When we were in Europe we were intrigued by models of ships hanging in many churches. Their presence has various explanations. In some churches, notably in Scandinavia, they are reminders that they are sea faring nations and their sailors are in constant need of God’s protection. They are also reminders of those who have lost their lives at sea. In the days of sail this must have been a constant concern. Even now, when fishermen set out in their small boats, they are putting their lives on the line.
Other countries have a slightly different twist on their presence. Sometimes they are offerings (Votive Offerings – roughly translated sacrificial offerings), that is offerings given in thanks to God for, often miraculous, protection at sea.
However, ships in churches have a more metaphorical meaning. They can represent the faithful in a sea of unbelief.
The meaning extends into church architecture. The Nave, coming from the Latin ‘navis’, meaning ship, is the approach to the altar in traditional churches. In Gothic type buildings the Nave could easily be seen as an inverted. hull of a ship. It is a reminder to the congregation that it is on a journey through life and the church is there to protect and guide, just as a ship protects and guides its passengers. This thought comes from the beautiful book, “The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals”.
In the New Testament a number of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. Jesus himself was closely associated with their boating activities(e.g. Mark 4: 35-40). So maybe the presence of model ships and boats in churches is not such a strange thing after all. However, like any aspect of church life, we need to know why it is there and what it represents.