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Postmodernism, Art and the Church

Dianne Collard:

Spiritual Transformation #1 by Charlotte Zweber Chavis 2008Ministry in a postmodern, pluralistic world must bring together the opposites; it must embrace and bridge a world that is homeless and well-housed, a world that is both dying and healthy, a world that is obese and anorexic at the same time. (Leonard Sweet in Aqua Church)

Life in the early 21st Century is anything but static.  We live in an era of technological and communication advances which would have boggled the mind just one century ago.  People around the world are breathless with the attempts to just stay reasonably aware of what is current, with the fearful knowledge that by tomorrow they may be left behind.  Nothing speaks of stability.  Life is fast-paced and confusing.  According to Francesco Clemente as he observed today’s world, “The only intelligence that matters is…not to cling to the previous state, and to accept a new state– just to be able to be there for every new challenge” (Sandler, p. 1).  While at first glance this situation seems to be the frenetic outcome of a world that has pursued progress at any cost, in actuality it is much, much deeper. (more…)

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The Importance of Church Architecture

Dianne Collard:

We love the venerable house
Our fathers built to God
In heaven were kept their grateful vows,
Their dust endears the sod.
They live with God, their homes are dust
But there their children pray
And, in this fleeting lifetime, trust
To find the narrow way.
-R.W. Emerson

(Quoted in Mallery p. 28)

Bedforshire Church“The Church is not a building, it is the people of God,” was a lesson reiterated throughout my youth, and one I continue to believe today.  I was also taught that the “Church” can meet anywhere—inside, outside, in a designated building, storefront, home or gymnasium.  This is also true.  But, unfortunately, this belief too often denigrates the importance of the setting of the Church, to our detriment.  Over the centuries since Christ’s death there has been a changing view of the role of the building and decorations of the “Church-house”.  These changes obviously reflect the ever-evolving skill of the builders, new materials, cultural norms, as well as architectural traditions and innovations—but also the winds of theological change and devotional practices.

The following paper attempts to trace the significance of the changes in European and North American church architecture over the two millennia since Christ’s death and resurrection.  Also offered is a brief attempt at symbology—the meaning and significance of symbols used in the architecture and decorating of the church edifice.  The implications of church architecture now—in the Twenty-first Century will be considered in the concluding section.

It has been said that church architects, through the centuries, are “sermon builders” (Hammond, p. ix).  While their personal devotion to Christ may not be considered when being contracted to build a church building, it behooves them to understand the function, importance and tradition of the church, of the people being housed.  It is a lofty calling as the “story of church architecture is one of faith, ambition, and innovation—innovations which enabled architects to plan and build churches and cathedrals of unsurpassed beauty. . . . From the fourth century to the present day, church builders have followed in the tradition of the first Christians who built shrines in the holy places where Jesus and His apostles lived, taught, and performed miracles.  They have attempted to construct buildings which magnify Christ’s earthly life and enshrine the fullness of its promise” (McNutt p. 4).

As the Nation of Israel was called by God and formed into “God’s Chosen People” a very precise blueprint was given, as well as artisans specifically gifted, to build the “dwelling” of God called the Tabernacle, as reported in the book of the Exodus, as well as later when the permanent Temple was constructed.  Not so when the “new covenant” began following Christ’s resurrection and the Church was initiated.  There were no plans or designs given, no divine fiat as to the materials, shape, decoration or significance of this edifice.  There is no model to follow, but rather, “The Church is called to use materials taken from every area of culture in order to express its encounter with the New Being. . . . the church expresses the meaning of its life in artistic symbols.  The content of artistic symbols is the religious symbols given by the original revelatory experiences and by the traditions based on them,” according to Paul Tillich (quoted in Begbie p. 59).

The Role of the Architecture

“Architecture, simple and dignified, thus witnesses to the fact that religion is not something super-imposed, but life at its best” (Drummond p. 171).  It is not realistic to assume that the design and placement of a church communicates nothing to the community around it—rather, it is of utmost importance.  Yes, the Church exists without the trappings of particular design or art to house and surround it—but to neglect these considerations is to rob the Church of something significant.  At least, “The church building should express the best ideals of the community. . . the house of worship. . . must bear some vital relation to the life of the people and the history of the region, apart from the requirements of cultus and Christian symbolism” (Ibid.).  In addition, Drummond continues, “If the appeal to the ear through music and sermon is legitimate, what of the appeal to the eye?  Might not the Gospel be eternally preached through stone, wood, and glass, as the Master imparted ineffable grace through the bread and wine, a bowl of water, and a towel?” (p. 180).  Such architecture has been called, “frozen music” by Schelling and a “silent, impressive sermon in stone” by Goethe (both quoted in Drummond p. 185.)

Such a “sermon” reaches the viewer/listener on many levels.  Dr. Lloyd Thomas wrote, “Architecture that is religious brings home to us the numinous feeling, the sense of eternal life in the midst of time.  It is sacramental whether there be a tabernacle on the altar or not” (quoted in Drummond p.217).  The importance of architecture and art cannot be underestimated.  It is the essence of the art of architecture to serve and enhance the experience of the one seeking to engage in worship. . . it is an essential part of the liturgy or worship experience itself.  “If . . . we may regard architecture as a fine art, the building is part of the setting within which the entire sequence of liturgical actions takes place. . . The works of art are there to serve the liturgy. . . . If the architectural setting makes it awkward and difficult to perform certain liturgical actions, that is a serious count against it, no matter what its aesthetic merit” (Wolterstorff p. 185).

This core value of the importance of church architecture does not assume that all churches or denominations must be built or decorated in the same manner.  The differences between the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions and doctrine will continue to be evidenced through their architecture.  The call is for intentional consideration to be given to such a design.  There are numerous factors to be considered.  For example, nearly seventy years ago, one author suggested that at least the attention span of the worshippers should be considered.  He writes,

The law of attention and fatigue operates within any building, secular or sacred. . . . The Roman Catholics realize that this need should be definitely met, and by the rich symbolism of their churches they encourage private devotion during public worship.  The visible is linked to the spiritual reality, so that even ‘wool-gathering’ may be sublimated into meditation.  In the Protestant Churches, we should seek to direct the wandering imagination Godwards through a sense of unity and harmony in the proportions and colour of the building rather than through emphasis of particular symbols (Drummond p. 180).

In addition to this consideration, numerous other factors will be highlighted as we proceed to analyze the historical survey of church architecture and the role of symbolism.

Historians, architects, theologians, anthropologists and social theorists all offer their list of priorities in terms of church architecture, but what elements are essential?  One writer, Thomas Barrie, makes this suggestion for a foundational definition:

Sacred architecture (is) places built to symbolize the meaning and accommodate the rituals of the particular belief system of its time. . . limited to structures intended for communal religious uses. . . . the principal means through which we experience architecture is through sight and movement.  Movement, spatial sequence, and time create the fourth dimension of our perceptual realm, and are an essential component of the experience of architecture. . . . the movement through space is the most important means through which we assimilate architectural experience. . . . A sense of community based on shared values is typically connected with a specific place, and this religion and mythology are often deeply rooted in the definition of meaningful places. . . . Place. . . is also imbued with meaning.  The physical enclosure creates the context for the experience and meanings communicated by the elements that form the space help us to identify with the place. . .Architecture has traditionally aided in establishing a sense of meaningful place and articulating people’s beliefs (Barrie p. 47, 53).

Goethe underscored this assertion, writing, “One would think that architecture as a fine art works solely for the eyes.  Instead, it should work primarily for the sense of mechanical motion in the human body—something to which scant attention is paid (quoted in Barrie p. 47).  Architecture (or the lack thereof) tells the story of the Church congregating within, as well as impacting the actions and attitudes. . . the spirituality and essence . . . of a community of God’s people.

The Role of Symbolism

In addition to spatial, light, and other architectural considerations is the plethora of symbolic elements within a church structure and decorative treatment.  “It is in architecture, however, that we find the most potent and meaningful use of symbolism, because here the symbol is not only representational, but spatial and temporal as well.  Architecture utilizes means of expression common with art; there are two-dimensional elements that appear. . . . The totality of the architectural experience, however, is a powerful synthesis of the various media used to communicate symbolic themes. (Barrie p. 16).    Obviously, symbols are neutral entities to which meanings and significance are attached by the viewers—they carry no inherent worth or power.  But, that does not negate the incredible power and response they can evoke when the meanings are understood.

William Blake poetically wrote of such symbols:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour

(Quoted in Child p. xvii).

Symbolism, to have significance in terms of the Church, cannot be merely individually interpreted.  “Private symbols are a contradiction in terms, they should be a visual language between like-minded people” write Heath Child and Dorothy Colles (p. xii).  They continue,

“There should be greater attention given to the visible expression of Christian truth. . . . If all the figurative decoration is left out and the churches are bare their feeling-faith is chilled and impoverished. . . .There is in a visual symbolism a power to communicate ideas and feelings, especially those which lie beyond the net of language and logic. . . .Christian art should communicate vitality as well as balance and rhythm (pp. 1,3).

Andrew Landale Drummond understood the need for symbolism in church architecture, by acknowledging, “Symbols either are gateways through which news comes to the sense-conditioned mind from the super sensual world, or are substitutes for reality” (p. 144).   This does not detract from the functional aspects of a church building. In fact, some authors discount the symbolic importance in favor of the functional use of such a building.   I assert the function of a church is intrinsically tied to its liturgy and its liturgy is inherently expressed (or denied) through the setting.  Peter Hammond is one author who understands the inherent synergy of function, form and setting.  He writes, concerning the purpose of a church building, as well as warning concerning symbols,

Sacred art must do far more than provoke an aesthetic or emotional frisson.  Its function is to make manifest under the form of sign and symbol the presence of the New Creation—that new order of reality which entered into the cosmos as the fruit of Christ’s strange work.  The decay of sacred art into religious art, a language of energetic symbols into a mawkish sentimentality, is symptomatic of a growing blindness: the transformation of contemplation and communion into aestheticism.  As Andre Malraux has written: “The great Christian art did not die because all possible forms had been used up: it died because faith was being transformed into piety.”  The basic need is for architecture to recover its symbolic function (p. 161).

