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church architecture 1

THE COMMUNITY is often a forgotten symbol in discussions about church buildings. The community is not an audience. The community is not passive.

Hence, the way the community gathers is extremely important.

The entrance procession of the community begins from our home, with cars and walking, and other means.
How are we welcomed into the building?
Does it speak of inclusiveness of all ages, all abilities, openness,…?
Is there a gathering space?

How is the community seating arranged? Facing each other; in a circle; in semi-circles; on uncomfortable pews; on chairs that speak of audience, that speak of a lounge, of a short stay for a coffee,…

Is the arrangement permanent? Or varying (say quite different in Lent to the Easter Season)? Is the space used mainly or solely for worship?

Does the community stand together (the primary Christian posture for prayer), for example, without chairs around an altar? What of those who find it difficult to stand a long time?

Is the choir or music group seen to be part of the assembly or is the assembly seen as an audience for the choir? How is this expressed architecturally?

For centuries the presider came from the congregation, through the congregation and faced in the same direction as the congregation as the community prayed together. That might be expressed differently now. From where does the presider preside? Within the community or separated from the community? Does leadership for parts of the service (reading, leading the prayers) arise from within the community or reinforce an audience model?

How is all this expressed architecturally?

This post is, hopefully, useful for a number of contexts. It is particularly offered as one in a series for reflection as we begin planning the building of a number of church buildings after the closing of dozens of church buildings because of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Can you add some ideas, responses, even further questions to help people’s reflections…

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6 thoughts on “church architecture 1”

  1. Hermano David | Brother Dah•veed

    I have not had the opportunity to visit and experience it live, but through the viewing of numerous videos, the actual liturgy at St Gregory’s makes me uncomfortable. It is strange and a bit contrived to me. Strange vestments, strange paraments, umbrellas? all for what purpose? And why put out a video of photos of their worship with a soundtrack of an English boy choir? Why not own up to their own strange music?

    Not to mention that this is one of the Episcopal congregations that has instigated communing of the unbaptized.

    1. Thanks, Brother David. At a time when it added significant cost to flights from New Zealand, I went to St Gregory’s specially as part of my study leave. I have a very broad experience of worship (from Mount Athos, to the Sahara, to Ethiopians with drums and dancing, to China, etc) so I am not a good person to find things strange. Certainly it did not feel contrived to me. The reason I put this particular slideshow on this post was to help people to think beyond the couple of ways that spring to most people’s minds when they think about arranging church space.

      When you come into St Gregory’s you enter an open octagon with the altar in the middle of it – then you go through to where the Ministry of the Word is celebrated with the congregation facing each other, seated. I have also spent time with the Camaldolese hermits who, at Big Sur, used some of St Gregory’s ideas and also stand around the altar after a Ministry of the Word sitting in choir facing each other.

  2. Hi, Bosco. I’ve been meditating on your post for some the past few days, searching for some sort of meaningful contribution I could make to the discussion beyond listing my own prejudices 🙂

    Alas, I got nuthin’. But I wonder if you’ve seen, at the excellent Vitrearum’s Church Art blog, these photos of the chancel in the parish church of Hailes, Gloucestershire (http://medieval-church-art.blogspot.com/2008/12/hailes-gloucestershire-post-reformation.html). Before it was vandalized by twentieth-century liturgical reformers, it retained a post-Reformation chancel arrangement with the communion table running east-west, surrounded by benches. This arrangement reflected the bipartite structure of the BCP Holy Communion: a liturgy of the Word and of intercession, ending with the prayer for the Church Militant; and a liturgy of the sacrament, involving only those members of the congregation who had the day before signalled their intention to communicate and who now “drew near” (at Hailes, they passed through the chancel screen, entering the “holy of holies”, if you like).

    There’s something “just right” about this little church, whose architecture invites a physical movement of the worshippers that nicely mirrors Cranmer’s vision of a spiritual motion whereby the heart is lifted into heaven (cf. Chrysostom on the “eagles” of Matt. 24:28). And by the by, this has resonances with the set-up at St. Gregory’s, with a physical shift between the “two tables” of Word and Sacrament.

    Nevertheless, having spend my whole academic career studying the Divine Office, I’m just not thrilled about an architectural arrangement that makes the Liturgy of the Word at the Eucharist seem as if it were really part of the Office (“antiphonal” seating, etc.). This is one of the things I wish could be changed at our cathedral, where at the beginning of the Eucharist the clergy, including the president, take their assigned seats in the choir where they would sit for Evensong: the president always takes the seat closest to the nave — where there’s a fixed microphone — and stands and sits facing (liturgical) north. They even imitate the Mattins/Evensong custom of turning to the (liturgical) east to recite the Creed (the only time this position is adopted during the whole Eucharist). There’s something vaguely ridiculous about a priest vested in chasuble spreading hands in the orans position to begin the collect while standing in a choir stall looking down at a too-low reading desk.

    And for what it’s worth on the larger question, I’m an ad orientem kind of guy for all sorts of reasons. But I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the beauty and good sense of this immemorial custom without the liturgical renewal/upheaval at whose tail-end I attained the age of discretion. Sometimes a revolution really does mean turning 360 degrees and finishing back where you started, only with a radically new perspective that makes the same old things look very different.

    My operating prejudice these days is for a traditional basilican plan, ad orientem, with very little seating — “the weak to the walls!”. Apart from giving us a sense of continuity with Christians who have gone before us, I rather think that this traditional model would be effective in eliminating any sense of “spectatorship” without unduly sacrificing the sense of awe that ought to attend the “most holy mysteries”, and also the sense that we are inviting the presence of the God who, while present to us interior intimo nostro and manifested in each of us as members of Christ’s body, is nevertheless radically beyond us and comes to us in the liturgy as a gift from outside ourselves. And incidentally, removing the seating would also make the baptismal font, in its traditional place at the “west” end of the building, more sensibly a part of the “matrix” of the worship space. At our cathedral, as in most other parishes, the font has been moved to the front of the nave for ease of “viewing”. Grrrr….

