Can a spire become something else?
In a suburb of Boston a church is being converted into an office building. Already the stained-glass windows have been removed. Looking up at the modest bell tower, a kibitzer cannot help wondering who or what will be the new occupant. Perhaps there will be just space for one of those copiers manufactured by the company that features twinkly monks in its ads.
And who will get the pulpit? Possibly a tax-accountant chain could afford the choice location.
Presumably it is hoped that the hewn brown stones of the exterior will lend soberness and stability to the new entrepreneurs who make the old church their place of business.
There is something confusing about the adaptation of any building to a new use. One cannot get accustomed to one's old primary school as an apartment complex. The imagination and the tongue do not easily accept the word ''silo'' for a missile site.
But the conversion of a church to a part of the marketplace seems like the ultimate secularization.
Henry Adams certainly would have been shocked by this sort of change in his old New England neighborhood. What would that wrinkled apple of a Yankee with the romantic heart have muttered if he had witnessed the conversion of another nearby church to a television shop?
Adams appreciated that the physical structure of a church could be destroyed. He did not believe its identity could be changed. He said of his favorite cathedrals, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, ''You can hammer every separate stone to pieces but you can't hammer out the style.''
The modern eye looks at a stone church and sees engineering and aesthetics and hates to see them go to waste in a poured-concrete-and-glass world. An industrial engineer at Princeton, Robert Mark, has decided that the builders of Europe's medieval cathedrals - most of them unable to read, write, or multiply - were the greatest ''aesthetic engineers'' of all time. Running an optical stress analysis, Mark has used epoxy plastic models to show patterns of strain. As reported in Science 81 magazine, the results argue that a number of Gothic characteristics thought to be decorative are, in fact, functional. For instance, the upper flying buttresses of the Amiens cathedral - generally seen as an ornament - brace the steep roof against high winds.
Mark concludes that over the years, over the centuries the illiterate Gothic builders observed where the mortar cracked - where stress impinged - and made sound and elegant corrections. Mark can measure the physical strength of these churches. But there is more than brute, stony strength here. Adams suggested that the stained-glass windows radiate in light what the rest of the structure expresses in solid form.
Is it peace-beyond-understanding or something else? Adams - a child of the Puritans and a close reader of Job, who knew religion is no mill pond - wasn't sure. He thought that Chartres was either the most reposeful or ''the most unreposeful thought ever put into architectural form.''
There is a function to a church that goes beyond engineering stress-models. The spire, as Adams observed, is ''a bit of sentiment almost pure of practical purpose.'' Yet into its skyward thrust goes all the yearning of the church beneath it.
What can an office building do with a spire? Attach a volume-of-sales thermometer to it?
If we take the term ''function'' in its broadest and deepest sense, there is an inviolable wholeness to the design of a church. Even the skeptical Adams took his beloved structures to represent ''the aspirations of man at the moment when man's aspirations were highest.'' How can these aspirations be transposed without being trivialized?
If a congregation cannot survive, just possibly a church should be left to become its own ruined monument, reminding us of what it was - and what we were.