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Thursday, June 08, 2006
(6:35 PM) | sam k:
Architecture in Liturgy

There is a somewhat lengthy discussion going on over at Adversaria concerning the spontaneous quality of modern evangelical liturgy (if one may call it liturgy). The discussion touches on the primacy of the sermon in modern worship services as well as the tendency of ministers to rely on moving oratory and theatrics to instruct the congregation. However, I believe such difficulties are woven inextricably into a much wider problem facing us. The topic I want to explore, in specific, is how such questions relate to the architecture of the church.

Al mentions his frustration with pews, so let us first consider the dynamic that seating brings to the worship service. In pews, the assembly is confined to a literal fixed, solitary location in the church. They cannot interact with one another; they interact only with a mediator, the preacher—and only passively at that. When communion is given in the pews, it is consumed in virtual solitude, apart from the rest of the church. Pews serve only to isolate the church from itself, and, as David Eagle suggests in an excellent post about the modern urban landscape, allows congregants to maintain the anonymity of the city within the church walls.

The physical layout of the church building relates symbolically to the formation of the assembly. In short, it destroys community within the church. Think of it. Every seat is organized around a fixed point. Here the worship leader, whose job it is to usher in “the presence” of God, performs a worship set (sometimes expressly in order to set a mood that will make the congregation more receptive to the pastor’s sermon). Later, the pastor stands and delivers an original oratory intended to inspire his congregants. (In some mega-churches, seating is arranged in a semi-circle, as in a convention center or an amphitheatre. However, the effect is the same—the task of the congregation is to sit and watch, while the pastor exercises his gifts.) As the assembly is organized around the celebrity of one man and his sermon, so the seating accommodates his pulpit.

The individual churchgoer’s task is to receive something from the sermon. Often times, the pastor will begin his sermon by asking the Holy Spirit to anoint his message and give it special relevance to each of his listeners (although, in many cases the pastor may not know that any number of his listeners even exist!). Under this arrangement, community is an afterthought. The individual’s relationship to the minister is of the greatest importance, albeit abstracted through the sermon. If one happens to form a few close friendships in this setting, well, that’s fantastic. Nevertheless, as many of us might remember from our youth group days, you can’t go to church just to visit with friends. You must expect a deeply personal encounter with the divine—something that your friends cannot give you.

It is a curious question—when did Christianity officially adopt the basilica of the pagan empire? The easy answer would be during the reign of Constantine, but even if the cathedral was a much later development, we can at least say with some certainty that it preceded the Reformation, when the sermon was elevated to the fore of our liturgy.

It would be perhaps a thorny task to draw a two-dimensional, cause-effect relationship between the descent of the lay’s function and their physical location within the church. Thus, while I am not claiming that pagan architecture is singularly responsible for our present condition, it is no less a part of the problem. Architecture is constitutive of how the church conceives itself, and so, structural design must play a part in any future reformation undertaken by the church.

The answer, of course, is not simply settling on anything sufficiently subversive, such as seating the congregants roughly in a circle and giving each an equal footing at the table. That is not what I am proposing, lest anyone be left wondering. However, I wonder if Al is not onto something with his suggestion of eliminating fixed seating altogether. This would create a fluid environment in which interaction among the assembly would be vitally necessary, providing an authentic community out of which a primarily functional priesthood could arise naturally.

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