Our worship space – why it is like it is

This article is based upon a sermon by John N. Wall.

The St. Mark’s worship space is unusual for an Episcopalian church.  Understanding the reasoning that underlies and informs the contemporary architecture of our St. Mark’s worship space is an important part of understanding who we are as a people. Our worship space is a part of who we are.

Let us start with two basic principles of understanding our own particular form of Christianity. I’d like to summarize those two points for you.

Our Corporate relationship with God

The first of these principles is that in our tradition, what really matters most is our corporate relationship to God, more than our individual relationship to God. Our corporate relationship comes first, and our individual relationship with God, while important, is really secondary to, and at its best supportive of, our corporate relationship with God.

Mostly, people think about religion in very individualistic terms, about how, I, personally, get right with God. Protestantism, especially Southern Protestantism, defines religion in terms of an individual’s relationship with God. You must be born again, you, as an individual, must have your own unique conversion experience. People go to church to complement and support their own individual religious lives, which come first in their thinking and their experience.

We turn this around. To use language we will repeat later, we ask that God regard not our sins, but the faith of our Church. We emphasize our corporate life, the things we do together, and our guide book to our life as Christians is the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer.

We are a pragmatic church

That’s the first basic principle, and the second is closely related to it — that we are a pragmatic church, that we know who we are as God’s people not so much by what we believe in our minds – not by a distinctive theological understanding of the Christian faith – or by some private experience that marks a transition between our lives outside the Church and inside the Church. We know who we are by the things we do, especially the things we do together.

The Roman Catholics have their magisterium, their rich and elaborate articulation of dogma and doctrine that has been built up over the centuries, and they have boards and committees that maintain that dogma, and you are a Catholic if you assent to that dogma. Assent to that body of belief marks the dividing line between being outside and inside the faith.

Evangelicals have that experience of being born again that we mentioned earlier — and if you’ve had it you are in, and if you haven’t had it you aren’t one. That experience is what marks the dividing line between being outside and inside the faith.

But we have what we do, together – remember, its about what we do together as a community, that is first and foremost, and our individual Christian lives are about learning how to be more deeply engaged in the actions of the community, not the other way around.

So we use the Book of Common Prayer as our guide, to enable us to do the things together. At the heart of what we do is of course what we do here each week, gathering as a community in this place, to hear the lessons read and interpreted, and to join in prayer and song, to hold up the world in all its brokenness to God whom we believe is acting in our world to heal its brokenness and to reconcile us and all creation to God, and of course to gather at this table to break the bread and share the cup, thus to remember whose people we are, and whose risen body we are in the world.

So it’s the corporate acts that we do together in community that tell us who we are. It is your support for our corporate life together through your sharing of your time, talent, and treasure that makes you an Episcopalian.

So in light of our understanding of community, let’s remember this verse from the Epistle to the Hebrews, words that are about Christian community:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

For, as God’s people, we say with confidence, “The Lord is our helper; we will not be afraid.”

Justin Welby, who is now the Archbishop of Canterbury, says, “Christian community is God’s sign that love is possible in a world where people so often either ignore, or are suspicious of, or fight each other.”

Our worship space

I want to think with you a bit about community – about community in general, and about this community of St. Mark’s in particular.

And about the building in which we gather, for this building, designed by Edward Sövik, is a gift to us today of the community of St Mark’s of 30 years ago, and a gift specifically to do with community, and of the kind of community that we are as the community of St Mark’s.

Charles Fulton, the head of the Episcopal Church’s Building Fund said of this building 25 years ago that it was the finest example of contemporary church architecture that he had seen. He said what made it exceptional was the way that it embodied and expressed the belief that the Christian community is the deepest and richest and most truthful symbol of our faith.

The building, this building, is the expression of, and was built to enable the life of a community that is intentional about putting our corporate life first, a community of people who value and practice mutual love, who show hospitality, who are not afraid.

I hope, if we think about that a bit, we can understand more fully why this building is a gift, and, I hope, get more deeply into what it means to put community first in our religious life. I hope this will be helpful in this time of parish transition.

Let’s try to get at that by recognizing that this building looks, inside, very different from most churches we find ourselves visiting.