A closer, more definitive analysis and examples of symbolism in church architecture will surface as we do a historical survey of liturgical architecture for the past two thousand years.

The Meta-Narrative of Church Architecture

As with all forms of art, but especially religious art, the changing world view, belief systems, cultural milieu and practices can be “read” through a cursory look at church architecture (called ecclesiastical or liturgical architecture).   The intention of this particular survey is not to explore all the implications of the transitions from one architectural model to another, but rather to “narrate” the story through defining the style and substance of each model (in chronological fashion) and suggest the important symbolism represented in each model.  Space does not permit a deeper exegesis, nor is it of benefit in this treatise to explore examples of each in detail.

The Early Church (33-313)

The earliest meeting places of the Church in the First and Second Century were private homes or community meeting houses, undoubtedly based on the tradition of the Jewish Synagogue.  The most common plan for such a house was a “rectangular court with rooms opening off on all sides and containing a cistern in the middle” (Mills p. 20). During the era of intense persecution, the Church was often driven underground, transforming caves and catacombs into “cathedrals” of worship.  Frequently lodge buildings, built over the catacombs were used for services, when it was safe to do so (Mills p 20).  It is accepted that “There is no evidence for the invention of any ‘Christian style’ in the Early Church” (Drummond, p. 3).

The sacrament of baptism was “performed in rivers, pools, or on the sea shore, or (even) in bath-chambers of private houses or in the catacombs when there was fear of persecution” (Anson p. 141).    By 200 A.D. and following Jewish tradition, baptismal pools may have been constructed in separate rooms, with a font sunk “2-4 feet below the level of the floor, with steps leading down” (Mills p. 22).  These buildings were even symbolic in their shape: the cruciform shape indicating the crucifixion, the hexagonal shape for the sixth day (Friday, the day of the crucifixion) or hexagonal, representing the eighth day—the Resurrection Day.  It was only after the introduction of infant baptism that “led to the introduction of the font, placed within the church” (Murray p. 45).

The use of exact representations of Christ or the disciples was especially difficult for the early Christians, according to Tertullian (c. 160-225).  This Church Father reported that “all images and representations (were regarded) as dangerous and forbade their use, declaring that for a people newly escaped from idolatry they presented the greatest danger of relapse—or worshiping the symbol itself instead of what it represented” (Murray p. 512).  Eventually, however, during times of persecution, symbols were used “as a means by which believers declared their affiliation to fellow believers” (Ibid.).   Some of the symbols used were the dove, lyre, ICHTHYS (fish), vine, grapes, winepress, Good Shepherd, anchor, ship, fountain or vase, peacock, lamb, triangle (the Trinity), keys of St. Peter.  Interestingly, the “one potent symbol for alter generations—the cross—was absent from Early Christian symbolism, because of the reluctances to accept that Christ had died the shameful death of criminal execution” (Ibid.).

The emphasis of the gathered community was on teaching of the Word, prayer and the sharing of food together, especially in the meal called “The Lord’s Supper” or “Communion” or “Eucharist” which was a symbolic reinterpretation of the Passover Seder.

The Basilica (313- c. 1033)

Immediately following the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent “Christianizing” of the Roman Empire, Helene, Constantine’s mother, began identifying holy places and marking them with a building (McNutt p. 4).  In fact, over 200 churches were built in Palestine during this time as a direct result of Constantine orders (McNutt p. 7).  As Christianity spread through the whole Empire, churches were built “at sites that were originally places of pagan worship” (Barrie p. 216).  The design of these churches was taken directly from the Roman civic building called the basileious oikos (meaning “royal house” or “throne room”).  Traditionally, such buildings were used as courts of law and exchange. . . fitting the symbolic aspect as God, the Righteous Judge.   The model was used for 1000 years and was a “form actually adopted in early times (which) were strikingly appropriate to the purpose of housing the Church of God, the assembly of God’s people. . . ” (Lowrie p. 87).

The place and mode of baptism were the first to change significantly during this time. “When the Christian faith was adopted as the official religion of the empire whole populations were converted, the drastic purifying of pagan adult converts ceased and in time the rite of infant baptism took its place.  This led to changes in the shape of arrangement of baptisteries and the sunken fonts of early times gave place to basin or tub structures. . . . (Child and Colles p. 107).

The basilica, a long, rectangular hall was usually twice as long as it was wide, and was divided longitudinally into three or five aisles.  There were no windows in the lower walls; the doors were only at one end, drawing the worshippers towards the altar.   This configuration was not accidental to the liturgy.  It consciously led the worshipper on a “journey.”  According to Barrie, this plan “richly and dramatically utilized the basic spatial components of the axial path and its destination.  The path passed through a sequence of portals and spaces along the way to the goal of the sanctuary.  The altar was the place o f meeting between humans and God, . . . Many early writers referred to Christ himself as the altar and so the basilican path leads to Him and proclaims that the path of life too finds its end in Jesus Christ” (Barrie p. 217).  The use of such a facility was significant, according to one writer,

Christian basilica is the pagan temple turned inside out, or rather outside in. . .  a radical change in the spirit of worship. . . . The pagans worshiped outside their temples—and so did the Jews, for they stood in the courts.  Even the pagan altar was outside the temple.  But the Church of the Body of Christ needed a house in which to assemble. . . to meet together with God.  The congregations, the Ecclesia, was profoundly united by the sense that it met in the presence of God. . . . Because of this mystical sense of personal collective encounter with god the INSIDE of the church had to be decorated and not the outside” (Lowrie p. 91).

There is hardly a facet of the basilica that did not represent a significant belief of the Church.  Some examples (taken from Barrie p 228-228):

  • The entrance: consisted of the mandorla and the tympanon; the mandorla means “almond” in Italian or is referred to a vesica piscis or the bladder of a fish; represents a sacred seed or womb from which the whole world emanates and the almond tree itself was association with the purity of birth; the fish signified the redemptive power of water.  The tympanon was kettle drum in shape and spoke of the opposing forces present at any spiritual decision.
  • The plan was equated with the proportions of the human body and used as a symbol of the cross; “This image is symbolized by the path, a journey from the base desires of humans, the feet being the part of the body in contact with the earth. The crossing is at the heart, the point of decision of whether to submit to God or not. . . . past this, one journey. . . to the. . . . “head” of the place of spiritual enlightenment.”
  • The nave symbolized a contained vessel, ferrying soul from damnation to redemption.
  • After the mid-fourth century, the apse was located at the east end of the building, suggesting to some an adoption of the Mazdean sun worship to indicate symbolically the “coming of Christ into the darkness of the world; turning of the soul to its ancient home in paradise through Christ, or the coming of the Son of Man” (Mills p. 22).
  • The congregation had no seats, but frequently the floors were decorated with a variety of symbols.
  • The presence of a pulpit, or Bishop’s throne, was slowly introduced and, in accordance with Jewish custom, the “bishop remained seated during the sermon” (Mills p. 23).
  • The plan of the basilica was “determined by the altar” (Mallory p 101) which was ultimately important in the church liturgy. Until the Fifth Century, “the priests conducted the Mass facing the congregation” (Kessel p. 18 emphasis mine).  This reinforced the practice of “a congregational form of worship” (McNutt p 10).
  • The dome was the other most significant architectural and symbolical aspect of this architecture. It represented “the dome of heaven in which only heavenly scenes were depicted” (Lowrie p 98).  The cupola “recalls the starry heavens, the middle zone: paradise and below was the earth” (Kessel p. 18).
  • Externally, the Basilica was quite plain, perhaps underscoring the separation of sacred and secular space.
  • The art of this time is termed “Lyric”—“the keynote was love and not yet suffering (which was experienced too much during the persecutions to need any reminder” (Drummond p. 14).

The use of symbolism in art and architecture grew during this time period.  They were a “convenience of teaching, particularly among illiterate and semi-literate people” (Ibid.)  These symbols were displayed, ultimately, in mosaics, fresco cycles, and stained-glass windows.  One significant symbol initiated during this time was the Martyrium—either used as the tomb of martyr or “a memorial over the place of martyrdom, exercising a powerful symbolic effect” (Ibid.)  The “mystery” aspect of the liturgy and belief system, including the cult of the martyrs, was extremely important to the Eastern Church.

The Eastern Church emphasized “strict views about the hierarchical representation of Christ, who was always centrally placed at the top of the church”(McNutt p. 10).  The plan of the church was “radial, or cross-in-square plan (called) the Greek cross. . . with the altar removed from the center of the building . . . into an apse” (McNutt p. 10).  Further architectural differences were accentuated as the Eastern (Orthodox) branch and the Western (Roman Catholic) branch of the Church continued their different path of theology and practice.

The Romanesque Style (1033- 1130)

A new church architecture emerged after 1033 A.D.  According to Stacy McNutt, “Many expected the world to end in the years 1000 and 1033 A.D.—When these dates passed without event, a new period of church building began” (McNutt p 10).  This was a time of political stability, which fostered massive building programs. “Each Christian community was driven by a spirit of rivalry to have a more glorious church than others.  It was as if the world had shaken itself, and, casting off its old garments, had dressed itself again in every part in a white robe of churches” (quoting Raoul Glaber, Historia, 1033 in Erlande-Brandenburg p 13).  This is the beginning of both the massive cathedrals and great monasteries.  “Monasteries began building churches commensurate with the Church’s power and importance. . . . The new style was called Romanesque (which) combines Roman, Byzantine, Celtic, Saracenic, Carolingian and Ottonian elements” (Ibid.).

