By Tom Holmes
Architectural form follows theological function
I'm writing an essay about the House of Worship Walk scheduled for June 24 in Oak Park. Walk participants will visit five churches and be able to check out their interiors.
Two of the church buildings belong to congregations which I will call liturgical churches, Grace Episcopal and St. Edmund Catholic. By liturgical I mean traditions which focus on sacraments like communion and baptism just as much as by the spoken and written word as ways or media by which God comes to humans.
In both of those congregations' buildings, the architecture both expresses their approach to connecting with God and reinforces it. For example, when you walk into St. Edmund or Grace, the first piece of "furniture" you will encounter is a baptismal font, because baptism is understood by both Catholics and Episcopalians as God's way of adopting humans (most often babies) in God's community.
If you move from the baptismal fonts down the aisle, you will see a pulpit and a free standing altar/table prominently featured at the same level in front. That's because both traditions "try" to put equal emphasis on both Word and Sacrament.
Two other churches on the walk, First United and First Baptist, are more, what I will call, Protestant in their approach to worship. That is, they tend to see the Word in the Bible and preaching as the primary way God comes to people and the sacraments as important but not on the same level. That's why these two congregations celebrate communion once a month as opposed to every Sunday as do Grace and St. Edmund.
And the architecture of their two buildings reflects their beliefs. When you walk into First Baptist and First United, what will probably strike you are organ pipes impressively displayed right in front and above the pulpit which is center stage. And where is the altar? It is standing unadorned below the pulpit. Once again, the interior architecture reflects how members understand how God and humans "commune." Sung music and spoken word are more important than sacraments.
Finally, when you enter Unity Temple, you won't see any religious imagery—no art, stained glass, statues—at all besides a Unitary/Universalist chalice which sits on what they call a worship table below the huge pulpit. That's because Unity Temple members don't include sacraments at all—not even once a month—in their worship. Everything is focused on human language and rational discourse.
When you participate in the walk, don't just think about which space you like the best from an aesthetic perspective. Also, check out which space speaks to you most eloquently about how God communicates with us.