Sacred space v. Holy people

By Donald Schell

On the way to mass in Sevilla’s Gothic cathedral, we passed Christopher Columbus’s tomb, a suitable reminder that Spain’s colonial power and wealth had built the cathedral. At the main altar, a gilded reredos towered to a height of fifty feet, gilded statues of saints and Bible scenes filled rank on rank up the golden wall, every surface gilded with Inca and Aztec gold from the New World. During the liturgy the dean stood at a simple lectern to preach. He smiled warmly and half gestured at the glittering reredos as he said, “I want us to hear Jesus’ teaching in this morning’s Gospel, and that great wall of gold behind me won’t help you hear. The statues tell Gospel stories and stories on the saints, that real holiness lives here [pointing to his own face] and there [gesturing toward us in the congregation].”

I remember this moment when a preacher contradicted the voice and theology of a powerful building, so what he said proved memorable. You can argue with the architecture, and briefly at least, you can win. But the triumphalism and static hierarchy of the admittedly beautiful reredos is still there as you read, and the preacher is not. Should we be content to argue with the building’s steady voice? Each instant when we’re not offering another vision, the building continues to speak, so in the end it does speak louder than our words. Beauty and history aren’t in themselves our tradition. Our tradition honors God’s compassionate steady hand making humanity wholly and holy.

We can preach that we’re called to see the face of Christ in our sisters and brothers and in the strangers we meet, and all the bright faces in the congregation may nod their agreement, but only the preacher sees those faces. Are the backs of people’s heads an adequate image of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ?

We can preach that God came to dwell among us in Jesus Christ who touched and blessed our living and dying with his human hands and heart and breath. But when we call on the Spirit to make his presence live for us again in the assembly and in the bread and wine, what does offering that prayer in a fenced-in “sanctuary” reserved for vested clergy and vested authorized lay assistants say about our approach to the Holy One who drew near to us?

Our furniture dilemmas are not the Great Tradition. Distant altars, altar rails, and forward facing pews are the legacy of 17th century church polemic and 17th century church-growth problem solving.

Starting in 1633, Archbishop Laud (with King Charles’ enthusiastic encouragement) worked to eliminate Elizabethan and Jacobean altar tables where the people gathered around. He decreed that altars should be fenced in with altar rails at the east end of the building. Laud and the King agreed that the Anglican practice they had inherited of gathering the congregation at an altar table for confession (‘draw near with faith’), Eucharistic prayer and communion cheapened the Eucharist. Laud was convinced that a set-apart, clergy-only area and rails to keep lay people out declared the holiness of the sacrament. Laud was so convinced that he was right that he invoked sedition laws to punish his most outspoken critics by having their ears cut off and a brand burned into their faces.

Puritan reaction set in fairly quickly. King and Archbishop lost power in 1640, and both were eventually executed. Oliver Cromwell’s church-vandalizing soldiers destroyed Laud’s new altars and altar rails, and also smashed statues and stained glass windows. The cycle of reaction continued when the monarchy was restored in 1660; many of the altars were redone (again), as Laud would have had them. But popular liturgy was on the cusp of the Enlightenment. Preaching is the most rational and thought-provoking part of liturgy and in restored Anglican liturgy after 1660 preaching became the main event and preachers were media stars. Stylish Londoners valued and expected l-o-n-g, rhetorically elegant sermons, so when the 1666 Great Fire destroyed most of London’s churches, people welcomed Christopher Wren’s new churches with their auditorium style seating, forward-facing bench pews, that enabled people to sit back and listen more comfortably to whichever of London’s elegant rhetoricians was preaching a customary ninety minute sermon.

What many Episcopalians call a ‘traditional Episcopal’ church arrangement synthesizes these two innovations –practical seating for a kind of liturgy we’d no longer tolerate (ninety minute sermons), and the ideological barrier to the laity, for a kind of liturgy I hope we don’t believe – that ‘the sacrament’ is holy and the people are not. In the sweep of Christian history, the 17th century is recent. I believe we’ve got to ask whether these two contradictory elements of 17th liturgy really serve the liturgy we’re called to make.

