baptism typically takes place on Saturday night of the Easter vigil. A fire is lit outside church, candles are processed in. Candidates for baptism come in from the outside. They go down into the water to identify with Jesus in his death, they come up out the other side to identify with the resurrection and then they are anointed with oil. Every time they enter or leave the church they pass by the baptistry that reminds them of the grace that brought them into this living relationship with God and the community that embodies this relationship.

The worship space itself has a cross shape in the ceiling. The altar is at the cross point because the altar is the point of the room. But the seating is around the table because worship is not an action you do alone. From every seat in the church you can see two thirds of the faces.

The church has a columbarium that embodies the reality that the church is not just the living who attend but also the deceased who await the resurrection.

Kitchens and food services are really important. The kitchen is a pivot that other things work around. The demand for small food services events is more important than large service events. We work to develop more intimate eating spaces rather than the large gathering area. We have concentrated on making small food service events more comfortable. If you want a congregation-wide lunch, then rent a larger hall.

Existing space can often be reconstituted and used in different ways. So you build something radically new incorporating existing space.

A designer has to know a congregation or he cannot serve the congregation well.

The church has no organ. Funerals occasionally have a choir led by a keyboard.

St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church Calgary is a church on the move. Their church is oriented around homes and hospitality.

I like church buildings that raise questions.

Pews are very inefficient seating. The building code says every seat is 19 inches. When you have chairs you get a person in each seat. Pews are an inefficient use of space.

The Eucharist is not an individual event.

I believe liturgical churches are going to become increasingly important because my experience with young people is that more and more they are less interested in cause and effect propositional truth. They receive information in different ways.

The liturgy is the gospel story acted out in ways that the younger generations can receive. The liturgy also connects with history. It is rooted in tradition but also creates a space for active involvement of all participants in the present.

People need to hear each other in worship.

The more you can keep on the same level the better off you are. Develop multiple uses for the same space on the same level rather than having multiple levels.

The building is a back drop for what is happening. If nothing is happening the building will not make it happen. But the building can also be a hindrance to what is happening and can get in the way of communicating what we want to say.