Let us build a house

Floor to rafter: the nave ceiling of
St Mary Magdalene, Taunton, Somerset

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell’ by Marty Haugen. It’s a hymn about inclusion in the church, and about the church being more than its buildings.  As a recent report from the Church of England put it, Christians vary from being ‘Temple people’ for whom a beautiful building is of great importance to their worship and witness, to ‘Tent people’ for whom the building is nothing more than a temporary shelter to host the all-important task of proclaiming the Gospel. 

Marty Haugen comes across as more of a Tent person in this hymn.  There is indeed some memorable building imagery: rock and vault, wood and stone, floor to rafter (incidentally, the recently deceased American folk singer Nanci Griffith uses that exact phrase ‘floor to rafter’, also rhymed with laughter, in one of her songs: did one of them pinch it from the other?)  But there is much more imagery of the activities that our buildings should host: love and safety; hopes, dreams, visions and prophecy; a banqueting hall; peace and justice; healing, serving and teaching; songs, laughter and prayers. 

This balance is at the heart of my work for the Church, helping local congregations across Yorkshire care for historic buildings at the same time as encouraging sensitive adaptation of those buildings to the present and future needs of mission. If our buildings become museums of architecture then we’ve swung too far the wrong way, for the house of God should be both a house of prayer (as Jesus called the Temple) and a haven for all those in need of grace.

1 thought on “Let us build a house”

  1. I first came across this hymn when we were just in the process of launching our “Liquid Worship” service (which later became known as our “Family Service” – a much inferior title!). “Liquid Worship” refers to the fact that the service has a section in it in which people can flow round various activities: so we have 20 minutes of “ordinary church” (Opening hymn, confession, bible reading and an illustrated talk), then 20 minutes of “zone time” response (with different activities set out around the building so people can respond as the feel led), and then 20 minutes “ordinary church” (show-and-tell, song, creed, prayers of intercession, and final hymn). The service was intended to provide activities suitable for children and adults, to allow people to engage with the bible in other ways than just listening to a sermon, and to welcome newcomers.

    And as we were looking for a song to summarise this and express it, “Let us build a house” became almost a standard item, in that we very frequently sang it before the service formally began: it is long enough to cover the period when people are settling down, varied enough in its expressions to cover many concerns, and easy to pick up and sing along with. As I’ve written before I have some questions about some aspects of the “inclusive church” movement, but this song does a fine job of saying that many more than just the clergy have real positive insights to contribute, and I value it for that.

    But it is a bit long for a standard slot in a standard church service.

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