What happens to Christian worship when sacred architecture is no longer deemed revelant?
Introduction: A Most Bemusing Church Tour
Not long ago I was offered a personal tour of an Episcopal church by a pastor seeking advice on how to update its interior. The Depression-era structure was attractive in a quasi-high church, Episcopalian sort of way. By this I mean it had the order and orderliness one traditionally associates with places of worship maintained by communities within the Anglican Communion and a decorative treatment, too, as high-collared as any portion of the Book of Common Prayer. Its well-appointed nave, which seemed always to carry the scent of the beeswax candles squared with Murphy’s Oil Soap, was a setting in which any Christian given to a more formal style of worship would feel at home. An abundance of natural light streamed through its Gothic-styled windows during most hours of the day, and it retained a measure of the perennial “stillness” shared by sacred places, even when occupied by the respectable numbers of worshipers drawn there on Sunday mornings.
Its chancel, though, was a different story. Repeated changes to this space had diminished its original beauty and spawned confusion among the church’s leadership over how exactly it was supposed to be used. At some point, its handsome pulpit of carved wood had been abandoned as the place from which the Gospel was proclaimed and replaced by a common lectern my guide described as “less stuffy-looking.” Likewise, its altar had been separated from the reredos it previously abutted at the room’s interior-most wall, moved to a spot less removed from the nave and spun around to assume a versus populum orientation. One unexpected blessing of the latter, the priest eagerly pointed out, was that the object could now serve as both stage and storage bin for the “puppet ministry” he performed for the benefit of children as a regular feature of weekend services. Lifting the altar’s heavy paraments from the side normally visible only to himself and an acolyte or two, in fact, he revealed a jumble of hand puppets, props and miniature stage settings hidden within the altar’s hollow body. “I crouch down here, where the kids can’t see me, and let the figures dance across the Lord’s Table,” he explained before pointing out with equal enthusiasm the enormous “WWJD” banner now hanging from the chancel’s dominant wall where there had once been a cross. Other parts of the room had been dispatched to darker corners of the building, as well, somehow stripped of their sanctity and waiting to be carried to the curb.
“The Church has left the building!” Drawn from a book of the same name, whose humorous title-reference to Elvis Presley now emblazons everything from travel mugs to kitchen aprons, this ideology holds that the Church has outgrown brick-and-mortar accommodations altogether — “de-pitched” its tent, so to speak — by gaining telecommunications savvy enough to use social media exclusively to conduct its ministry.
At the chancel banner’s prompting I secretly asked myself, “What would Jesus do, should he discover this place of prayer erected in his name now reduced to a kind of “religious theater”? ” Theatricality was precisely what the pastor was after, I began to realize, along with enough “relevance,” as he put it, to prevent even the youngest members of his flock from fidgeting in their pews when his congregation worshiped. The “relevant” church, he intimated, was one whose message was immediately intelligible to its users. It makes few demands of them in the way of historical knowledge, appreciation for the grammar of ritual, or the demands of high art, but relies instead on symbols and slogans culled from popular culture. It is not something to be “interpreted,” in fact, like some intellectual riddle or work of poetry but exists mostly to keep the Body of Christ out of the weather. In this, it’s as functional a product of the builder’s art as any social hall, gymnasium or kitchen a Christian community might erect for itself, and should it fulfill its members’ appetites for light entertainment, so much the better. Solemnity and the elements of awe and mystery are not what people want to see in a place of worship today, the pastor assured me, but instead something upbeat, cheery, and as user-friendly as an electronic carwash.
Liturgy and Stage Drama: Their Similarities and Differences
To be sure, Christian worship may be compared to theatre in the sense that it is normally staged in a way that renders its outward features beautiful to behold. Like a dramatic performance, too, liturgy may employ special vesture, postures, and narrative formulas spelled out in the script-like canonical books guiding the actions of those ministers charged with its “enactment.” The purpose of Christian worship, however, no matter how dependent on external spectacle, has never been merely to entertain — a point reinforced by the fact that even the earliest structures of any consequence built to its specifications by those churches dotting the cities of Imperial Rome bore little resemblance to the theaters and music halls with which they rubbed shoulders. Likewise, the Mass of the Middle Ages, no matter how resplendent, was never something to be confused with the so-called “mystery plays” and other religious dramas staged in the courtyards and streets surrounding people’s churches. The dramatic arts offered their medieval audience moving re-presentations of the ministry, trial, and death of Jesus Christ in the same way that any stage play of the time might embody an artful retelling of a story drawn from myth or history. In stark contrast, the rite of sacrifice offed in perpetuity at the Christian altar was believed to offer worshipers a way of entering into the actuality of Christ’s death in the here-and-now of their own experience. Even during the mid-16th to 18th centuries, when the prescriptions for worship in the Roman Church formulated by the Council of Trent (1545-63) and a turn in popular tastes across Europe toward “the baroque” lent the style and setting of the Roman Mass an element of the operatic, believers are not recorded as having confused the heaven-directed prayer of the Church rising from its sanctuaries from the often bawdy, audience-directed attractions of the dramatic stage.
