Ecclesiology and Church Design: A Balancing Act in Times of Transition
RICHARD S. VOSKO
Not long ago an article appeared in the New York Times entitled, “A Return to Architectural Traditions.”1 It was a mix of interviews and insights based on observations more than statistics, but it raised a provocative question: Does the search for the sacred in architectural forms have anything to do with the contemporary identity or prevailing mission of a particular congregation?
The very next day a headline in the Sunday edition of the same paper read, “Does Simple Music Form Simple Faith?”2 The tone of this article, less argumentative and more inquisitive than the one on architectural traditions, bemoaned the lack of composers writing great music for worship. After examining the pros and cons of the decline of classical music in churches, the author concluded, “Ritual driven, beauty ridden Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans may not be doing as well right now as they would like, but history keeps turning in circles, and they may have their day again.”
Music, art, architecture, sermons, and ceremony have been the long-standing staples of worship practices in many religions. They are perceived as avenues to the experience of the sacred. Some allege that the modernization of church rituals and the subsequent alterations to church design (and music) have contributed to a deconstruction of the sacred. Whether or not this claim can be substantiated, it is apparent that something unsettling is going on in the spiritual sector of this nation. What Christian denominations are experiencing is similar to what Vaclev Havel said about the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution in the 1980s. “Something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, is rising from the rubble.”3
The restlessness in churches is related to events that have simmered for a few generations. Liturgical reformations, for example, do not happen overnight, or without consideration of long-term advancements in the associated fields of history, archeology, biblical studies, theology, and sociology. Further, current social movements and awareness of human needs continue to inform liturgical praxis. Some examples are people marginalized by gender, ethnicity, race, and economic class. Churches without a history of formal and repetitive worship patterns are also affected by the same research in different ways.
Ironically, the liturgical scholars and practitioners instrumental in liturgical reform are less interested in modernization and more fascinated by a return to ancient liturgical formularies dating back to the early centuries of Christianity. In the Roman Catholic Church the ordinary liturgical rites today have more in common with paleo-Christian practices than they do with those of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately the meaning of tradition is often limited to what one remembers, or the sanctification of a particular period of time. This is why it is important to note when the word “tradition” might be used euphemistically for the word “habit.” 4
I have been asked to focus my paper on those factors often overlooked in the programmatic phases of any church building project: What contributes to the definition, organization, and worship practice of a congregation? And how might that affect church design?
In the first part I will explore briefly the quest for the sacred, and the role of religious architecture in defining what sacred means. Then I will examine some of the cultural shifts that have affected religious behavior in the United States, and how they affect religious identity. From there I will suggest how a modification in the identity or ecclesiology of a denomination can influence everything that community does, including worship. In a last section I will consider how the design of churches is affected by evolving ecclesiologies.
First, some parameters: (1) I acknowledge that Islam, Judaism, and other religious traditions have much to say about the search for the sacred and architecture as well, but my remarks are, in general, about Christian churches in the United States (and what a variety there is today!). (2) The religious tradition deeply embedded in my bones, Roman Catholicism, will undoubtedly nuance some of my remarks. (3) This paper is a reflection on issues that have surfaced for me as a liturgical design consultant in Jewish and Christian traditions during the past thirty-seven years.
The Quest for the Sacred
The two articles mentioned earlier suggest to me that the quest for the sacred in the United States these days could be prompted by what might be called a collective ennuia weariness or dissatisfaction with the hectic pace of life, unfulfilling relationships and jobs, cheap and tawdry material goods, and inequities in the economic, educational, and health care systems. The larger question is whether or not organized religion can come to the rescue. This can be troubling because the word “sacred” is most often associated with God, and the worship of God, as well as with houses of prayer.
The quest for the sacred is constantly affected by advancements in the world. Space explorations have changed our view of our place in creation, and perhaps what sacred means. Whenever I gaze at photos released by NASA I cannot avoid thinking about ancient peoples who lived long before there was a definition of the sacred. What were those folks thinking, standing there in the Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti Plain, staring into the skies at a blazing ball of fire by day and twinkling lights by night? The separation must have been intriguing and frightful.
Human curiosity about unknown powers led to a variety of explanatory narratives. These myths, stories that are true to the believer even though they cannot be proven, created a relationship between humans and whatever was out there. These narratives were often enacted in rituals, formal ceremonies comprised of chants, prayers, and sacrificial actions that took place in spaces set aside for encountering a Holy One called by different names. Tribal cultures came to depend on these rituals and complex symbol systems for meaning and survival. Great traditions were borne out of them. Soon the notion of a single almighty and invincible God would enter the picture, as described in the Hebrew Bible and other sacred texts.
For a long time the Hebrews worshiped God in natural places along rivers and on mountains. God was encountered in deserts and bushes. The Temple was not considered the dwelling place of God, but a symbol of the presence of God on earth. The members of the community (Qahal) were to make space–the earth–sacred by their ingathering and their ritual actions, which, in turn, made them active partners in the work of God. The word of God (Torah) was kept safe in the Temple as a reminder of this collegial relationship. God was no longer out there but somewhere in here, wherever the community was. This understanding of sacred space and the dwelling place of Yahweh revealed the differences between an immanent and a transcendent God. In the meantime other civilizations built grand temples and ceremonial centers to house sacrificial rituals to appease their gods and goddesses.
The close encounter with divinity is found in the Christian narrative as well. The birth, life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Redeemer-God, Jesus Christ, comprise the myth. Belief in this story provides another strategy for partnering with God by fulfilling certain missions here on earth. With the incarnation the notions of sacred and secular became undifferentiated. Further, the creature, it was believed, could now help the Creator shape the experience of what was considered sacred. Working for justice, for example, would acknowledge that all life is sacred.
The ecclesiology of the early Christians was reflected in part in their places of worship. When Jesus announced that he would destroy the Temple it was only to expand the experience of God on earth beyond the Temple. The early Christians were told they were the living stones and temples of the spirit.5 That early writers would redefine sacred space is no surprise then. Minucius Felix and Origen wrote that they required no temples for worship, and that the heart was the altar. Tertullian called the church the house of God, meaning the place where the body of Christ gathered. John Chrysostom wrote that it is not the church building that makes the people holy, but the people who make the building holy. How religious peoples understand themselves in relation to God and one another affects their sense of the sacred.
The earlier practice of gathering for Eucharist in Christian house churches changed as the definition of the church evolved. No longer was the church an insignificant band of enthusiastic fans following a miracle worker. Now Christian leaders were becoming key players in affairs of state. Forms and places of worship would soon take on imperial characteristics.
Clericalization altered the identity of the church and how it worshiped. The clergy were closely associated with the government, and became powerful. They were thought to be the sole dispensers of what were considered sacred commodities. Eventually a place of worship took on allegorical significance and was thought to be like heaven, a new Jerusalem. Boundaries were established to separate the laity from the clergy, who occupied what was considered the holiest place in the building. Over time what had been a public liturgy became privatized.
Although the architectural style of churches changed, the understanding of the church was not drastically challenged until the Reformation. Coupled with discoveries, inventions, and advancements in the philosophical, ecclesial, political, scientific, and artistic areas of life, the Christian religion slowly took on new meaning. It also began to lose its tight grip on people. The past five hundred years have been a period when secularization has gradually changed people’s attitudes about religion and God. Still until today all branches of the Christian church have continued to search for ways to be effective purveyors of what is sacred in society. The competition is keen, and new challenges must be addressed. To say that a sense of the sacred is found solely in architecture, music, art, or even worship is no longer enough.
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