    But then again, at my seminary we celebrate the community eucharist seated round the central altar, the president’s chair to the east, the lectern to the west. And that eucharist is as close to heaven as I come these days…

    1. Thank you, Jesse, for your very helpful thoughts – and particularly for the link to the photos (people: please check Jesse’s link out). I regularly attempt to explain how the BCP rubric was meant to work – as opposed to what is/was more usually done to abide by it: standing at the North (short) end of a sideboard-like altar table by the East wall (the ping-pong position, or “the kangaroo and the emu”) or even standing, facing the congregation across the altar table, but a couple of steps North of centre, piously leaving a gap in the middle “for Jesus”. It is good to now have these photos to illustrate. Of interest, of course, is that the St Gregory’s discussed in the previous comment make a similar architectural division between Word and Sacrament. The Cistercian monastery of which I am an associate has done a reverse journey to your photo illustration – East-facing presiding; West-facing presiding; now with the East mostly cleared and a small, square altar between the monks’ choir stalls. The congregation comes up and joins the monks standing around the altar for the Liturgy of the Sacrament. Blessings.

  3. I’m glad those photos will be of use, Bosco. The BCP certainly gives us a mixed inheritance, seeing that it retained the reference to the “north side” even after the tables had been ordered back to their “altarwise” position. I gather that John Keble always celebrated the Holy Communion in the “ping-pong position”, wearing surplice and scarf (the High Church theology of the Tractarians didn’t automatically imply the “Ritualist” ceremonial of a later generation). Lancelot Andrewes, in his annotated copy of the BCP, noted that when the bishop and chaplain (or priest and curate) entered the sanctuary after the Litany to begin the Holy Communion, they would stand facing each other at either end of the altar, like the two cherubim above the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. (But he seems to have had in mind that the Prayer of Consecration would be said in the midst of the altar, versus apsidem.)

    Just recently I was re-reading St. Augustine’s Sermones 227 and 272 (PL 38, 1099-1101; 1246-8), which are frequently quoted to illustrate Augustine’s Eucharistic doctrine (“Estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis”). When we in the West have been arguing for five hundred years about whether and how the bread of the Eucharist “is” the body of Christ, I couldn’t help being surprised afresh by his exposition of the Eucharist in the first instance as the mysterium unitatis: “Understand it and rejoice: unity, truth, piety, love!”

    In Sermo 227 he interprets three main parts of the ceremony. First, the bread itself, which, composed of many grains that have been ground, moistened, and baked into one loaf, represents the neophytes who, having gone through the great fast and exorcism and having been baptized and chrismated with the “fire” of the Holy Spirit, are now one body. Second, the sursum corda directs the “members” of Christ’s body to their “head”, who is in heaven. Finally, in the kiss of peace, just as the lips of Christians press together, so their hearts do not draw back from each other.

    I detail all this because I wonder if this may shed some light on the architecture question we’re discussing. Augustine’s cathedral church in Hippo has been unearthed and studied by archaeologists (picture here: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/algeria/images/basilica-hippo2.jpg; discussion pages starting here: http://www.augnet.org/default.asp?ipageid=1083). It is the classic Mediterranean basilica: a long nave with aisles on either side (one for men, one for women), and at the east end the rounded apse with its mosaics, where Augustine would have presided from his cathedra surrounded by his clergy. And when he went to the altar, he would have turned, with all the people to face the east, as he says in that famous passage in his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount:

    When we stand at prayer, we turn to the east, whence the heaven rises: not as if God also were dwelling there, in the sense that He who is everywhere present, not as occupying space, but by the power of His majesty, had forsaken the other parts of the world; but in order that the mind may be admonished to turn to a more excellent nature, i.e. to God, when its own body, which is earthly, is turned to a more excellent body, i.e. to a heavenly one. (II.5, §18, trans NPNF 1st ser., VI, 39-40.)

    He understood the position of prayer, so admirably suited to this architectural space, as an aid to achieving the attitude of humility. And that’s a good attitude to have in the presence of the awe-inspiring eschatological adventus of Christ in the Eucharist! But in these two sermons on the Eucharist, Augustine hardly mentions this at all. That the bread and wine “are” the body and blood of Christ is, of course, taken as read. But Augustine is at pains to emphasize the personal dimension of the people themselves as the main matter of this awesome ritual: “If you are the body and members of Christ, your mystery is placed on the Lord’s table: you receive your own mystery. […] Be the body of Christ, so that your Amen may be true.” To “be” the body of Christ, for Augustine, is to be of one heart and mind, to live in the “bond of peace”, and to have our hearts lifted up to heaven.

    So, where the architecture and ceremonial communicate one aspect or meaning of the Eucharist, the people must be taught to understand its other aspects and meanings. If our worship spaces are to be designed to emphasize community and the direct involvement of each person with the one, unified body of Christ (which the bread and wine on the altar represent), then the “awe-full” aspect, the daily “sacrifice of the Church” taken for granted by Augustine (City of God X.20), must be more deliberately expressed in words, gestures, and teaching. Otherwise, we’ll lose the note of humility, of turning our hearts towards the God who is greater than human beings, that Augustine commended for prayer.

    Or at least that’s what I’m thinking today. When we change our worship spaces the better to communicate some aspect of our worship, we must take care not to talk too much about it, lest that become the only thing our worship expresses.

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