This structure maintained the rectangular shape of the Roman basilica, with beamed ceilings made of wood.  They were “built in elongated cruciform shape to accommodate torch-lit processions” (McNutt p. 23).  The significant features of this style are:

  • ceilings divided into independent, ribbed sections
  • barrel vaults,
  • raised sanctuaries,
  • extensive crypts,
  • upper galleries housing relics,
  • central towers, with twin towers at west end (frequently).

Reflective the allegiance to the centralized, feudal states, “Christ the Judge or Christ in Majesty  (was placed in the center of the semicircular tympana over the entrance doors. . . (which) likens Him to an all-seeing feudal overlord, surrounded by the apostles and angels” (McNutt p. 26).

The liturgical art of this time reflected the current view that the “spiritual life of a Christian (was) seen as a struggle with the monstrous powers of evil, (as demonstrated) by St. Michael in the unending struggle with the Devil on baptismal fonts” (Child and Colles p. 108).

The need for ever-larger auditoriums was prompted by the increase in the size of the communities and the growing number of pilgrims, fostered by the belief in “miraculous” places, relics and the cult of the martyrs.  These pilgrims were “often the sole source of the abbey’s income” (McNutt p. 10).

It was the dire consequences of the torch-light parades of worshippers and the wooden roofs that forced another change of church architecture, ultimately resulting in the familiar Gothic style.

The Gothic (1130-1530)

The drive to create a safer, less fire-prone, structure was not the only impetus to the new style in churches—it was also reflective of a reform movement within the Church, “under pressure from clergy and laity. . . associated with. . . Gregory VII, who became pope in 1073” (Erlande-Brandenburg p. 20).  These large, all-stone buildings met the needs of ever-growing congregations, as well as “insured the life of prayer as monks in new monasteries withdrawn from the world. . . . A taste for comfort and space became evident at the same time” (Ibid, p 22).  These great buildings were considered “scholasticism in stone, an encyclopaedia of Church lore for the unlettered” (Drummond p. 15).  Edward Mills describes this style, saying,

“Very few of those people could read and their church was their book; and as far as they could they turned the walls of their churches into illustrated manuscripts; a stained-glass window was really a large picture book. . . . more and more a conquest of voids over solids.  The windows, which were the voids, grew and grew, until a church was just a thin stone cage holding a lot of coloured glass together” (quoting John Gloag, p. 17).

One cannot overstate the importance of this architectural transition. W.R. Lethaby declares that Gothic architecture reflected the historical development of the European mind and society which “depended on the past up to its own point and embodied the spirit of its own time: adventurous, romantic, mystical, it was the architecture of chivalry, feudalism, the Guilds and religion” (quoted in Mills p. 24).

For the first time Church architectural history, the beauty of the “outside of the building was as important as the inside; the Gothic church was the pride of the Christian city in a land where all were Christians” (Lowrie p. 98).  While we may, in retrospect, believe this style to be worthy of pride, it wasn’t always so lauded.  In the Middle Ages, the term “Gothic” meant ‘barbaric, irregular to the point of ugliness” and was derived from an “art form practiced by the Andals or Goths and guilty of violating the ancient canons of beauty” (Kessel p. 139).  Kessel reports that as late as the Eighteenth Century, the Gothic style was criticized, saying, “. . . the ‘coarse’ Gothic architecture is the one most remote from ancient proportions, with no correct profile and no good taste in its chimerical ornaments. . . (it is) in defiance of constricting rules, bold emphasis on gargoyles and grotesque features and their near-Shakespearian madness without method” (Kessel p 139-40).  But—it is now a powerful force in the history of church architecture and is almost revered as the “standard” for a cathedral.

Gothic architecture, which originated in France and influenced greatly by Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger, embraces some distinctive characteristics, including:

  • vaulted and arched ceilings,
  • stained glass,
  • soaring height,
  • often colossal in size,
  • extremely symbolic in design and decoration,
  • focus on light,
  • cruciform plan
  • flying buttresses.

This transformation in church architecture was indicative of a significant change in European society.  It reflected the end of the feudal age and “it spread most easily where the supremacy of the monarchy was most assured” (Kessel p. 141).   In fact, Abbot Sugar is recognized as the “royal propagandist, glorifying the kings together with patron saint, and . . . helped promote the cult of quasi-priestly kingship” (Erlande-Brandenburg p. 32).  Following the Norman Invasion of England, Gothic architecture was used by Henry III, intending to “view the place of kingship within the divinely established order. . . . to proclaim the kings’ role as God’s anointed vicar and lord of all men in the kingdom, clergy as well as laity” (Erlande-Brandenburg p. 178).

While the political significance cannot be ignored, it is the pervasive symbolic content of the Gothic cathedral in the area of personal piety and ecclesiastical liturgy that is the most important element.  The entire structure was intended to be “an architectural manifestation of piety, indispensable to the life of society, its flowering, and its happiness” (Erlande-Brandenburg p. 40).  Sugar argued that, “Through the beauty and splendour of the church the dull mind would be awakened to the majesty of God” (quoted in Murray p. 211).  In light of the intention of the original patrons and architects of such magnificent edifices it seems unfair and uninformed to express such harsh criticism of the Gothic Cathedrals that is often heard expressed by Evangelical Christians today.

The Gothic structure sought to express the nature of God through its architecture, in essence it pictured the reality of the claim of Jesus to be the “Way, the Truth and the Life” in the Gospel of John.  The Church was, and is, the most obvious structure in most European towns, indicating the supremacy of Christ and His Church in all of society.  The “enclosed space of the church was (indicative) of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the massive stone walls and towers (were evidences of) the impregnable stronghold, only to be entered by means of the Gate of Heaven” (Barrie p. 216).   For Suger, the originator of this design, “The glow of the windows and the glitter of goldsmiths’ work were not vulgar and imperious ostentation but a means of transporting the worshipper beyond earthly beauty towards the divine beauty of Christ, the ‘true light” (quoted in Wilson p. 32).  Barrie concludes, “The Cathedral was a place of powerful symbolic content. . . . For the medieval mind the images, symbolism, and experience of the cathedral was not abstractly or intellectually perceived, as they are for the most part today. . . . It is safe to assume that their (the worshippers) first reaction was to immediately fall on their knees in reverence, supplication and fear” (Barrie p. 230-31).

Inherent in medieval architecture was the symbolism of numbers. For example, the number of galleries, arches, spires and numerous other elements of the Gothic church reflected this strong belief.

The Gothic structures do not only speak of positive changes in the religious life of medieval times, however.  It was at this time that the division between laity and clergy became fixed as evidenced in “barriers separating the laity in the nave from the clergy (were) installed” (Wilson p. 10).  The reason given for this change was to emphasize the difference between the temporal and celestial, but it underscored the further rejection of the priesthood of all believers.  Also indicating this division of the Body of Christ was change from the Eucharist or Mass being a “communal action in which all the different orders of the ecclesia have their proper liturgy of service to perform” (Hammond p. 18) to that of a “single presbyter, assisted by a servant, (saying) mass on behalf of the community. . . . the mass had become a wonderful and mysterious ceremony, performed . . . by professional ministers”(Hammond p. 19).  This was the first time that the altar was placed against a wall, requiring the priest to “perform” with his back to the laity.  Wilson affirms, writing, “The adoption of the parish church of the two-room plan developed for monastic use, with the one room (the chancel) for the clergy and another (the nave) for the laity, separated by a screen, . . . reflects an entirely different understanding of the Church from that which informs church buildings of an earlier age.  It is the product of a theological and liturgical revolution” (Wilson p. 20). The result was that “the holy people of God have lost all sense of active participation in the priestly and redemptive mission of the Church” (Ibid.).

A second evidence in Gothic architecture of a change in ecclesiology is the position of the pulpit and the altar.  “The medieval separation between pulpit and altar is the outward sign of a divorce between word and sacrament which was to have disastrous consequences in the 16th Century” (Hammond p 39).  In the medieval church, however, the focus was on the altar as a representation of Christ and was the MOST important item in the church.  This issue was re-visited during the Protestant Reformation, to be discussed later.

The increase of individuality began in Europe during this time period and can be seen in the fixtures of the church.  Confessionals made their appearance for the purpose of private confessions for the first time.  Peter Anson remarks, “The primitive idea was that sacramental confession should be made in the open church without attempt at hiding either the confessor or penitent.  The modern idea, at least in the English-speaking countries, is to ensure the greatest privacy for both parties” (Anson p. 159).  Following the time of the Black Death there was a strong assertion of personal status “which showed itself in religion as a preoccupation with the welfare of the individual soul . . . (and) the impact on the great churches was dramatic.  Private funerary chapels and grandiose tombs proliferated, and pre-existing churches were often almost transformed by completions, extensions and embellishments—typically, towers, porches and elaborate internal fittings—all of which served to advertise the worldly standing as well as the piety of their individual donors” (Wilson p. 190).

This momentous transition is captured well by Peter Hammond as he writes,

This whole process of development, from the communal liturgy of the fourth century to the low mass of the fourteenth, is mirrored in the setting of the liturgy.  The ministers relinquished their traditional position in the apse and turned their backs to the people.  The bishop’s throne was brought round from behind the holy table to a place between it and the congregation.  Except on the comparatively rare occasions when the bishop resided at the Eucharist, the whole of the syntaxes was read by the celebrant from the altar itself.  The altar was pushed back against the east wall of the church.  By the fourteenth century this had become its normal position.  The importance of the clergy in the medieval polity, and the new conception of the Eucharist as something said by a priest in virtue of his order, in isolation from the corporate offering of the whole Christian community, is reflected in the proliferation of subsidiary altars for ‘private’ masses within the eucharistic room itself (p.19).

