Essay for the Wednesday Journal,  (+ 950 words)

By Tom Holmes

Church architectural form follows theological function

            I suspect that many who participate in the House of Worship Walk on June 24 will evaluate the five buildings on the route by asking themselves, “Do I like it?” 

That’s legitimate, of course, but the Walk also gives participants an opportunity to observe how the interior architecture of a church building both reflects and forms the religious beliefs of those who sit in the pews. 

Here’s an example.  When you walk from the outside of Unity Temple to its central meeting space, you will have to wind your way around several corners and up and down some stairs.  The brochure which the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation provides visitors to Wright’s famous building calls this route a Pathway of Discovery, which fits nicely with how Unitarian Universalists (UU) look at the spiritual quest.

“We believe that religious wisdom is ever changing,” a UU pamphlet declares.  “Revelation is continuous.  We celebrate unfolding truths known to teachers, prophets, and sages throughout the ages.”  The spiritual life, in others words, is principally a journey of discovery.

In contrast, when entering both St. Edmund Catholic Church and Grace Episcopal Church, the first thing encountered is a baptismal font.  At St. Edmund the font is a big bowl—large enough to immerse a baby—with water constantly brimming over the lip and splashing onto smooth stones below.

In both houses of worship, the main aisle forms a straight path from the baptismal font at the back to the front where stained glass “resurrection” windows mark the end of the journey.  “Life is a pilgrimage is the message proclaimed by the long interior space,” explains a booklet entitled A Self-Guided Tour of Grace Episcopal Church.  “It begins at the Baptistry. . .where we are made members of Christ in our baptism, and ends at the High Altar. . .where the Resurrection Cross above it symbolizes Our Lord’s triumph—and thereby ours also—over death.”

            All three faith communities utilize the metaphor of the journey, but for one the trip is an open ended pathway of discovery while for the other two, it is a pilgrimage along a well mapped  route towards a definite, clearly defined goal.  The architectural differences not only reflect this theological diversity but reinforce it.

            Upon entering the worship spaces at both First Baptist Church and First United Church the first thing that struck me were the impressive ranks of organ pipes set prominently high up at the front of both sanctuaries.  The architects, E.E. Roberts and Morris G. Holmes, were making clear statements that music is central to worship.

            Architecturally, the pipes dwarf the communion tables which stand in both sanctuaries about twenty feet below on the floor, which is consistent with the fact that communion is celebrated in both congregations once a month—rather than weekly or even daily in liturgical churches—but worship without music is almost unthinkable.

This elevation of music in worship is an inheritance from the Reformation tradition in which congregational singing and eventually choral anthems have been emphasized.  J.S. Bach, a Lutheran, has in fact been referred to by many as the Fifth Evangelist along with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!

            Rev. Dr. Harry Parker, the pastor of First Baptist, acknowledged that positioning the organ pipes and the choir above even the pulpit from which he preaches does make a statement.  He said that perhaps it is a foreshadowing of the celestial music from the cloud of witnesses who will greet faithful Christians one day in heaven.

            The pulpits are located front and center in Unity Temple and First Baptist and First United Churches, a statement that the preached Word is more central in the services of all three houses of worship than is ritual.

            Another clue to the theology of a place is the remodeling which has been done.  For example, in both St. Edmund and Grace the altar was originally positioned against the front wall and elevated above the level on which the pews were located.  Architecturally, this reflected the sense that God is holy and transcendent and that the ordained person leading worship was the mediator between the Creator and God’s people. 

            During the last fifty years, both congregations have erected free standing altars which are located both closer to the people in the pews and more at their level.  This re-modeling of “furniture” was the result of a re-modeling of both Roman Catholic and Episcopalian theologies.  While not denying that God is holy and transcendent, moving the altar closer to the people emphasizes the immanence and presence of God among those who follow him.  It makes communion more of a meal shared around a table, and the presider more of a host than a mediator.

            Rev. Shawn Shriner, the pastor at Grace, said that her congregation really has three altars.  They decided to keep the high altar at the front of the church at the time they placed a large free standing altar in what they referring to as the Crossing right in front of the pews.  In addition, at the 9:00 service on Sunday morning, which they call The Rite Place: Kids Do Church, she uses a small table no more than two feet high as an altar for communion in an attempt to help children relate to God at “their level.”

            Each altar, she said, communicates a different side of God.  And so it is.  Church architecture both reflects and forms how people picture who God is and how they relate to what Paul Tillich called their Ultimate Concern.

            As you admire the aesthetics of each of the buildings on the House of Worship walk, also notice how location—i.e. where things are placed in the worship space—and the size of what you see reflect the theologies and sensibilities of the congregations which meet there.

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Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...