Most churches are long rectangular boxes, with seating at one end, the west end, and very elaborate furniture at the other end, the east end. These buildings got designed when the theology of the day was that the world was divided, like these buildings, into two parts.

In the case of the world, there was the material, or the secular world, understood to be sinful, and the people who lived in that world sat in the western part of the building, the end of the building with the seats. That’s where all us fallen, sinful people sat.

Then there was the sacred, or the spiritual world, and the people who were in touch with that world worked in the east end of the building, the end with all the elaborate furniture. And in the course of worship, we sinful folks sat and watched the action, which was done by the sacred people up in the eastern end, the sacred end of the building.

The main action during worship in those buildings was of course the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Mass, which was done by the priest, who stood in the east, and faced to the east, with his back to the sinners in the west end.

In that religious world, if I may borrow some language from the world of theater, the congregation was the audience, the priest was the actor, and God was the prompter. When people thought theologically about what all this meant, they talked about what happened to the bread and wine during the Eucharist, whether and in what way it became the body and blood of Christ. And they argued for hundreds of years about that. And the focus of that argument was the sacredness of the bread and wine apart from us out in the congregation.

About a hundred years ago, some folks in the church in Europe decided there was something wrong about what was happening in those long rectangular buildings, and the first thing that occurred to them was that the congregation was passive, that all the action was happening up front, in the east end of the building, so they began to look for ways to restore to the congregation an active role in worship.

What they were doing was affirming the ancient doctrine of Incarnation, our claim that in Jesus, the divine became human, that Jesus was both human and divine all at once. The Gospels talk about how, in Jesus, God acted to join heaven and earth, to join the sacred and spiritual with the material and secular.

In the Easter Vigil, we sing the ancient hymn of the church, in which we proclaim that the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that in this night heaven and earth are joined, and we are reconciled to God.

So, instead of the sacred being in the consecrated bread and wine, mediating between the sacred out there somewhere to the east and we mortal, sinful people here in the west, the doctrine of the Incarnation is that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God infolds the sacred and the spiritual into the material and the secular.

The sacred and spiritual are therefore not out there, apart from us, but in here, in our midst, in us and among us, and when we do what we do with the bread and wine, the Risen Christ is present to us not in the bread and wine apart from us but in and among us by means of what we do with bread and wine. And so we are made a new people by water and the Holy Spirit, worthy to stand at God’s table, where God is the host.

And so it is in what we do what we do with bread and wine, and with the recitation of the story of Jesus’ Last Supper, that we discover and proclaim that we are the Christian community, the Body of Christ on earth, and in this very pragmatic, Episcopal way, we know who we are, and proclaim who we are, and therefore become the most important symbol we have of our faith.

And so as those kinds of ideas began to take hold in the Church, suddenly change began to happen. And so it came to pass in the 1980’s, that in an effort to incarnate these kinds of ideas in brick and wood and glass and concrete, this church is not rectangular but box-like, and everyone is close to the altar, and the celebrant stands facing the congregation. And everyone has speaking parts, and in this kind of church building, the congregation is no longer passive, but in fact is the actor, and God is the audience, and the priest is the prompter.

That is the legacy of the St Mark’s of 30 years ago to us today. This is why Charles Fulton said of this building that it was the finest new church building he had found, because it embodies and expresses our belief that the Christian community is the deepest and richest and most truthful symbol of our faith.

The priest is the prompter, the one whose job it is to nurture, and comfort, and inspire, and instruct, and to lead in celebration. When I was in seminary, one of my professors said the central job of the rector of a parish is to convince every member of the congregation that old Father (or Mother) Jones loves them. Because if they believed that the rector loved them, then they might also come to believe that God loved them.

The Vestry is the group whose responsibility is to care for the health and well-being of the congregation. The job of the bishop is to care for the health and well-being of the group of congregations we call a diocese.

In this way of thinking, in every case the congregation, the Christian community, the central symbol of the Christian faith, that is of primary importance. All the rest is a support network to enable the community to do its work.

It is to that community – and therefore to us – whom the writer of Hebrews was writing when he reminded them and us,

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. We are free to do this because God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

So, as God’s people, we say with confidence, “The Lord is our helper; we will not be afraid.”