Gothic architecture and the belief system it represented dominated the European continent for centuries until the major cataclysm commonly called the Protestant Reformation occurred, bringing with it an abrupt change in doctrine, practice and definition of church architecture.

The Protestant Revolt (1530–1800)

Much has been written about the negative impact that the Protestant Reformers had on the religious art and liturgical architecture.  Much of the destruction of existing art and church buildings was a reality and may be seen as a revolt against the perceived theological and practical abuses of the Catholic Church.  This paper is not a treatise on the reformer’s theology or actions, but it is helpful to examine some of these beliefs and actions concerning liturgical architecture of the influential people of this time—which was, in essence, as much a revolt of the Northern Europe “city-states” as it was a renewal of theological correctness.

Until the end of the destructive Thirty Years War, few Protestant churches were built or even deemed necessary.  Greedy landowners took advantage of the situation and “convents and monasteries, which might so easily have been converted into schools and almshouses, were allowed to fall into the hands of the princes, landowners, and municipalities, who, not content with the spoils of the Reformation, took full advantage of the Protestant depreciation of the externals of religion to be as niggardly as possible in the upkeep of the churches for which they were now responsible” (Drummond p. 17).  So—it was not merely a theological statement, but political expediency as well that brought the demise of the building of the Gothic church.

Martin Luther is credited with spearheading the art and liturgical destruction, but that is perhaps an unfair accusation.  Luther stated, “I do not hold that the Gospel should destroy all the arts, as certain superstitious folk believe.  On the contrary, I would fain see all the arts, and especially that of music, serving Him who hath created them and given them unto us.  The law of Moses forbade only the image of God; the crucifix is not forbidden” (Drummond p. 19).  Luther, it is reported, gave great  “latitude in Biblical criticism and matters relating to symbolism and ritual” (Drummond p. 20).   To Luther, “images were neither good nor bad, and only idolatrous ones were condemned.  He encouraged didactic illustration of the Bible and religious paints, provided that the pictures were faithful to the narrative” (Murray p. 286). The same cannot be said of some of the Protestant leaders who followed him.

Calvin demanded an “absolute break with a symbolism.”  Zwingli found statues and pictures as dangerous, but stain glass innocuous.  Knox and Calvin ultimately enforced a “complete breach with the symbolism of the past  (and saw it) as necessary at a time with the educational level of the people was at a supreme low.”   Both men warned against the attacks on the churches and Knox supposedly “complained of the lawlessness of the rascal multitude.” (above quotes from Drummond p. 20).  Nevertheless, church architecture was drastically altered due to the Protestant movement.

The typical Protestant church reflected these features:

  • rectangular building with font, altar, pulpit and organ grouped closely together in front,
  • whitewashed walls and wooden galleries,
  • decorated with representations of Luther, Melanchthon and the Apostles,
  • flat ceilings,
  • family pews,
  • centralized location of pulpit.

The entire design emphasized domesticity, laity and clergy without division, congregational involvement in worship and a simple dignity.  There was no evidence of worship of Mary, the crucified Christ, saints or martyrs. “Mystery” was de-emphasized.  A strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word was indicated by a centralized and obvious pulpit—and a less obvious altar or communion table, which reflected a de-emphasized sacrament of the Eucharist.   Murray explains, “In architecture, the Reformation resulted in a few churches being actually destroyed; it was sufficient to denude them of their Catholic ornamentation, and to insert a pulpit in a prominent position.  Where new ones were built, a Central Plan was favored, and churches became auditoria, in that their main emphasis was on the pulpit rather than the altar” (Murray p. 424).

The Puritan movement is credited (or blamed) for defining the ultimate expression of Reformation architecture.  It found its fulfillment in the “New World” as pioneers settled the Americas.  Mallory describes these churches as, “meetinghouses, both because the buildings were used for all types of gatherings and because of the general aversion to the word ‘church” (Mallory p. 32).  The theological implication was centered on the “two things (which) were emblematic of the Word in these frontier communities: the meetinghouse and, standing in its pulpit, the divine.  The meetinghouse was the center for activities both secular and theological; and the pulpit, not the altar, was the centerpiece of the meetinghouse” (Mallory p. 13).  Church architecture became “the ecclesiastical counterpart of the democratic town hall” (Drummond p. 54).  Unfortunately, “art was often viewed as detracting from, rather than, as in so many other religious traditions, enhancing, man’s vision of God” (Mallory p. 15) by the Puritans.

Such architecture is not, however, without its own symbolism.  The typical “New England . . . ‘watch tower’ type. . . . (is) symbolic of the Christian admonition to await the coming the Lord and to maintain vigilance in this life. . . . the bells ‘cleanse the air’ and echoes a sense of the otherworldly; the steeple points upward to the hope that those who have gone on have found heaven; . . . the triple entrance doors. . . . underlines the . . . three crosses” (Jacobs p. 22, 24, 33, 39).

The theological values of the priesthood of all believers, the focus on community and the centrality of the Scriptures are all reflected in the varied architectural models under Protestantism.  Also inherent is the core value of a functional worldview.  Artistic expression was sublimated to “what works.”  Stacey McNutt succinctly states, “Protestants wanted preaching auditoriums” (McNutt p. 13).   According to Peter Hammond, “It was this strictly functional approach which laid the foundation for the whole subsequent development of Christian Art and architectures. . . . The first and essential requirement is radical functional analysis” (Hammond p. 8, 9).  “Compulsory aestheticism and compulsory ecclesiology bred a sour and unlovely suspicion of Beauty in Worship and Architecture, which the Anglo-Saxon Protestantism has not yet thrown off,” according to Andrew Drummond (p. 26).   Carlyle “spoke of the Puritan Movement as the struggle of men intent on the essence of things against men intent on the semblances and forms of things” (quoted in Drummond p. 41).

Common in most cataclysmic changes is a counter-reaction, often of similar or even greater extremism.  Such as the reaction often called “The Counter Reformation” and it had can easily be “read” in the change of liturgical architecture within the Roman Catholic Church.  This “reaction” is called the Baroque.

The Baroque Period (1548-1900)

The challenge to the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation did not go unnoticed or unchallenged in the “mother church.”  In fact, it produced some very significant corrections of doctrine and previous abuses.  In many places, there was renewal of personal spirituality, piety and determination to be Biblical.  “This liturgical renewal was enriched by the rediscovery of the scriptures; the new understanding of the church’s corporate worship gave rise to the liturgical apostolate; the work of the theologians provided the basis for a radical reappraisal of the function of Christian art and architecture” (Erlande-Brandenburg p.51).   One result was a drastically new architectural style for churches of that day.  This style was called “Baroque.”

The transformation from the heavy, “mystical” Gothic design to the Baroque was led, in part, by Ignatius Loyola and his followers, called Jesuits.  It was a radical change.  The attempt was to “intellectualized the picturesque. . . (to make) churches exciting, startling, . . . (using) vivid, pictorial use of light and shade” (Drummond p. 28).  Ignatius knew the “importance of visualizing the subjects of meditation in order to reinforced (it)” (McNutt p. 47).  M.S. Briggs asserts, “All that their (Jesuits)  movement implied its confidence, its militant spirit, its brilliance, its exaggerated appeal to the plain man through his intellect rather than through his heart—all these things, as well as the motives of pride and self-sufficiency, could be expressed Baroque architecture as in no medieval style” (quoted in Ibid.).    Drummond continues, “Baroque was the ecclesiological expressions of an artificial and pleasure-loving age, which delighted in stilted dramas, pompous places, powder and paint” (Ibid.)

Baroque is considered by some to be the “Christian reaction against some of the neo-paganism of the Italian Renaissance”(Kessel p. 192), as well as the art of the Counter-Reformation.  The defining characteristics are:

  • exuberance, stress on what is exceptional,
  • art beyond conventional or traditional,
  • profusion of ornaments,
  • central, circular dome,
  • carved altar pieces,
  • decorative columns,
  • curved forms and use of space.

This style encouraged a revival of ancient Roman ideals and architecture.  It sought to draw the masses into the church the use of “extravagance. . . crashing impetuously into heaven with gold, jewels and bevies of winged cherubs” (Kessel p. 198).  The effect was “blending of mass and color, light shade are fused into each other, heaven and earth seem to commune” (Ibid.).  The design and decoration of the churches emphasized the “aspects of faith that most offended the Protestants, such as the intercession of saints and the holiness of relics. . . and was suitable for exploitation by the Catholic Church against Protestantism” (McNutt p. 13).   The period of “High Baroque” mirrored the “High Renaissance” (Murray p. 47).  The intention was a “new, more forceful and emotional style, based on naturalism in details and a new approaches to ancient Rome, (and) it was necessary to convey the dramatic impact of the miracles and sufferings of the saints, which were to be brought home to faithful” (Murray p. 46).

This design clearly expressed the “group and saints’ ecstasy” (McNutt p. 47) which was underscored in the “reformed” Catholic church.  But, it was not without its critics.  The term itself originally indicated something “convoluted or misshapen” (Kessel p. 58).  Benedetto Croce declared, “Art is never baroque and baroque is never art” (quoted in Kessel p. 195).  It is expected that the “pretentious and theatrical effectiveness of Baroque should appear to the Protestant world meretricious, insincere, unspiritual” but to many within the Catholic tradition, it was often seen as “infinitely further from the spirit of Christianity than the Gothic shrine of the Middle Ages” (Drummond p. 29).   In fact, dissenters declared that the entire Baroque style “attempted to annex, for the benefit of the Christian faith, the wealth made available to European culture by the rediscovery of paganism and by Renaissance humanism” (Kessel p. 195).   It is not surprising, therefore, that there was a reaction and attempt to return to the “standard” of Gothic architecture in much of Europe.

