Churches must put a greater emphasis on “how we seek the community” instead of just concentrating on designing a new altar when they are changing their buildings or redesigning liturgical space for contemporary worship, said a leading expert and author on renewing church space.
“What really matters and what really will change the whole climate and the whole culture of our worship is we can rearrange the seating so that we can cease to be an audience watching worship happen and instead look and feel like a beloved community of the faithful participating in worship,” said Dean Richard Giles of the Episcopal diocese of Philadelphia’s Cathedral Church of Our Saviour. Dean Giles, author of the bestselling book Re-Pitching the Tent, served as a parish priest in England for 30 years before becoming dean of Philadelphia in 1999.
In a lecture series on “Creating Uncommon Worship” held at Trinity College and attended by divinity associates in the University of Toronto during the summer, Dean Giles noted how in some parishes within the Episcopal Church in the United States there is a “disconnect between our radical Christian action in the world and what we do on Sunday mornings.
“We are there, as it were, on the barricades, on the streets protesting for justice and equality and all those good things,” he noted. But “on Sunday mornings, we go hurtling back in time to a dated picture of what it means to be church and offer worship.” He noted that while the Episcopal church has historically been “in the forefront of renewal and reform” of the civil rights movement, the ordination of women priests and bishops, and (more recently) the election of a woman presiding bishop, its worship spaces have often adhered to “fixed, rigid configurations.” He described typical Episcopal churches as “long, narrow, liturgical bowling alleys in which we live on Sunday mornings and in which we attempt, heroically and with great spirit and much love, to live out a life we preach about and learn about.”
Churches, he suggested, “need to rediscover that we are a people of the tent, not of the temple; that we are on a journey and somehow at the time that we gather on Sunday assembly, we are reminded of this basic truth.”
In an interview, Dean Giles said Anglican churches in Great Britain and other parts of Europe have been more advanced in the field of altering liturgical space than their counterparts in North America “probably because Europe is more de-Christianized and the churches have to be more radical in taking stock of where it’s at and what it can do and how it can re-equip itself.”
However, he added, the signs point to a similar de-Christianization creeping to North America, especially in the mainstream churches with their aging congregations.
Apart from renewing liturgical space, Dean Giles noted that there are churches now that are giving a new emphasis on ecology and “thinking green,” with solar energy and recycling.
In his lecture, Dean Giles underscored the need for churches to make “radical hospitality” part of their theological mark in communities. “In an era of… the breakup of the extended family, the frantic pursuit of gain, the church needs to be a place of radical hospitality, of an ever-open door.”
As part of the conference, participants had a tour of liturgical spaces of three congregations in Toronto: Jubilee United Church, St. Augustine’s (Anglican) Church, and St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church.