NOTE: This is the third in a series of homilies related to the 6 session study the parish is doing during Lent that is focused on Trinity’s mission and use of liturgical space. After worship we enter discussion using an outline from the book Re-Pitching the Tent by Richard Giles.
Reflecting on Trinity – church, space and mission.
For three Sundays during Lent – and then for an additional three Sundays during the season of Easter – we at Trinity are gathering to talk about our life as a church, and where the spirit may be calling us in our journey as a community of faithful. This is the second in this series of reflections – Bill got us started last week. For each of those Sundays the sermon will lay out some aspect of this process, and then all who are interested will continue the conversation after church. These conversations are taking this building as a particular focus, in part because some of us have long wondered if there are ways in which we are “under-utilizing” this beloved building. We’re also inspired by an Anglican priest named Richard Giles, and in particular by his book Re-Pitching the Tent: Reordering the Church building for Worship and Mission. Giles has spent decades, both in England and in the U.S., thinking about church buildings. He’s interested in what they communicate to the larger community, what they say about our values, our availability and openness. But he’s also interested in how our buildings shape US as a community of believers: how does the layout of this space and the things that fill it impact the way we worship, the way we interact, the way we experience Eucharist and scripture on any given Sunday. For Giles, Worship and Mission are pretty much inextricable. They are profoundly linked. Worship for him is at its heart about experiencing God, and he thinks that’s how we can attract new members – through sharing with them an experience of the divine in community. He sees the Gospel as fundamentally about transformation – “the call to be caught up in the heart of God.”(61) Mission involves manifesting that transformation in the world, in the myriad of ways that we all do, week in and week out, living our faith in the world.
This morning I’m going to ask you to think with me about what this space communicates. I’d like you to spend a few moments looking at the space, and thinking about what you see. It’s hard for us at this point to see with outsiders’ eyes, but you might try that. We’ll all have a chance to share thoughts in discussion after the service, but for now I’ll give you some of my responses….
The church is fairly dark – both because of the dark wood and because of the stained glass windows. The space is long – from the back entrance (which in summer is the main one) to the other end is about 100 feet (I paced it out this morning). It’s modeled on the gothic churches of medieval England, so it takes the form of a cross – and of course one striking thing about that design here is that the whole chancel area (the area behind me) is elevated. In fact, as I attempt to look at this church with fresh eyes, I see two things: in addition to the length of the building, there are lots of parts of the church that are elevated, lifted “above” the pews. There’s the altar itself; there’s the pulpit and the lectern. And then there’s the Ascension window that our eyes are drawn to, above the altar. (I can’t resist passing on Marsden Hartley’s comment about our stained glass, which he called “not very good.”) It’s as though everything in the church is getting us to lift off the earth with that Ascendant Jesus – not to be here, on earth – but to be thinking of a heaven that is “up there.”
The other thing I’m struck by in looking at this building is how full of stuff it is. I think that over time you just start to not pay attention to that, but just look at all the stuff in this church that we basically never use. I just mentioned the pulpit and the lectern (the pulpit currently houses our sound system, and when Andrew Day occasionally attempts to use the pulpit for reading the Old Testament scripture, I’m always worried he’s going to trip on it). There’s the organ, of course – both the console and the pipes themselves (area beneath the pipes has been repurposed for storage) – but then basically this whole area behind me never gets used, unless you count our creche display during Christmas and Epiphany. What other stuff? Many of the pews on any given Sunday; the kneelers (with rare exceptions); increasingly, the prayer books. [cf. clutter – Giles 113]
So if all of this stuff rarely gets used, why is it still here?
And, a related question: What does any of this communicate?
Now lest you think that an iconoclast has taken over the non-pulpit for today, I want to tell you how much I love old church buildings. Iconoclast derives from the greek words for image – ikon – and to break – clan (clast). The iconoclasts were 7th century Christians who worried that people were worshipping icons instead of God (thus breaking the second commandment) and so they destroyed the icons. But there are iconoclasts in almost every era – if you think of our own tradition, most older English churches and cathedrals show evidence of Oliver Cromwell and his crew’s destruction of “romish” – i.e. Catholic – statuary and display. The iconophiles – the people who loved icons – responded that they were not worshiping the icons; they were worshiping God and the icons were windows to the divine. This is still the answer that worshipers who treasure the beauty of the liturgy have to offer: we aren’t worshiping these objects – they are vehicles to an experience of the divine. But in practice it can get pretty sticky, and Episcopalians have a reputation for being hung up on ritual and ornament.