Neo-Gothic Revival (1747-1890)

The Gothic Revival was led by the churches in England in order to restore a classical approach to religion, art and architecture.  It was also a reaction to the fanciful, ornate (and perhaps, romantic) Baroque movement.  Many, who favored this style of liturgical architecture made claims of it being a more Christian style.  It was, however, “based on a Romantic fallacy born of a spurious medievalism” (Murray p. 216).   In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, there was government funding for the building of churches and the majority of these were in the Neo-Gothic style.  It is suggested that, “One reason why so many were built in Gothic, . . . (was) this was a much cheaper method than Classical which required porticoes, and stone columns were expensive” (Ibid.)

The characteristics of this style were primarily the same as the original medieval Gothic, but often done as “dressing” of the structure, rather than the substance—adding pinnacles, pointed arches on doorways and windows with hood moldings (suggested by Murray p. 215).

This revival of past architectural style was not necessarily a reflection of any sort of a religious revival.  During the same time period, some favored using the neo-Classical style which reflected, supposedly, the “only style appropriate for democracy” (Drummond p. 57).  Instead of a renewal of spirituality, this actually “suggests a religion that is cool, rational, humanistic, and ethical.  There is nothing to suggest the power of a transcendent God,. . .  (it) exerted some unconscious influence on a reflective people in intensifying the current towards humans, set in action by theologians and preachers” (Drummond p. 59).

The Non-conformist branch of the Protestant stream readily adopted the neo-Gothic, with “pointed windows and external Gothic detail, with the form of the traditional preaching plan retained” (Mills p. 26).  There was, at the same time, a revival of the neo-Romanesque, Early Christian and Byzantine styles for churches—the eclectic approach to architecture reflecting the multiplicity of denominations and strains of Christianity (suggested by Kessel p. 76). This trend has continued into the era of the “modern Church” as well.  There is one “strain” of Christianity evidenced in Europe which has not experienced the vagaries of change as dramatically as we’ve discussed so far.  That is the Eastern (Orthodox) Church—with its many nationalistic and ethnic factions.

The Orthodox Tradition (530-1453 and beyond)

In terms of art and architecture, this tradition is known as Byzantine.  It is worthy of an extended study as well, but only a few elements will be included in this paper.  In this style of church architecture and furnishings everything included has a symbolic meaning.  This includes:

  • onion-shaped domes: candles lit to heaven—one stands for Christ; . . . three, the Holy Trinity; five, Christ and Four Evangelists; seven, the sacraments; nine, the orders of angels; and thirteen, Christ and the Apostles.
  • dome over square: the heavenly realm/ hung suspended from heaven (McNutt p. 15),
  • cross with three crossbars: the bar at the bottom slants to differentiate the repentant and the unrepentant thieves, the middle bar is for Christ’s sacrifice and the top bar is the proclamation of Christ as King; also: hell, this world and heaven, (above from Jacobs p. 21, 51, 140, 142),
  • Iconostasis: screen decorated with icons that stretches from one wall to the other and separates congregation from sanctuary (McNutt p. 16),
  • dim interior: sense of confinement as well as the mysterious atmosphere of an exalted chamber (suggested by McNutt p. 19).

The architecture, which continues to be used today, underscores a strongly mystical theology, focusing on a “protest against death and the impermanence of mortal creatures” (Kessel p. 15).  “In Byzantine churches the narrative scenes contain a spiritual or theological meaning besides the incident illustrated” (Murray p. 78). Many layers of symbolism form the foundation of the Byzantine church.   For example, in the Russian Orthodox church, “the lofty architecture, the mournful chanting, the stunning icons, the other-worldly incense—all of these . . . overpowers all the senses. . . every simple church building puts rationality n its place and reminds him, believer or secular, that mystery rules life” (Ennis P. 24).   The differences from the Catholic architecture significantly (as liturgical space is formed by liturgical use) reflect the distinctive theology separating the Eastern and Western belief system.  It is a fascinating study to be considered in a future article.

The Modern Church

The variety of architecture reflected in the churches built in the past century may discourage the researcher to categorize or interpret such “narratives” of belief.  Without any doubt, however, architects and church congregations continue to display their belief system and liturgical practices in the design and decoration of our churches.  At times, as in the “free” evangelical position, it is what is absent that speaks loudly—such as the absence of an altar, icons, statues, etc.  For others, it is the building of churches which mimic stadiums or theaters that reflect a position of “seeker-friendly” and a “production-oriented” church practice.  The lecture hall has given way to the grand theatre in many modern Protestant churches.

In the Catholic tradition, the altar has come out from the wall and the priest again faces the communicants, giving evidence to a renewal of corporate worship experience.  “It reflects above all the demand that the laity should be able to play their full part in the church’s worship; that the relationship between the ministers at the altar and the whole body of the faithful should express their commons status as members of the people God, and should manifest the fact that all are active participants in the eucharistic action,” writes Peter Hammond (p. 12).

The fact that the art and architecture of a church or religious community reflects the worldview and priorities of such a group is clear.  In this cursory look at the past 2000 years, it is evidenced repeatedly.  It is also acknowledged that theology and liturgy can be “read” in the churches of today.  The challenge, however, is to take a futuristic stance and consider what can of architecture will either attract or express the worship experience of the next generation and “world view” era.

A Call for Change 

 In this final section, consideration will be limited to the Protestant, evangelical churches of Europe and, by way of application, North America.  It is not a definitive or prophetic offering.  Rather, it is an attempt to “read” the evidences of the transition in Western worldview and posit considerations that will attract unbelievers to the church, as well as reflect the belief system of the future church.  Details will not be offered—but, more importantly, this is an attempt to raise the questions and bring awareness that this is an issue that we should be giving serious thought to in our seminaries, mission agencies and churches.  Obviously, this is not a novel thought.  Many are writing about the nuances of what has been termed the transition from the “modern” worldview to that of “postmodernism.”  As early as 1956, Edward D. Mills recognized this need, writing, “it is a truism that architecture reflects its own time; if the church is to remain a vital element in the sociological adjustment of the 20th century its new building should therefore be an expression of its purpose in our life today” (Mills p. 19).  Due to space limitations, I will also not attempt to give a detailed analysis of this foundationally different “grid” but will merely relate some considerations, as it applies to the subject of church architecture.

Before we continue, let me emphasize—this is NOT a call to a return to the “good old days” of church architecture or art.  Revivals of the old do not bring back the significance or belief system of the past.   For instance, Tillich called the “modern imitation of Gothic architecture as an example of a particularly ineffective revival of a dead style” (quoted in Begbie, p. 59).   No—it is imperative that we think outside all the parameters of architectural and church history—and seek the Lord’s direction in expressing our relationship to Him as rooted in the past but clearly appropriate for today and for the future.

The modern church is characterized overall with a famine of aesthetic emphasis.  It continues to reflect the early Reformers’ (and their excessive followers) negative view of liturgical art and symbolism.  Thistelwaite expresses in this way, “Something. . . happened in the world of architecture at or around the inception of modernism, to effectively deprive the non-specialist of the normal means of judgement. . . . with modernism has entered a universal license to construct in public spaces without any but the most casual reference to visual principle, a license frequently excused on the grounds of aesthetic relativism, or that the expert knows best” (p. 133).  Another author is even more critical, writing, “modern churches have the pathetic interest of a concession laden with meaning.  Their ugliness is the extension on the outside of all our faults: indigent weakness and timidity of faith and of feeling, dryness of heart, disgust with the supernatural, exaggeration of individual and disorderly practice, worldly luxury, avariciousness, boastfulness, sullenness, pharisaic, bombast” (Kessel p. 235).

In his excellent book, Edward Veith declares, “. . . that to be truly relevant to the postmodern age, the church need not succumb to the spirit of the age; rather, the postmodern church has only to recover and apply its spiritual heritage” (Veith p. 24).  What this means for “church” as we know it is not yet definable—but we must be active in discovering it.  Veith describes the existing “modernist” approach to church architecture in this manner:

The modernist aesthetic was based on the principle of “form follows function.”  Instead of designing a structure around some pre-existing meaning or form, the function of the building should have priority . . . . In such an approach to design, the form and the meaning of the building—its theology—come first. . . .the shift away from a theologically informed style to a sheerly (sic) functional, and thus human-centered style, is significant (Veith p. 111-113).

He continues with a description of the post-modern approach to architecture, emphasizing:

. . . architects. . . rediscovered the value and beauty of the past. . . .Whereas modern architecture is abstract, postmodern architecture is referential. . . historically and stylistically pluralistic. . . .Recovering historical styles, respecting sheerly (sic) aesthetic touches, designing building that people enjoy instead of creating structures that intimidate them, returning form to function . . . . (Veith p. 114-15).

The return to “historical styles” as suggested in the above quotation, may be consistent with Thomas Oden’s assertion that “classical Christian orthodoxy will reemerge in the postmodern era” (quoted in Veith p. 218).   Veith further asserts, “The traditions of the church—including traditional forms of worship—may have more appeal than we realize, especially to a generation that lacks traditions but yearns for them” (Veith p. 227).  Whether it is a return to the forms of the past (including architectural) or a totally new expression of Christian belief and worship, with forms yet unknown, we Christians (and especially those starting new churches) MUST be intentional in our comprehension of what “language” is being spoken in this significantly different mindset in order to both reach the postmodernist for Christ and allow for them to express their relationship with God in meaningful fashion. Our churches and our liturgy may not be recognizable in the future—or they may be strangely reminiscent of past traditions, it remains to be seen.

