Ethos Education

The Pillars of the Earth: How do church buildings reflect Christian beliefs about God and his people?

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Learning Objectives:

  • To raise awareness of different church architecture and its significance in corporate worship.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon the value of waiting a long time for things.
  • Analyse a clip from The Pillars of the Earth and reflect on the purpose of a cathedral building.
  • Examine historic examples of church architecture and how the purpose of the building is reflected in the design.
  • Reflect on the relationship between a church building and the individual Christians who worship in that building.
  • Understand the concept that a church is more than just a building, but is also an environment designed to glorify God and facilitate fellowship.
  • Synthesise learning by creating a design for an ideal 21st century, post-modern church.


Ask the students to vote (by show of hands, standing up/sitting down, or by moving to one end of the classroom or the other, as you prefer) on whether each of the following activities are worth the wait required:

  • Cooking a jacket potato in an oven, rather than in a microwave.
  • A fan of Newcastle United football club waiting for a major trophy (the last one was the European Fairs cup – a forerunner to the current Europa League – in 1969. The last domestic trophy was the FA Cup in 1955).
  • An England football fan waiting for a World Cup win (the last one was 1966).
  • Driving (instead of flying) to Scotland from London.
  • Driving (instead of flying) to Spain from London.
  • Building a scale model of the Eiffel Tower from a kit.

Ask the students why they felt that some things were worth waiting for, while others simply weren’t worth the commitment of time. Draw out some of the relevant factors, such as the existence of quicker alternatives, the importance of the waited-for event, and the likelihood of eventual success.

Explain that some things are worth waiting for, whereas others are just annoyingly time-consuming and not worth the wait. Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be looking at something a long time ago which required enormous amounts of patience as well as hard work – the building of cathedrals in medieval times – and considering what values these huge constructions suggest about modern-day church buildings.


Show the first clip from The Pillars of the Earth (Sony, 2010, certificate 15). Click here to buy a copy of the DVD online.

The events of this clip take place in 1138 AD. Explain to the students that shortly before the clip, the church at Kingsbridge Priory has been burned down. Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) is a master builder who has long harboured dreams of building a cathedral. In this clip he draws up his plans and seeks to persuade the local prior to back his vision. Ask the students to pay particular attention to what Tom says is the crucial element of his cathedral design.

  • Clip taken from Episode 2: Master Builder
  • Start time:   0.20.21 (in chapter 3 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.22.51
  • Clip length:  2 minutes and 30 seconds

The clip starts with Tom mixing plaster and pouring it into frames, ready to start engraving his plans. The first line is Tom saying, ‘We’ll have a wooden ceiling…’ The clip ends with Prior Philip (Mathew MacFadyen) saying, ‘I think it’s extraordinary.’ Be careful when cueing the clip up, because it follows closely from a scene of lovemaking which you may well feel to be inappropriate to show in the classroom.

Remind the students of Tom’s comment that ‘the cathedral (is) God’s anteroom. It’s halfway to Heaven, and the light – the light is everything’.

What do the students think Tom means when he says that the cathedral is ‘God’s anteroom’? (You may want to explain that an anteroom – from the Latin, ante camera, meaning ‘room before’ – is a small room leading to a larger one.)

In view of this statement about the cathedral’s purpose, why do the students think that the light is so important? What other features of the cathedral’s design (as mentioned in the clip) do the students think are specifically shaped by the building’s intended purpose? In the clip Tom suggests that with enough hired masons and other workers, the cathedral could take 15 years to build. What do the students think that taking on a project over such a timescale suggests about the importance which Philip, Tom and others involved placed on the building of a cathedral. Why do you think they considered it to be so important?

Give out copies of the historic floor plan of a church from If you have internet access during the lesson, you could direct students to the webpage and save the cost of the printing.

Ask the students to work together in small groups and try to work out how the layout of the typical church, as described here, reflects the purpose of a church building. They may find the following questions helpful:

  • What are the most striking features of the layout of the church building?
  • What does the layout of the church building suggest as its main purpose?
  • How helpful do you think this building would be for facilitating meaningful relationships?

Students may also find it helpful to look at photographs of real-life places of worship. Photos of most cathedrals can be found at  by clicking on the links to country, destination, and finally pictures.

Give students a few minutes to discuss, then ask them to share their conclusions with the whole class.

Introduce a second clip from The Pillars of the Earth. Explain that this clip takes place in 1170 – thirty-two years after the previous clip. Tom is long since dead, and his stepson Jack (Eddie Redmayne) has taken over the project. In this scene Philip leads a service to mark the completion of the building project. Ask the students to pay particular attention to Philip’s words about the cathedral and its completion.

  • Clip taken from episode 8: The Work of Angels
  • Start time:   0.49.24 (in chapter 5 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.52.14
  • Clip length:  2 minutes and 50 seconds

The clip starts with a shot of Jack installing stained glass windows. The first line is Philip saying, ‘When we began work on the Kingsbridge cathedral…’ The clip ends as the credits begin to roll at the conclusion of both the episode and the series.

Remind the students of Philip’s quote:

‘But the cathedral is not finished, and nor will it ever be. Just as human perfection is something we all strive for and can never attain, so this church will forever be changing, growing, crumbling at times; an ongoing legacy of our feeble efforts to touch God. A cathedral, my friends, is neither stone nor statues, nor even a place of prayer. It is a continuum of creation; beautiful work that, pray God, will never end.’

What do the students think Philip means by ‘a continuum of creation’? Do they agree with him that a cathedral building fulfils this role? In what way will the work of building the cathedral never be finished?

Point out to the students that Christians regard the church as being more than just buildings. When the Bible talks about ‘the church’, it always means the people rather than a building. Ask the students to read Acts 2:46 to see how the early Christians valued both their worship of God and their fellowship with one another.

‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.’ Acts 2:46.

Ask the students to discuss which aspects of church life as described here are reflected in Philip’s sermon in the second clip.


Distribute copies of the Principles for building a 21st Century Church worksheet and blank paper. Ask the students to draw up a design for a 21st Century church. They should annotate their designs to explain the thinking behind different features. Here are the principles outlined on the worksheets:

Principles for building a 21st Century church:

  1. Post-modern architecture is multipurpose.
  2. Architecture should be beautiful.
  3. Architecture should be multi-sensory.
  4. Architecture should be contemporary and relevant.
  5. Church should be a place where human interaction is facilitated.
  6. Church should be a living space.
  7. Church should not be limited by four walls.
  8. Church should be ecological.
  9. Church should be technologically interactive.
  10. Architecture should breathe spirit into space. Church should breathe spirit into man.

As a follow-up activity, you could take the students to a local place of worship. How does its design compare with their own ideas? Consider also comparing a traditional church and a relatively new church building: are there significant differences? Do they see any of their own ideas in the new building?

Alternatively (or in addition) you could arrange an interview with some local church leaders to whom the students could put forward their proposals.


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