I am not an iconoclast. I think this is a beautiful church, and I think that beautiful sacred spaces – including churches – have incredibly important roles to play in a world that is profoundly materialist. Think for a moment beyond the interior of this church; think of our place in the geography of downtown Lewiston. Trinity stands on one corner of Kennedy Park as a kind of counter-weight to the secular institutions on other sides of the park: City Hall, the library, the newspaper, the police. Together with St. Mary’s nutrition center we are an oasis of faith-inspired nurturing in this neighborhood. You could say that, together, we try to feed the five thousand. I think, too, of the passage from the prophet Isaiah: “And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” (58:12, English Standard Version)
It’s because of this part of Trinity’s mission – to help rebuild ruins, to be a repairer of the breech and restore the streets of our community – that we need to think about what the interior of this building communicates. So back to the darkness, the elevation, and the stuff.
One of Richard Giles’ important insights is that many church communities – and their theologies – have changed radically from what they were a century ago. Our theologies and mission have profoundly changed, but as church communities we still live in buildings that reflect a now-distant past, and send a very different message. Spend a moment at some point looking at the photograph in the back of the dour men who were Trinity’s priests for the first century of its existence. Is that who we are now?
I’m a lifelong Episcopalian. I grew up in St. Paul’s, Beaufort, and when I was a child the priest faced away from the congregation and much of the service was sung. Women could not participate in the service (other than singing in the choir) until I was almost out of high school, when I became one of the first to participate by reading the Epistle. The choir sat up – elevated – above the rest of the congregation, and of course there was a formal procession from the back of the church, led by Acolytes (all boys until those same late high-school years) carrying crosses and banners. It was kind of a regal procession, with the priest at the back. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was on a donkey, in a kind of parody of the imperial processions of Rome. But these formal Episcopal processions didn’t seem like parodies; they seemed like actual imperial processions – and of course for much of my childhood I attended “children’s church” singing, of all things, Onward Christian Soldiers. While my childhood parish ultimately integrated – the black Episcopal church became too small to be viable, so the five parishoners joined St. Paul’s – much of our worship still inscribed a kind of colonialist, and certainly paternalist, mentality. Everything about the organization of space and the conduct of the liturgy itself communicated a distinction between the “priestly order” and the congregation. The congregation was a kind of audience (despite the book of Common Prayer), with the priest in direct touch with the “mysteries” of Eucharist. The clothing, the architectural design, the singing – everything encouraged those sitting in the pews to be spectators rather than participants. Now again, this is not to say that I didn’t have moments in church of profound experience of the Divine. But I’ll have to say that those moments were almost always at the point when I “approched the mysteries” – i.e. when I came up the three stairs to the altar rail and knelt. (Or they were connected to music.) It was a kind of one-on-one experience, me and Jesus through the priest.
I do not think for a moment that this is Trinity’s theology. We are grounded and enlivened – given life – by a very different understanding of what it means to be church. We strive to be deeply inclusive, with our priest as an important leader and companion, but we are a community that lives out the “priesthood of all believers.” This is not a place of hierarchy, but of pilgrimage together. For me, our theology is made visible when we gather for the prayers of the people, when each person, in their own voice, speaks heartaches and thanksgivings. Or our theology is made visible when we gather around the table on Ottawa Sundays, and pass the Eucharist to each other.
Giles’ point, simply put, is that our physical space screams hierarchy – while we stand here in the crossing, embodying a very different church. As though we are the embryo of a very different kind of church, but we’re wrapped in a cocoon of old forms that keeps us from spreading our wings. We literally stumble over the left-over furniture of earlier eras.
Old churches are beautiful. But are they churches, or are they museums? When people out there in the world who are searching for a religious home – or maybe even just searching for something they can’t name – enter Trinity’s doors, what do they find? What do they see?
How could we make it easier for them to see beyond the shell of this maybe beautiful but dark and encrusted past – to the living heart of who we are as pilgrims, opening our doors in courage and compassion?
Our discussions about space and mission may take us toward event planning and collaboration with other groups – to talk about opening the space of Trinity to community discussion, or more music, or arts that reflect on the spiritual crises and epiphanies of our world. But Giles also reminds us that these spaces we have inherited shape our capacity for experiencing the divine, the transformation of self and spirit. I look forward to continuing this discussion together.