Monday, January 23, 2006

Architectural theology?

One of the glimpses of the blindingly obvious that hit me during my time at vicar school was just how much a church building says about that congregation’s theology. Leaving aside obvious elements- (the relative importance of pulpit or altar, an empty cross or a crucifix),-…there are a whole host of other clues, some of which I’d not have picked up 10 years ago.
Take St M’s ! (no, go on, do take it….the PCC won’t mind a bit, really ;-) )
If you’ve been reading for any length of time, you’ll know that while I love being the curate here, there are things about the church building itself that I find very difficult.
One of these (well, 8 of these, to be strictly accurate) is the series of pillars that divides the nave from the two side aisles. Another the way the clergy stalls are arranged so that you’re expected, when leading worship, to spend most of your time with your back to the congregation. Yet another is the fact that the high altar is so far away from the pews that you honestly aren’t sure if you’ll be in the same country by the time you arrive there….
Still dealing with the impact of last week’s CME, I can confidently assert that the building at St M’s was designed to emphasise the awesome mystery of God…no nonsense about passibility for our church architects, that’s for sure!
Sometimes that’s tolerable…at others, not. I specially struggle with the way, after a theft a few years ago, an alarm system was installed,- its impact enhanced by the notices hung on ropes across the sanctuary “This area is alarmed”. (You can even see this in the picture.) Though our church is open from dawn till dusk 7 days a week, it is at a price, and it seems to me that the subtext is “And God is far too huge and awe inspiring to be approached without protective clothing”. It's all rather reminiscent of the attitude of the Israelites, who nominated Moses for irl meetings with God, in case God were to turn nasty.*

However, change is in the air. Before I arrived here, there was a major parish survey “The Way Ahead”, which sought to discover just what the congregation most value about St M’s, and what they feel is ripe for change. As part of considering suggestions, we have for a 2 week trial re-ordered the side chapel, removing the altar rail and arranging the chairs in a wide semi circle, which seems to invite you in. I’m thrilled. This is where we pray the Office daily, and I have really not enjoyed the feeling of sitting in serried ranks…nor have I enjoyed celebrating midweek Eucharists facing east, with my back to the congregation.
Even so, it felt quite startling to be celebrating with a tiny Friday morn congregation facing me, only a few feet away. As an inexperienced priest, I had to do a sudden rethink about gesture, posture, eye contact. It all felt very intense. Intimate. Almost like being grouped around a dinner table……
Our normal Sunday worship is characterised by the traditional prayer of humble access
"We do not presume
to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But you are the same Lord,
whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear son Jesus Christ
and to drink his blood,
that we may evermore dwell in him
and he in us."

then the re-ordered chapel says something more akin to the alternative

Most merciful Lord,
your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean,
our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit
even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation,
and share your bread with sinners.
So cleanse and feed us
with the precious body and blood of your Son,
that he may live in us and we in him;
and that we, wit the whole company of Christ,
may sit and eat in your kingdom.

I know which way I'd prefer to end up, - but it's not about my agenda, so watch this space!

(Actually, I do have a good story about that alarm system….but that’s a blog for another day)


Songbird said...

My experience of celebrating Communion has been so different from yours. I can't imagine facing away! It's all about the intimacy. This is one of the reasons I've been pressing on having people come forward. The historic Congregational way is to pass the little bits of bread (or wafers in some cases) and little cups of juice. At the pastor's direction, everyone eats at the same time, then later drinks at the same time. I find that method very flat, although growing up Baptist I was used to doing it that way. But the intimacy is such a key to the sense of Christ's presence, at least in my limited experience. While I was on the Gulf Coast, I celebrated Communion in a Methodist church. Their pastor breaks the bread off the loaf for them and hands them a piece. I was astonished at the power of that simple act: the breaking of the loaf/the body for each person (as opposed to the taking of a piece of bread).
Thanks so much for this, Kathryn.

Anonymous said...

I have not commented before - but this post reminded me of a beautiful book that I think every pastor should read. It is called "The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church" by Margaret Visser. She looks at a church in Rome and uses the architechure to tell the story of the church and the faith and the history of the community. It is simply beautiful.

I enjoy your posts and your musings on being new in ordered ministry. I am a Presbyterian minister from Canada - ordained just three and half years ago.

Blessings, Trillium

Somewhat Anglican said...

Just to comment that I love advent in our church because we use the alternative form of the Prayer of Humble Access--and incidentally the only form that our temporary minister will use at all, for some reason, he's always very quick to skip over the trad version. We're a small congregation and the intimacy of those words as we're gathered together gets me every time.