Those Northern reformers of the 16th century seeking nevertheless to rid the setting of Christian prayer of “popish” excess turned in part to the Jewish synagogue for inspiration as they converted existing structures into hallenkirchen — literally, “hall-churches” — or erected entirely new ones supportive of preaching and the unity of the assembly. These were by no means unattractive places or intended to be mistaken for utilitarian buildings, however, as is verified, for example, by the handsome features preserved in a church like the Thomaskirche in Strasbourg, France, originally a Catholic edifice adapted for Lutheran use in 1524 (fig. 1). Neither were they particularly original or “Protestant” solutions to the challenge of providing favorable accommodations for sermonizing on the Word, which had been addressed handily enough before the Reformation (1517-c.1650) by buildings under episcopal authority or maintained by such religious orders as the Dominicans and Franciscans. Single-nave churches with unbroken ceiling planes and free of load-bearing columns,1 like the 7th-century Santi Apostoli in Venice, Italy, prefigure by a considerable stretch the so-called “preaching halls” that found favor in the 16th century with Lutheran, Calvinist and even Anglican congregations. The wide intercolumniation2 and acoustical refinements found in buildings like the Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, whose canopied pulpit sits well within the space reserved for lay worshipers, similarly predate their appearance in Protestant sites and later appear as standard features in Catholic churches as separated by history and geography as the 17th-century parish church of Saint-Jacques du Haut Pas in Paris (fig. 2), and the Jesuitenkirche in Heidelberg, Germany, erected a century later.
Fig. 2 Saint-Jacques du Haut Pas, nave Paris, France (17th c.)
In the centuries since the tumult of the Reformation, of course, both Catholic and Protestant strains of Western Christianity have embraced models of sacred architecture more unified/communal in plan than compartmentalized/hieratic, the international Liturgical Movement so influential over the last two centuries having led to much agreement concerning the way to best house the ecclesial Body of Christ assembled for prayer. Thus, Roman Catholics in the United States have come to feel largely at home in the “centralized” or “fan-shaped” church buildings once associated primarily with mainline Protestantism, just as Methodist or Presbyterian worshipers now have had little problem finding their bearings in many Catholic churches rising from similar floorplans built after the 1930s but more frequently since Vatican II. Moreover, all of them would likely agree that the very act of providing a literal dwelling-place for the Church remains a praiseworthy thing, even should this mean continually “re-pitching the tent,” as Anglican priest and author Rev. Richard Giles has put it,3 in response to the changing needs of each Christian age. To rest there routinely is even better (Psalm 84) and not to be confused with worshiping at the twin altars of electronic media and popular culture from which so many in this country now seem to draw their salvation.
De-Pitching the Tent of God
In the last two decades, as part of the proliferation of evangelical and independent churches domestically, whose members find little of worth in the liturgical-artistic traditions of mainline Christianity, two theories have gained popularity that call into question the very nature of liturgy and its architectural setting as we’ve known them. One, of course, is that the Christian place of assembly need not be unique among building types nor especially fancy looking, as followers of Jesus, the humble carpenter from Nazareth, should have matured long ago beyond their attachment to temple worship. Neither need involve music, words, and actions any fancier than those modern Christians confront in their workaday lives. What such thinking calls into question, of course, is the Church’s long-standing habit of declaring certain places, times, and actions worthy of sacred service and others not. On the surface, it appears to enjoy popularity largely among younger believers, say, twenty to forty-years-of-age, with a deep-seated aversion to history and to the hard work of theological/aesthetic discernment that undergirds the Church’s pronouncements on the sanctity or profanity of a thing. In fact, rather than extending from a sturdy and well-reasoned “Incarnationalism,” which might argue that the commonness of Jesus’ earthly form renders all such distinctions moot, the ideology seems to flow from the breezy, “I’m OK, You’re OK” egalitarianism of the day, which can make even Christians reluctant to render qualitative distinctions of any kind between one thing and another. A material consequence of this has been the proliferation of what might be called “arena churches,” Christianized counterparts to the civic arenas used as venues of popular entertainment, whose interior forms and décor are considerably less refined than even those exhibited by the auditorium-like megachurches to emerge in the 1980s and 90s. Absent from these facilities, in fact, is anything resembling a “chancel” or “sanctuary” with permanent fixtures for ritual word or meal. Instead, action typically flows from elevated platforms known simply as “stages” equipped with large-scale projection screens, theatrical lighting and an array of musical instruments required of heavily-amplified groups of “praise leaders.”
The coronavirus pandemic to have overtaken this country in 2020, which emptied Christian churches across the board of their congregations, only hastened the emergence of a Christianity untethered from place and any Sabbath-day behavior incapable of electronic simulation.
