I was quite pleased while reading Joseph Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict XVI) piece “On the Meaning of Church Architecture” in his Dogma and Preaching,
“We could summarize this finding in the formula: Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, has replaced the Temple. Or, in a way that more clearly applies to our question: What the Temple was for the Old Testament is supplied for the Church, not by any building, but rather by a man--the God-man Jesus Christ” (235).Though he will continue to make the case, based on transubstantiation, that a church building must “express the fact that inside there is God’s presence, an incursion of the eternal into time” (238), nevertheless, his admission that the temple is replaced by Christ Himself, is significant as we think of sacred space for worship. [To see why Ratzinger's admission that the Church building is not a Temple is important see my previous post Sacred Space 1]
To put the issue properly, the place we build for worship, and the way it is arranged, should (and usually does) reflect our theology and what we believe (and don‘t believe). For example, if we fall on the side of transubstantiation, then the sacred space will reflect that view with altars, a tabernacle for the reserved sacrament, even a Temple-like atmosphere of incense and hushed awe. If we go to the other side, the Zwinglian “memorialist” position of the real absence (see Erickson, 1123), then the worship space will reflect this through the visual downplay of the sacraments. This is increasingly moving in the direction of the theater-like space where any vestiges of sacraments and Christian symbol are being, at the worst, eradicated and, at the best, hidden in the supply room to be brought out at prime moments.
But what about those of us who hold, with John Calvin, that in the sacrament we truly have a “holy participation of his flesh and blood, by which Christ communicates his life to us” (Institutes, 4.17.10)? If we genuinely hold to Christ’s real presence in the word and sacraments where we truly participate in Him by the effective work and power of the Holy Spirit (Calvin, Ibid), then how can this be reflected in the architecture and visual furnishing of the worship area? This, it appears to me, is the rub. The tendency is for American Presbyterians to normally default into a more Zwinglian-compatible architecture which broadcasts a non-embodied, detached, almost Gnostic view of worship (by Gnostic, I am refering to anti-cosmic, anti-physical dualism; for more, see my book Gnostic Trends in the Local Church). To go down this road a bit further, the Zwinglian-informed worship space often presents a strident rationalist structure, by the visual primacy of the pulpit that dwarfs the sacraments and the congregation, and by the audible preaching that fills almost the whole service.
“While upon entering some Reformed churches one ( . . . ) sees a very rationalistic faith! ( . . . ) All too many Reformed churches portray in their architecture that they are rationalistic, proud churches which are so confident of their reason and their preaching that they have no need of the Sacraments Christ ordained” (Bruggink and Droppers, 125).Of course, there is also a growing move by some to follow the other trajectory of Zwinglian-informed architecture: removing the pulpit, along with all other “Christian” accoutrements (table, baptismal font, crosses, etc) so that the “worship space” broadcasts a stage performance with a rock-star “worship team” and either a seated-on-a-stool or casually-pacing-about talking-head. In other words, an entertaining, casual, Jesus-is-my-Bud-but-he’s-not-really-present kind of theology.
Here, then, I enter on two reflective thoughts that beg for deep, mulled-over replies:
First, if we really believe that “the ordinary means by which Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 88), then wouldn’t and shouldn’t our worship space clearly, and unashamedly highlight this?
Second, assuming the Catechism statement is true (and I do), then wouldn’t that mean our worship space is sacred, set-apart to a consecrated, weighty, singular and godly use?
I look forward to your replies and perceptive thoughts here.
Bruggink, Donald J. and Carl H. Droppers, “Christ and Architecture: Building Presbyterian/Reformed Churches”, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.
Calvin, John, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, trans. By John Allen, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, n.d.
Erickson, Millard J., “Christian Theology”, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985.
Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI), “Preaching and Dogma: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life”, trans. Michael J. Miller and Michael J. O’Connell, San Fransisco: Ignatius, 2011.