What we cannot allow is the perpetuation of a form which repels people from hearing and embracing the message of the Gospel.  Peter Hammond gives this challenge,

There would seem to be a certain irony in preaching the relevance of the Christian faith to the problems of modern society in the revivalist churches—Gothic, Georgian, Byzantine or Romanesque—which are still being built. . . . These churches have no message for the contemporary world.  They seem likely to confirm the agnostic in his conviction that the Church of England is no more than a curious anachronism: that Christianity itself is merely the by-product of a vanished culture (Hammond p. 3).

This statement is even more applicable in the Twenty-first century culture.  And, while it can be asserted that the use of symbols—external expressions of faith—will be extremely important for Christians in the this age, we cannot assume that a renewal of the symbols of the past will automatically accomplish anything positive.  For instance, “To try to infuse new vitality into symbolic forms which have lost all meaning and reference is a pathetic waste of time and energy and money. . . . a problem which lies at the root of the Church’s inability to proclaim the gospel within the setting of a modern industrialized society” (Mills p. 165).  Again—this is applicable beyond the age in reference, to the worldview construct which is coming.

I have attempted, through a cursory sweep through the history of the Church to elevate the narrative of belief, as seen in the architecture of the Church buildings and other symbols.  The meta-narrative of a changing belief system, or at least of the emphasis of a particular age can be “read” in the changing forms.  The look to the past isn’t the emphasis of the paper, however.  By “reading” the past, it can be seen how important the forms. . . the “externals” of our liturgy and worship are. As we recognize this fact, it forces us to an awareness that we must actively support (and even take the lead) in producing new forms, grounded in the “ancient” but for the future of the Church.  It isn’t sufficient to replicate the past, nor is it as simple as being “culturally relevant” –as important as that may be.  It behooves us to make honest evaluations of what we are saying in our architectural forms today, and be willing to change, if need be.  A relationship to Christ is dynamic—not static.  Neither is there one form which is “right”—but we must allow for new expressions, without changing the message, the Truth of Jesus Christ.

The emergence of alternative expressions of church abound at this time, such as the house church movement, the “youth church” construct and the “house of prayer” expressions. Each require serious consideration of both the architectural expressions and the use of symbolic, artistic elements to be consistent with the message and purpose of the church.

“Art deals with reality; it is about fear, hope, joy, love, our surroundings, the things we love or hate.  On the other hand, art is used in reality. . . . (to) provide the setting for our movements and actions,” according to H.R. Rookmaaker (p. 115).  What is the reality that is being expressed in our churches today, as evidenced in their architecture and liturgical art?  The problem remains, “for the artist and the theologian working together for the Church today is to find a visual language appropriate to their activities” (Child and Colles p. 4).  What will that be?  That question is the essence of this paper.

O God of Beauty, oft revealed
In dreams of human art,
In speech that flows to melody,
In holiness of heart.
Teach us to ban all ugliness
That blinds our eyes to Thee,
Till all shall know the loveliness
Of lives made fair and free.
-Prof. H.H. Tweedy, Yale University Divinity School

(quoted in Drummond, p. 152)


Anson, Peter F. Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1948.

Barrie, Thomas. Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. Boston: Shambhala,1996

Begbie, Jeremy S. Voicing Creations Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.

Child, Heather and Dorothy Colles. Christian Symbols: Ancient & Modern, a Handbook for Students.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Drummond, Andrew Landale. The Church Architecture of Protestantism: An Historical and Constructive Study.  Edinburgh; T. & T. Clark, 1934.

Ennis, Ralph and Jennifer Ennis. An Introduction to The Russian Soul.  Raleigh, NC: LEAD Consulting, 1994.

Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain. Cathedrals and Castles:  Building in the Middle Ages.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993.

Hammond, Peter. Liturgy and Architecture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Jacobs, Timothy, ed. American Churches. Greenwich, CT: Brompton Books Corp., 1989.

Johnson, Paul C., et al, ed. The California Missions: A Pictorial History (A Sunset Book). Menlo Park, CA: Lane Publishing Company, 1985.

Kessel, Dmitri. Splendors of Christendom. Lausanne: Edita Lausanne, 1964.

Knapp, Gottfried. Angels, Archangels and All the Company of Heaven. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1999.

 Lowrie, Walter. Art in the Early Church. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1947.

Mallary, Peter T. New England: Churches and Meetinghouses, 1680-1830. New York: Vendrome Press, 1985.

McNutt, Stacey. Churches and Cathedrals: Masterpieces of Architecture. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1997.

Mills, Edward D. The Modern Church.  New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1956.

Murray, Peter and Linda, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Rookmaaker, H.R. The Creative Gift. Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1981.

Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows for a Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task.  Toronto: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980.

Spencer, William David and Aida Besançon Spencer. God Through the Looking Glass: Glimpses from the ARTS.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Thistlewaite, David. The Art of God and the Religions of Art.  Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Solway, 1996.

Veith, Gene Edward Jr. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994

____________. The Gift of Art: The Place of the Arts in Scripture.  Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1981.

White, Keith J. Masterpieces of the Bible.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1997.

Wilson, Christopher. The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church. 1130-1530. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980.


Image above, right: All Saints parish church, Bedfordshire, England. c. 1430.

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From “In the Beginning” to “Amen:” The Hereford Map and the Grand Design of God—Part 3

Lisa Deam:

The Hereford Map and the Grand Design of God— Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of this series, in which we are examining the Hereford Map (ca. 1300) as a visual narrative of the Bible. In Part 2, we explored each chapter of this narrative, from “In the beginning” to “Amen.” The map tells the story of God bringing our world to redemption. Today, I want to use the Hereford Map to help us engage in a worshipful and meditative way with God’s story. (more…)

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From “In the Beginning” to “Amen:” The Hereford Map and the Grand Design of God—Part 2

Lisa Deam:

The Hereford Map and the Grand Design of God—Part 2

In this series, we are exploring the Hereford Map, an exciting but little-known medieval resource for catching the vision of God’s plans for the world as revealed in the Bible. In Part 1, I introduced the map and suggested that it can help us to see God’s story anew.

What is this story? In Ancient-Future Faith, Robert Webber asserts that the message of the Bible is the person and work of Jesus Christ. He continues:

The framework of that message is that God created the world; that the world fell away from God in the disobedience of the first Adam; that God rescued the world through Jesus Christ, the second Adam; and that at the end of history God will complete the rescue operation in the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.[i]

The message of Jesus is the story of creation, sin, and salvation. It is the grand drama of God saving the world. The Hereford Map takes us through each movement in this drama. Touring the map’s sacred sites, we see events unfolding from “In the beginning” to “Amen.”

Figure 2Our story begins at the top of the map (see figure, right). At the eastern tip of Asia, we see the Garden of Eden, called Earthly Paradise in the Middle Ages. A walled garden that echoes the circular shape of the planet, Earthly Paradise evokes the moment that God set the world spinning in the heavens. It takes us to the beginning of time.

Earthly Paradise also ushers in the Bible’s second movement—sin. In the garden, Adam and Eve take the forbidden fruit. Below, a sword-wielding angel drives the first parents away. They are expelled, and the journey of humanity begins.

The Hereford Map shows the birth of sin a second time and in another part of the world. If we look at the far right of the map, near the southern tip of Africa, we see a series of strange creatures. They are the monstrous races, beings with unusual physical and cultural attributes that were said, by Europeans, to roam the distant regions of the world. (more…)

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From “In the Beginning” to “Amen:” The Hereford Map and the Grand Design of God— Part 1


Lisa Deam:

The Hereford Map and the Grand Design of God—Part 1

As Christians, we share a passion for God’s word. We seem to love, above all, to study the word. I have attended Bible studies and heard sermons in which the Bible’s meaning is parsed verse by verse and sometimes word by word. Probably you have, too.

Such an approach to the Bible, while certainly worthwhile, can limit our vision. We get lost in the details to the detriment of the bigger picture. It becomes easy to forget that the Bible offers more than a disparate collection of verses: it reveals the mind of God and the plans he has for our world. God’s plans are as vast as the star-studded sky. As Christians, we should go stargazing more often!

A pre-modern viewpoint can help us recapture the grandeur of God’s word. In the Middle Ages, for example, Christians were taught to engage with the Bible as a story—a single, overarching narrative told by God and enfolding the destiny of each nation, family, and individual that had ears to hear. Medieval historians chronicled God’s story. Rulers revered it. Artists pictured it. Sometimes, cartographers even mapped it.

Mapped it? Well, yes. Around the year 1300, a group of craftsmen created a monumental image of the world that plots the entire drama of the Bible. Today, this image is called the Hereford Map. The map was displayed in Hereford Cathedral, in the west of England, where it was encountered by pilgrims who came to visit the cathedral’s shrines. As modern Christians, we will find it worthwhile to make this map part of our own pilgrimage of faith.

Figure 1

Let’s get oriented first. The Hereford Map (right) pictures the world as most of us have never seen it before. The world is a circle in which nestle closely together the three inhabited continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The River Ocean surrounds these land masses, creating a single, continuous coastline that girds the world. The map is oriented to the east rather than the north, so that Asia, the largest continent, tops the earth. You can see a larger copy of the map by clicking on the image, right.

The Hereford Map uses geography to tell a story: its three continents set the stage for the unfurling of sacred history from “In the beginning” to “Amen.” The map gives us a vision of the grand design of God. As Christians, we need to catch this vision. We need to catch it, hold on to it, and dwell within it!

