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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 1: March 2002

Re-pitching the Wrecking Ball

Feverish haste to remodel churches reflects radical renovation of theology

by Matthew Grantham

Rarely does one find an author talking so candidly about the theology that underlies radical church renovations as does Anglican clergyman Richard Giles in his revealing book, Re-pitching the Tent: Reordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission (reprinted 1999, Liturgical Press). Giles does so in surprisingly blunt language in this book, first published in England in 1996. One quote seems to capture the essential thesis of the book: "We must return to the primacy of the assembly as an icon of Christ" (117).

Giles embraces a view that has prevailed among some influential members of the Catholic liturgical establishment for many years: namely, that the central purpose of liturgical worship is to manifest the presence of Christ by and within the gathered community. Worship is not so much directed towards God, praying to and adoring Him, but about reimagining God in accordance with contemporary culture - in particular, "humanity's rediscovery of itself". Says Giles, "No matter how beautifully and carefully designed a worship space may be, it remains an empty stage until the cast has entered who will bring to life the words of the story".

"Our worship is our work, and a work in progress", according to Giles. He laments that people "attempt to address God in the language of today amidst the debris of yesterday's church.... They are hampered and hindered as no previous Christian generation ever was by the buildings erected to serve them but which now subdue them" (5). For Christians "on the move", as for the Jews at the time of Moses, "the tent, not the palace, is the true measure of authenticity". Thus, he states, "the Temple reinforced the rigidly hierarchical system by which man was now to approach God. This hardening of the arteries in the relationship between God and his people was a disease which was to rear its head again in Christianity in its later periods of development, and deeply influence its own architectural understanding of sacred space. Only now is the patient beginning to return to normal" (p 25).

And this "return" calls for the wrecking ball.

"Ruthless reassessment of every detail"

Obviously, this view leaves no room for traditional worship or traditionally-designed churches, and Giles has no qualms about saying so:

"For better or for worse, the renewal of pastoral liturgy necessary to bring about that transition from church to Church cannot be achieved without a ruthless reassessment of every detail of our buildings' interiors, and the longer we leave it, the worse the pain and upheaval will be" (211).

Giles book is more than a reassessment: it is a defense of every radical innovation in church architecture that we have seen over the last century. For Giles, classical church architecture impedes the Christian mission, and so a decisive break with Christian tradition is necessary.

Giles often interjects critiques of those he calls "preservationists"; these are at times quite blunt. When talking about the "ideal location" of the Blessed Sacrament being in a separate chapel, he warns of the "deep-seated nostalgia for the days when the tabernacle on the high altar provided both a glorious visual focus for the whole worship space and a triumphalist political statement at the same time" (211). Earlier in his book, Giles is even more direct:

No one has warned [renovators] just how vicious people can become when their precious church-museum is threatened with 'desecration', and all too often it takes only a poison-pen letter (with a copy to the bishop!) to ensure a sudden loss of enthusiasm by the clergy. There is little awareness of the basic fact of life that change, and therefore discipleship, is costly (136).

It is always open season for preservationists hunting down Christians caught drinking coffee in church, but those who see our buildings as primarily architectural objects rather than houses of the church have little concept of building community. Their interest lies in dead stones, and living stones only in so far as they keep the dead ones in good repair. God forbid that eyes should meet or bodies touch (162).

Giles's remarks make one wonder whether the call for a more "parishioner-friendly" church applies only when the parishioners share Giles's views.

Giles in the City of Brotherly Love

Now serving as dean of the Episcopal Church of Christ the Savior in Philadelphia (which has been renamed "The Philadelphia Cathedral"), Giles has had an opportunity to put some of his ideas into practice in the United States. The cathedral is undergoing an extensive remodeling of its interior. According to articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the inside of the cathedral has long been considered "the finest surviving Victorian church interior in the region, if not the nation". One local architect called the renovation "an act of cultural vandalism".

The articles report that much of the artwork has been moved, sold, or destroyed (including a baptismal font donated by the founder of Drexel University, which was incorporated into the new baptismal "pool"), and the pews and choir stalls were apparently removed. Some of the murals in the cathedral painted by Edwin Blashfield -- who painted murals in the Library of Congress and is considered among the greatest 19th century American muralists -- may be covered up by new stucco walls, according to the Inquirer. (The cathedral's web site in January denied that the murals will be altered).