Buildings with forward-facing pews encourage us to scatter two or three to a pew; the furniture preaches isolation and passivity, making each lay person a passive religious consumer watching ‘what’s going on up front’ from a safe and lonely distance. And the massive railed in altar (whether it’s out from the wall or not) conveys that Laud meant it to convey – a power and holiness that lay people ought not to get too close to.

In Liturgy and Architecture, Louis Bouyer, a Vatican II-era Roman Catholic theologian, scripture and early church scholar, and liturgist, traced step by step the changes in Christian church architecture from the earliest church buildings. In his century-by-century account we see how the priest became more and more the center of a show while the laity faded into the background – headed toward Wren’s audience – passive listeners. And in that book Bouyer warned that the priest going ‘behind’ the altar to face the people so they could ‘see what was going on up there’ was only another step in the same clericalizing distancing.

Is the Eucharistic prayer something we want to witness the priest doing, or is it something we’re doing together as a congregation? Rick Fabian, my wife Ellen, and I founded St. Gregory’s, San Francisco in 1978 to explore just how completely the liturgy can be a shared work of the whole assembly and what a full expression of that shared work Sunday by Sunday does for evangelism, Christian formation, and mission. Twenty years later the new building St. Gregory’s had just built won an American Institute of Architects Best Religious Building of the Year award. The award said:

St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church has developed a unique, historically inspired liturgy based on fourth and fifth century Christian worship. There are two distinct aspects of their worship service: the Liturgy of the Word (Bible readings) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). The church building joins two distinct but linked worship areas, each with its own liturgical and acoustical requirements. [The area] for the Liturgy of the Word, seats 200 people facing each other across a central platform. This antiphonal arrangement encourages spoken and sung community participation. The presider’s chair is located at the north end in front of a prominent painted icon. Bible readings are from a lectern at the south end.

Midway through the service, worshipers move in a procession from the seating area to gather around the central altar table for Eucharist, song and dance in the octagonal room…the baptismal font is in a garden court beside the hill [outdoors] on cross axis with the altar table.

This is a church with a marvelous sense of community and a wonderful ordered plan that reflects the eastern Coptic influence in this Episcopal congregation’s liturgical practices. The parts of the service were given geometric forms. Beautiful, naturally lit ceilings and modest materials are handled with a profound sense of craft and purpose show keen awareness of the Bay Area’s regional character. The church appeals spiritually and aesthetically to the diverse people of the Bay Area, welcoming all to what the congregants call ‘a home for God’s friends.

Jesus appealed to daily experience of marginalized people and ordinary sinners to God’s work among us. He made everyday service to others holy when he washed his disciples feet and he transformed a table meal into the sign of his victory over death and living presence with us for all time. In the religion of Jesus day, he was a layperson. He commanded his disciples, also lay people, to do all he had done and serve as he served.

I’ve troubled people saying this, but can’t escape the conclusion that we’re not being faithful when we let the voice of the building speak louder than Jesus’ practice. Provisionally, to develop a congregational vision, we may have to work in and around buildings that contradict Jesus’ teaching (both what he taught and how he taught), but sooner or later faithfulness asks us to practice what we preach. I believe the Spirit asks that we make our buildings work for liturgy and serve the holy people. When we hear and refuse to listen, we’re valuing sacred space more than holy people.

How do we make a holy space for holy people? Whatever our building or floor plan, two things can make a huge difference in the message our building teaches:

-we can re-order seating to monastic or collegiate choir so that lay people can see one another’s face as well as the preacher and reader see everyone’s faces. Our faces are our primary manifestation of the image (icon) of God, and seeing one another’s faces as we pray and sing and listen brings us closer to Jesus’ teaching and practice of the holiness of people and human experience, and

– we can open up space for processions of the whole congregation and space to gather everyone around table and font as we do our sacramental work. Congregational processions and real gatherings for sacramental action let us feel that we are one body in Christ, and that together, souls and bodies, God’s pilgrim people, are on the move.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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