In Part 2, which will be posted here on the AFFN site, we will explore this vision chapter by chapter on the Hereford Map. Join me and be awakened to the beauty and vastness of God’s plans for our world.



The image above is taken from a drawn facsimile of the Hereford Map from Konrad Miller, Mappaemundi: Die ältesten Weltkarten. Vol. 4: Die Herefordkarte. Mit 2 Uebersichtskarten im Text und der Herefordkarte in Farbendruck als Beilage. Stuttgart: J. Roth, 1896. Photograph courtesy of University Library Groningen.

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Mud and Spit: Jesus and the Healing of Artistic Vision


Donald Richmond:


[Jesus] spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.…”       –St. John 9:6-7, ESV

Let [the monastic craftsmen] practice their crafts with all humility….       —Rule of Saint Benedict, 57, translated by Leonard J. Doyle

The role of the Christian artist is disputed. Apart from standard questions regarding forms and functions, purpose and place, priorities and practices, many Christian artists are haunted by the ever-present issue of iconoclasm. That is, there remains a question to which every Christian artist should attend: Should Christians engage in the visual arts at all? These issues are particularly pernicious among Protestants and, in spite of Evangelicalism’s mid-to-late 20th century correctives offered by luminaries such as F. A. Schaeffer and H. R. Rookmaker, they continue to challenge us to a more sustained and informed reflection.

And this is not a particularly Protestant problem. While at times Evangelicals have minimized the role of the visual arts (at least historically), Roman Catholics (as particularly evidenced in the liturgical overreach of some) have at times exaggerated artistic importance. Even casually considered, beauty will not save the world. An experience of God in and as the beautiful, good and true will have impact– but they cannot “save.”

Taking this one step farther, even the Orthodox have either minimized (iconoclasts) or maximized (iconophiles) the role of the image, imbuing traditionally crafted art with a sacramental importance that at times has bordered on worship (notwithstanding the very clear distinctions that have been made between veneration and worship) while denigrating other works that may not entirely fit the traditionally received patterns. These things said, Christian visual arts, among almost every denomination, continue to enjoy a renaissance. As such, and because many Christians have (in their thinking) addressed the crucial questions regarding the Christian artist and the visual arts, a few thoughts on the role of the Christian artist and arts is in order.

Over the years Benedictine Spirituality has capitalized upon the practice of Lectio Divina, the repeated, reflective, and reverent reading of Holy Writ. Extending from this respected practice, Visio Divina attends to the same priority of reverent reflection– but utilizing the image instead of the word. Visio Divina, as with Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, activates our imaginations and assists us to see and perceive more perceptively. As an exercise of Visio Divina, specifically as it relates to the question about the role and responsibility of the Christian artist, A. N. Mironov’s “Jesus and the Pauper” (2009) provides a poignant visual catechesis.

Christ_and_the_pauperTake a few minutes to “read” and reflect upon Mironov’s “Jesus and the Pauper.” Take some time to be with the painting. Let the painting be with you. Let the painting begin to speak. Ask yourself some questions about this work. To what biblical text do you believe the artist is referring? Why did he “compose” the painting as he did? What is the purpose of the light, shining as it does (and quite contrary to the iconographic tradition), in Mironov’s composition? These, and other questions, might be asked. As I have examined and reflected upon this work over the past few days, at least four images (and their potential applications) impress me.

The “Pauper” is blind, but is clearly depicted in a state of anticipation. His eyes are turned upward, his head is uplifted, and his left hand (a counterbalance to Christ’s right hand) is partially opened as if to receive some small token of divine grace. He, like each of us, waits.

As well it is to be noted that Jesus is using his LEFT hand for healing. As a young person I had the distinct privilege of being afforded a first-class Roman Catholic education. During these years, a time of great and positive transition within the Church, every student was told not to use their left hand. Even if a person was left-handed, she was trained to use her right (i.e., “proper”) hand. Anyone who used the left hand for writing was disciplined. While today we might be appalled by such a discipline, and it was rather ridiculous, it did reinforce an important principle: There is a right and a wrong way to do things. But, as I have noted, Jesus heals with his left hand in Mironov’s painting.

Third, Jesus appears to hold something in his right hand. Likely, as I have reflected upon the visual text, his hand holds the spit and mud used to effect healing in the “Pauper.”

Finally, before making some broad applications, the title of the painting is rather unusual. The word “Jesus,” as opposed to other reasonable options, is used. As well, the man in the painting is a “Pauper” and not “blind.” As we can see, and that quite clearly, the man IS blind and yet Mironov references a “Pauper.” Why?

These and other details captured my attention. So what lessons might we derive from this Caravaggio-like image? The Christian visual artist, most especially in the setting of public worship, is perpetually challenged by the impoverished state of her audience. The audience is, indeed, blind– and frequently deaf and mute as well. The worshipers are there, their eyes and hearts are turned upward, but they remain paupers until they are “touched” by God. The congregation’s hand is perpetually half-open, like Mironov’s “Pauper,” and awaiting the token and the touch of God’s grace. The role of the Christian artist therefore, most especially in a setting of public worship, is to know and experience the audience as a human canvas upon which the grace and mercy of God is to be communicated. How does the Christian visual artist properly “paint” upon the canvas of such pronounced and painfully poignant human pain? How, by God’s grace, do we uplift the spiritually needy? Although I address the Christian VISUAL artist, this illustration applies equally to all artists who seek to faithfully communicate Christ through words, actions, sacrament and sound.

This intersects with why Mironov used the left hand in the healing process. In iconography, as well as throughout the history of the western Christian artistic tradition, the RIGHT hand is ALWAYS used. Never does our Lord use his left hand for blessing and benediction. Mironov’s purpose, I believe, is to humanize the process and priority of healing. In other words, utilizing our understanding of Theology, Mironov’s left hand of healing corresponds to Natural Theology. That is, applied to our topic, the Christian visual arts are an exercise of Natural Theology. The “Word” may be inherent to the work of the Christian artist, but it is not implicit. The responsibility of the visual artist is, therefore, to reveal the Word within the image. That is, she, through her art, is to use the natural to reveal the supernatural. Christian arts as an exercise of Natural Theology is to, so to speak, write straight (right hand) with crooked lines (left hand). All Christian arts are crooked attempts, even at their best, to create a direct path to an experience of the True and Living God. All “natural” efforts that do not reveal the “Word” beneath the image, are to be prohibited in public worship. The art, of whatever variety in public worship, must clearly attend to opening the eyes of the blind (to seeing and knowing Christ), or it is to be prohibited.

In his right hand “Jesus” holds the spit and mud used to heal the man born blind. With very little effort, based upon the positioning of the hand itself (as well as its visually stated purpose), we can imagine an artist’s palette. Christ’s right hand is the artist’s palette, the natural stuff of the artist’s trade, by which he “paints” upon the canvas of our pronounced need. It is, to exaggerate but a little, an action of transubstantiation– the turning of the secular and natural into the sacred supernatural. It is, so to speak, with all intended reverence, as monstrous (the choice of the word is deliberate!) as the Eucharist– albeit with not the same efficacious intention or outcome. Christian artists are gifted and graced participants, as well as Officiants, in transsubstantive action. Christian visual artists, and all Christian artists in public worship, must approach their task with a seriousness befitting their task.

Finally, Mironov’s title is quite curious. Why “Jesus”? Why “Pauper”? Other titles, I believe, are far more appropriate to his visual text. Might the artist simply be trying to illustrate the impoverished state of our humanity? Jesus was and is Christ (although there is, in my thinking, no such artificial division), and yet fully clothed in the ragged glory of our humanity. The “Pauper,” although clearly blind, represents our own needy condition. We stand, like the “Pauper,” miserable and blind and naked before Jesus who is God in the flesh; awaiting, with eyes and hands uplifted, the glorious work of God. In short, “Jesus” has fully entered our humanity in order to heal and uplift and elevate us to what we, by God’s grace, are called to be. As such, and contrary to the unwarranted elevation of the artist-into-prophet in our society, the Christian artist is called to gracefully and truthfully communicate the divine prerogative into human perspectives– visual, verbal, vocal. The artist, like Christ, is called to that great humility which alone can be transformed and used by God. The humility of our humanity is the palette from which, within which, and toward which our craft is aimed. Such humility elevates. As a “Pauper,” the Christian artist has been gifted and graced with a sight that she is called to communicate. Artists, opening the eyes of the blind and the mouths of the mute, are humble healers. As a gift, as a grace, humility is the only proper perspective the Christian artist must have. She, in imitation of Jesus, uses her graced gift in order to open the eyes of others so that we might both see and become the persons we are intended to become. Christian arts, therefore, are actions of deification– properly understood and articulated.

A. N. Mironov’s “Jesus and the Pauper” provides the viewer with a unique perspective, a perspective that is most relevant to the Christian visual artist whose responsibilities revolve around the proper public worship of God. What does Mironov’s work communicate to us and our task?



DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.


Image above: “Jesus and the Pauper.” Andrey Mironov, 2009. Oil on canvas.

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Eucharist: Directive or Dispute?

Donald Richmond:


raphael_disputa_altar_detailRaphael’s “La Disputa” is displayed on one of the frescoed walls of the Signature Room in the Vatican. Here the Holy Trinity (the vertical line of the painting) sovereignly supervises and sanctions the process by which the Church receives the graced Eucharistic revelation. Along two horizontal lines, one in heaven and one on earth, angels and saints discuss the nature of this God-given gift.

Of note, along the horizontal earthly line of the fresco, is the clear division between one side of the Altar and Monstrance and the other side. Popes, prelates and people– along with Dante (in the lower right quadrant)– stand on BOTH sides of the discussion. Both attend to the Altar. Both attend to their books. Both have some formal “architecture” of understanding, as illustrated by the divergent structures behind each side of the Altar, to “support” their argument. Both recognize the centrality of Holy Communion– but they are in dispute. Which side is right? To which argument can we affix our name, our signature, our endorsement? Which argument does the Church itself endorse?