Although Giles himself declined to comment about the renovation when interviewed by the Inquirer, the web site of the Philadelphia cathedral defends the renovation, calling the controversy surrounding the cathedral renovation a case of "conservation vs. preservation". The article explains:

"Conservation attempts, by sensitive architectural alteration, to give an historic building a new lease on life. In the case of the cathedral, this means retaining the complete structure of the building.... All this while refurbishing and re-equipping the interior space to meet the changed needs of a parish church".

Tents built of living stones

The unsigned article on the web site justifies the renovation project as necessary and cost-efficient, and claims that the changes are theologically sound because God's people first dwelt in "'tents' rather than 'temples'", recalling the title of Giles' book.

"Form follows function, follows faith", the web site says, comparing the "preservation approach" to those who would "pickle a building in formaldehyde, embalming it in a previous state...."

"Every feature of these proposals has a theological significance based on a consistent rationale arising out of the Liturgical Movement, at the center of which is the insight, common to both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, that God's people are pilgrims on the move, living in 'tents' rather than 'temples', i.e. in houses of the Church that are understood as provisional signs of the 'spiritual house' built of living stones" (original emphasis).

Ecumenical space, ecumenical liturgy

As part of an ecumenical agreement between the Episcopal Church of the USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, there is now a Lutheran "co-pastor" of Giles's cathedral, Gordon Lathrop, Professor of Liturgy at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia - and a consulting editor of Worship, an influential Catholic liturgical journal published by the Benedictine monks of Saint John's Abbey, Collegeville, the publishers of Re-pitching the Tent.

The Philadelphia cathedral's web site is currently promoting a new Philadelphia Liturgical Institute, described as an "Anglican-Lutheran initiative to establish on the East Coast a center for liturgical renewal in the local church".

The site also mentions "the work of gradually forming an Episcopal-Lutheran congregation to develop a cathedral rite that, while honoring both our traditions, is a new creation particular to our unique situation".

Although Giles is a clergyman in the Anglican communion, Catholic architects and "liturgical consultants" have welcomed enthusiastically his vision of church architecture when "renovating" Catholic churches.

Keep your eye on the wrecking ball

According to an article posted on the web site of the Episcopal Church, USA, (www.episcopalchurch.org), Catholic architect Robert Habiger, the architect in charge of designing Saint Francis Episcopal church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, was pleased to see that the parish committee overseeing the project had read Re-pitching the Tent -- Habinger remarked that it "created a match in our philosophies".

"I am a firm believer of centering the primary functions -- like the altar being in the midst of the assembly. People should be able to see and hear each other and encounter the rest of the church in the midst of the assembly", Habinger said. The pastor of the New Mexico church called Habinger's design, "the most functional building I think I've ever been in".

Upon completion of the project, Giles himself was invited to preach at the church's dedication. In an interview published on the Episcopalian web site, Giles complained that traditional Episcopalian churches "shout non-participation".

"They shout hierarchy. They shout division ... they shout passive audience", he said. Giles went on to compare traditional churches to his own plans for the renovation of the Philadelphia cathedral, a process which he called "taking a Victorian building with very ornate, rigid furniture. ... and embarking on a renovation which will honor the past, not simply for the last 300 years, but for the last 2,000 years. It will take us back to the first Christian experience of being a community of the baptized".

Habiger's firm has helped renovate many Catholic Churches in the Southwest and the Midwest, and is currently working on several renovation projects nationwide, including Saint Mary's Cathedral in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral in Dodge City, Kansas. Many of the designs posted on the firm's web site (www.liturgydesign.com) show a striking resemblance to Giles's vision of an ideal church. Habiger's web site's functionalist view of the Liturgy echoes that of Giles:

"When remodeling an existing or designing a new worship space, the primary form maker is the liturgy. A structure and its arrangement of furniture must respond to the rites and rituals of each particular denomination's [sic] liturgy. this means that the design of a place of worship starts first by understanding how the rites and rituals are executed", the web site says.

Giles has caught the eye of other Catholic liturgists who share his views. He is quoted extensively in an official document of the Canadian Catholic Conference, Our Place of Worship, the official architectural guidelines of the Canadian bishops' conference.

The publishers of his book, Liturgical Press, of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, convened a conference last summer titled "Differing Visions, One Communion", which Giles addressed, along with well-known Catholic liturgical experts, Nathan Mitchell and Father Gilbert Odsteik, OSB. (Mitchell, a former Benedictine priest, writes a monthly column for Worship.)

Re-pitching the Tent was reviewed favorably in Environment and Art Letter, a magazine on church architecture published by Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

***

Matthew Grantham is a graduate student at St. Louis University and news editor of the Adoremus Bulletin.

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