The second and more troubling line of thinking to gain currency in some Christian circles recently is that sloganized through the phrase, “The Church has left the building!” Drawn from a book of the same name, whose humorous title-reference to Elvis Presley now emblazons everything from travel mugs to kitchen aprons, this ideology holds that the Church has outgrown brick-and-mortar accommodations altogether — “de-pitched” its tent, so to speak — by gaining telecommunications savvy enough to use social media exclusively to conduct its ministry. According to this view, the pervasive hum of the “Electronic Church” is what awaits Christians as they wade further into the 21st century, which will emit to the faithful a Hi-Def semblance of fellowship accessible from the privacy of their home computers. No provision is made in this picture, it should be said, for members of those denominational bodies still bound not only to sacramental rites best served by physical settings of beauty and permanence but to belief that church buildings themselves can serve as “sacraments” to a people whose encounters with God pertain to the realm of “heavenly realities.”4
Christianity’s struggle to devise a proper setting for worship has been a perennial one. Never has the breadth of forms exhibited by places of Christian prayer been greater than today, however, as the definition of what constitutes that act has tremendously broadened. Many of the “revolutionary” changes in liturgical-architectural practice to result in reforms and revivals witnessed within mainstream denominations during the 1960s and 70s, in fact, strike one as quaint today and relatively innocuous, compared to the call arising from independent churches with brand-names like “Elevate,” “Potential,” “Forward” or “Life” for a type of fellowship less dependent on buildings than on bandwidth.
The coronavirus pandemic to have overtaken this country in 2020, which emptied Christian churches across the board of their congregations, only hastened the emergence of a Christianity untethered from place and any Sabbath-day behavior incapable of electronic simulation. It remains to be seen, in fact, whether irregular churchgoers of any stripe, having been instructed in the name of public health to refrain from participating in Sunday services, will return to the houses of worship with which they officially identify as the crisis abates or exit the Christian fold forever. Biological pandemics aside, one assumes that the divide within the Western Church between that segment committed to the alliance of sacrament and art and that with little wit for either will only widen. In some ways, this is a natural consequence of the fracturing of the Body of Christ that began with the Reformation and has accelerated over the last five centuries to the point of producing in our time a dizzying array of autonomous congregations, each maintaining its own approach to public piety. If, in fact, the state of worship and church-building in the United States as I have presented here is any indication, one might conclude that the bifurcation of Western Christianity generally into Catholic and Protestant camps may now be giving way to trifurcation on the order of modern Judaism, its newest camp interested in preserving little of the liturgical-aesthetic deposit of either of its predecessors.
A utilitarian view of worship’s architectural dimension characterizes this “Third-Camp” Christianity, which is not to be confused with the attitude of exquisitely understated craftsmanship embodied in the no-frills buildings erected, say, since the 17th century by the Shakers, Society of Friends (Quakers), or Mennonite communities of New England. The snow-white, Congregationalist church set with an equally frosty, New England landscape that graces countless Christmas cards will likely never be replaced as an icon of sacred architecture nationally by the average Third Camp building, which satisfies an itch for the prosaic of the of 21st century “seekers” but elevates their sensibilities no further. Pediments cribbed from Greek and Roman temple facades or floorplans perfected over centuries are as negotiable as pulpits or puppets to the latest breed of Christian, whose impulse is to reinvent the liturgical-architectural wheel for lack of familiarity with its lineage. Negotiable for some modern Christians, too, apparently, is the physical house of God and God’s people that has literally stood for centuries as a concrete token of the Church’s presence in the world. In their rush to “leave the building” for some Digital Age, cyber-chimera of sacred space, however, these latter-day followers of Jesus Christ may well be cheating themselves.
1 Flat ceilings in churches, or those conceived more or less as a single, unbroken planes, were found to prevent sound from dissipating into the reaches above worshipers’ heads. Those whose naves were relatively free of load-bearing members of any kind succeeded in not obscuring the assembly’s view of itself as well as chancel or other area of clerical action.
2 “Intercolumniation” refers to the width of space between two adjacent columns, piers or other weight-bearing members. The wider the intercolumniation within a nave space, Christian church-builders long ago determined, the more capable worshipers are by means of their peripheral vision to take in large portions of their own assembly.
3 See Giles, Richard. Re-Pitching the Tent. Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1996. In this publication and its companion text, Creating Uncommon Worship (Liturgical Press, 2004), Giles characterizes the followers of Jesus as a nomadic people, Abrahamic in origin, routinely picking up and moving as necessary the tents in which we dwell in God’s presence (Genesis 13:18).
4 Guidelines for the arrangement and ornamentation of places for liturgy today within the Roman Catholic Church, for example, note that they should be “truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities” (107). See Chapter V of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2010), https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/general-instruction-of-the-roman-missal/girm-chapter-5.
All photos: Michael E. DeSanctis