Within the Church there are a wide diversity of opinions, and hearty disagreements, about this most holy Sacrament. Some, Roman Catholics in particular, endorse the philosophic concept of Transubstantiation. Lutherans embrace Consubstantiation. Calvin and Zwingli have more spiritualized interpretations. Anglicans and Catholics celebrate the “Real Presence,” but are divided about what, exactly, this means. Evangelicals assert a “remembrance,” but often have little understanding about what it means to re–member an event of such significance. Some Christians, sadly, refuse to participate in this Sacrament altogether because they do not want to add to the divisions in the Church.

Although there are differences, disagreements, and divisions, there is at least one truth to which all Christians subscribe: Participation in Holy Communion is a directive given by God. Jesus instituted the Sacrament, and is identified through this breaking of bread. St. Paul affirmed it, and provided clear expectations for participation in it. The early Church, as articulated in Acts 2:42, was known for its commitment to the Table. “DO THIS” is an expectation of God to be taken with the utmost of seriousness.

Raphael’s “La Disputa” presents both a heavenly and earthly perspective on this most important Sacrament. As both earthly (Bread & Wine) and divine (Body & Blood), Eucharist is complicated. There will be, therefore, differences on many levels. But there is one thing we must not differ upon; there is one thing that is not too complicated. Jesus tells us to “DO THIS” and St. Paul tells us that we must evaluate ourselves and our relationships when we do. Will we DO IT or DISPUTE IT?



Image above: “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” or “La Disputa.” Raphael, c. 1510. Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, Vatican.

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Disastrous Distractions

Donald Richmond:

Adam-and-EvePeter Wenzel’s lushly illustrative Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (right) highlights critical issues related to both Lent and life. A reflective analysis of this visual text presents critical cautionary notes to which we would be wise to attend. Failure to “see” his essential message will inevitably result in spiritual compromise.

Take a moment to “read” and “reflect” upon Wenzel’s masterpiece. Begin with the front of the painting and progressively move toward the distant horizon. Here we find a multitude of animals, both wild and tame, placed within a lush landscape of green pastures, quiet waters, misted mountains and (slightly to the left of center) a waterfall. Dominating our attention, with luminous light radiating upon the text’s theme, are Adam and Eve beneath the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Both are naked, with Adam reclining.

According to Father Mark Haydu, “the international coordinator of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums,” there are “more than 200 distinct animal species” represented in this picture (Meditations on Vatican Art, Ligouri, 2013). This fact alone, coupled with all of the other colors, sights, smells and sounds in this work, communicate a visual cacophony that can easily distract us from the purpose of the picture.

As mentioned above, the dominant theme of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is, not unsurprisingly, Adam and Eve. With all of the other “action” in the picture, this might be easy to miss. Look again at Adam and Eve. Note the visual “conversation” between them and the important textual “commentary” provided by Wenzel. In her hand Eve holds a fruit. She is presenting this to Adam whose feature and form seem to simultaneously suggest nonchalance (he is seated), hesitation (his slightly raised right hand), questioning (his facial expression) and the rise of fear, guilt and shame (as evidenced in his slightly elevated left knee that protects the viewer from seeing his more private parts).  Foliage and the position of Eve’s left arm, as well, shield us from seeing her nakedness. In both cases we are witnessing a bit of dramatic foreplay — the outcome being now fully known by each of us.

Look again. Eve’s right arm and finger point to the upper right hand of the Tree. Here circles the Serpent. Look to the upper left part of this Tree and you will see a monkey who also holds a fruit not unlike Eve’s. Is this a “monkey see, monkey do” critique? Is Wenzel calling such action foolishness; an aping of the devil and of evil? As well, just to the right and behind Eve’s feet, is a “proud peacock” in full fan. Pride does, after all, go before the Fall! Pride is at the foot of all evil. It is, quite literally, base.

Wenzel’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden illustrates an important lesson for Lent and life: Do not become distracted. We must not allow ourselves the dangerous luxury of multiple-focused living. As we know, the world, the flesh and the devil provide a great many of them. Although evil “proceeds from the heart,” as says St. James, an environment of temptation, or an unharnessed heart, can set the stage for failure. We must, by the grace of God, again be stripped down to what is most important. What is central? What is the “single eye” to which we must aspire and attain? Eve, in our picture, with her luxuriant left hand holds the fruit just above the heart of Adam. The cock is crowing just below Adam’s feet. We know his choice. What will be ours?


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A Thanksgiving Gifting Ritual

Jim Robertson:

In May of 2011, I was privileged to curate worship on the opening night of the Vital Church Planting Conference in Edmonton, Alberta. This is an annual event, co-sponsored by the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton and Wycliffe College’s Institute of Evangelism. The gathering ritual crafted for this event is also well suited for Thanksgiving, as it involves receiving in gratitude, sharing with others, giving back to God, and receiving from God anew to give yet again. It is a welcoming / gathering / offering / sending ritual, all worked through variations on a single motif… the giving and receiving of a flower.

Carnations are an ideal flower for this ritual as they are long stemmed, sturdy, inexpensive, and available in variety of colours. Other flowers could be used, but they must be able to withstand being handled several times. You will need one carnation per expected attendee, and a vase for every twenty-five or so flowers. Personnel requirements include a worship celebrant, music team, one ritual attendant per vase and at least one liturgical dancer.

The Welcoming

Gift is at the core of the ritual, and forms the welcoming to the gathering. Prior to the service, have the ritual attendants at the building entrances, each with a vase. As persons enter, each is presented a flower, and greeted with these words: With the gifts I have received from God, I welcome you to this gathering. Encourage the attendants to use the scripted wording, as this prepares the congregation for the gathering of the community, and the concept of “gift” that is carried through the ritual.

The Gathering

When the congregation is assembled, the celebrant guides them in the Gathering of the Community. Three times, each person is to exchange her carnation with another, while saying to each other: With the gifts I have received from God, I welcome you to this gathering. The three exchanges are to occur with a different person each time. I like the three times as it evokes Trinitarian imagery. Here’s a possible variation. The first time, a person might say: With the Gifts I have received from the Father…  The second time: With the gifts I have received from the Son… Third time: With the gifts I have received from the Spirit… Welcoming, and being welcomed by a mix of people is an important design element, so give clear instructions to move on to two other persons after the first exchange. It may also be helpful to have this text projected through this time.

As the congregation is nearing the end of the exchanges, the music team can start playing a gathering song instrumentally. (For the Vital Church Planting Conference, the song used was Paul Baloche’s “Because of Your Love.”) As people have been moving around and mixing, it may take a minute to get back to their seats.

The Offering

When the congregation is mostly back to their spots, lyrics can start, and the service flows into the offering. At this time, the ritual attendants start at the back of the church, gathering the flowers into the vases, working their way to the front. When all the flowers are gathered, the attendants, one at a time, from the foot of the altar area, present the vases to the dancer, who ‘dances’ the vases  individually to the altar and places them on it, while the song continues to be sung congregationally. The gifts each person has received from God in being welcomed are offered back to God.

The Middle Bit

From here, the service can flow into a music set, sermon and Eucharist, but do be creative as to how these elements can be tailored to suit the context the ritual has provided and to which it will return.

The Sending Out in Mission & Benediction

As a sending song is being played, the liturgical dancer “dances” each vase to the foot of the “stage” and hands it to an attendant. When all attendants have their vases, they then distribute the flowers to congregation, while the congregation continues singing the sending song. As the congregation now has embodied being gifted by God and as they are about to go out into the world, the Benediction will hopefully interweave a variation of the gathering words… something such as: With these gifts you have received from God, go, and welcome others into his Kingdom. With those words, the service closes, and the congregation take their flowers into the world as symbols of the gifts of God they carry for others.

Production Assistance

If your congregation wishes to use this ritual, I will happily assist by answering pre-production questions, and discussing variations. Also, I would appreciate hearing how your team and congregation engaged with and reacted to it. I can be contacted at interfaceworship[at]gmail.com for written comments or to arrange a telephone time.

Regarding materials cost, if your church already purchases fresh floral arrangements for the altar each week, consider using the offering bouquets as the altar flowers to overcome fiscal resistance.

Postscript from Jim:

I think the ritual would also work well for Pentecost. In fact, the genesis and first prototype of this ritual was used at a service I created called “Ascentecost”, which is staged between Ascension and Pentecost. This liturgy views two events as the ‘”bookends” of a singular event, being the birth of the church. I think the ritual well symbolises the church being drawn into the perichoritic dance, and reflects both (i) Cappadocian concepts of Trinity (the abundant surplus of love between/within the Trinity creating space for others do dwell in), and (ii) John van Ruusbroec’s (14th century Flemish mystic) descriptions of Trinitarian relationships (Father & Son flowing outwards in individuation, Father & Son flowing inwards in the beauty and simplicity of singularity. the tension between the two being maintained by a love so perfect it can only be love personified, the Holy Spirit).


Jim Robertson is a lay liturgist and a worship innovator. A restless innovator, Jim has crafted many rituals and liturgical components to be used within alternative worship events. Jim’s major events have become known as lavish celebrations of art and devotion, often featuring multiple artists creating prophetic works, hundreds of feet of fabric, blends of ancient and modern devotional practices, multiple prayer stations, unique Eucharistic rituals that portray the event theme, and a serious probing of deeper theological concepts through the experience of worship. Amazingly, Jim maintains a day job as a criminal lawyer. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with his wife Darlene, and has four grown children.

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