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Saturday, 14 January 2012

Loooking at the effect that the place of worship might have on the worshipper

We love the place, O God,
Wherein Thine honour dwells;
The joy of Thine abode
All earthly joy excels.
It is the house of prayer
Wherein Thy servants meet;
And Thou, O Lord, art there
Thy chosen flock to greet.1

Perhaps a good question to start with is; do I go to worship to encounter God, or do I take Him with me? Do things change in different environments and how might places of worship aid or hinder worship? Different styles of church building attempt to create, foster and preserve sacred space in different ways. But what works for one person may not suit someone else.

'The fact also remains that different people will always own different aesthetics, and attempting to satisfy all at the same time is unrealistic'.2

The Medieval Cathedral made of stone is significantly larger and more architecturally impressive than those which surround it, especially when it was first built. Constructing the cathedral in the first place generally took enormous funds, over a lifetime's work and the talents of a huge number of workers. Inside, the pillars can strongly resemble a stone wood or forest, the 'trunks' reaching up to the canopy of stone or wood far above. The walls would originally have been painted in lively and gaudy colours, the same as the huge stained glass windows. Compared to the average house in the Medieval period, it was breathtaking. The intent was to impress and induce a sense of awe and wonder; especially of God Himself, the great architect of the world. God is high above; we are as but ants in His presence.

In Wells Cathedral recently, I was requested to try praying in different parts of the building and see what happened and how it felt. I know the Cathedral well from previous visits. The first thing I really noticed was the scent of stone and possibly polish. Also the light level was dim, like dusk or twilight, which was very restful. Whenever I've gone out before dawn or at dusk there's a moment of silence just before or after the sun is visible, when the world seems to hold its breath. The people at the Cathedral seem to be trying to recreate that moment.

I initially sat down in the Nave on one of the many chairs there. The surroundings were beautiful but slightly austere. There was quiet talking in the background. I did find a connection with God, but it wasn't easy on this occasion.

In the much smaller nearby chapel of St Edmund Rich, the surroundings were darker, but secluded and contemplative. There was light coming down the nearby stairs and through the open top of the chapel. At head height, over the small altar, the stone work was very decorative and resembled stalactites. Here I found it easier to connect with God.

In the continuing exploration around the Cathedral, I went into the chapel of St Martin, which is a special memorial place for those who gave their lives in wars. In the window above the altar were stained glass windows depicting St George, St Martin himself and St Alfred. Below this and on the back of the altar was a very decorative carved and painted frieze of Jesus enthroned and receiving loyal tribute from various anonymous kings and princes. On the left were books of remembrance and on the other side, a tomb. At the back were two beautifully tapestried cushions dotted with England roses and patriotic sayings. Service personnel and their loved ones would probably find this space honouring and affirming. I was reminded of the verse in Romans chapter 5, 'for a good man, one might dare to die'.

There are scores of other spaces in the Cathedral where prayer and worship may and does take place. Each is subtly different; some richly coloured and tapestried; others plain and simple. A Cathedral in particular has the space to provide these different environments where genuine worship can happen.

Many small communities around the world have a chapel, a small 'church' building usually plain and simple, as a functional place where worship may be held. The Quakers and others have very plain surroundings in their chapels, in the belief that visual stimuli might distract from focussing upon God. There are lots of these in rural places and where early Celtic saints lived or were born [Wales, Cornwall, Scotland]. Some, like the stone chapel at Govan's Head claim to be built by the saint themselves.

On Caldey Island and near Tenby that I visited recently, there were several places specifically set apart for prayer. Two small, old, beautiful chapels out on the island and a quiet room set aside in the retreat house. In fact, in each of our bedrooms we had Bibles along with a crucifix for private devotions. There were a number of paths in the woods and along the cliffs or down to one of the beaches. Most of them had seats or benches along the way to encourage sitting and praying in nature. There's even a Calvary with a life-size figure of Christ overlooking a view of Tenby and the sea.

My own church of St Benedict is just over nine hundred years old. It was substantially enlarged in the Victorian era, then a choir vestry was added in the early 20th century. People frequently comment about the prayerful atmosphere of the church. Some of them are not even church members! It also has an excellent acoustic. As a singer, I've proved this for myself many times. The worship is similar to regular Anglican parish churches in many places.

St Margaret's Chapel nearby is a much smaller and plainer church. Founded sometime in the 12th or 13th century, it draws people to it from all over the world. During the twelve to fourteen years I was part of an ecumenical Christian community based at the site, I was privileged to hear many stories of faith from people of many spiritualities. Many of the comments in the visitors' book and in prayers were of the chapel's peaceful and inspiring simplicity. A good percentage reported that their time in the chapel or in the garden nearby had helped them another step on their spiritual pilgrimage.

Does the worship environment matter? What about Christian gatherings in the open; such as river baptisms, rallies, beach missions? Surely genuine worship happens at least sometimes in these places.

'It is possible to worship God in a gymnasium or lecture hall, because if people are truly seeking him, God will meet them there. But to worship in such architecture is to suggest that our purpose is either recreational or cerebral. We should build spaces crafted specially for a human-divine encounter with God' 3

Pilgrimage is an important part of spiritual life for many Christians. Christians see life itself as a journey, coming from God and returning to God. The pilgrim seeks to separate himself from the everyday concerns of the world, and to spend time in the presence of God as he travels to a place of special meaning. A pilgrimage is a symbol that is acted out. Back in the Middle Ages pilgrimages were very popular. Pilgrimage was long and very dangerous and may have taken many years.

'Because of certain surroundings (such as a church auditorium, or a flat rock near a quiet lake), some people might be caused to think about God because of previous experiences at those locations. Thus, because we remember, and because we form associations, our surroundings can provide some input for worship....Expressions of worship should not be limited to church buildings. Anywhere you can think, speak, or act, you can also worship. And that worship can be in spirit and truth.'6

Using 'stations' as points of prayer and visual focus: these are small artistic installations, which may have art, poetry, interactive stuff (like writing), symbols (like water/hand-washing), or something thematic about them. Usually people are at some point given a chance to visit them and partake in some act of prayer or devotion.

Sometimes there is worship/non-worship Space Demarcation, based on the idea that you have to go through a transition to focus on worship. On the way in, people may remove shoes, wash hands, etc. to physically prepare themselves and focus before worship. This also makes the sense of being 'gathered together' very apparent.

In recent years, Christians have revived the ancient tradition of making and walking labyrinths. Spirituality requires attention, hence, a category of activities known as spiritual practices. Walking a labyrinth is such a practice. In this way, the labyrinth makes spirituality accessible to everyone. It is a form of personal meditation and devotion, not a piety of obedience. While walking the labyrinth we can repeat a phrase as our mantra, such as "Lead me," or "Be still and know I am God." In the Old Testament, David advised Solomon to "Walk in the ways of God." As a form of body prayer, the labyrinth embodies our experience, hopefully keeping it from being just theoretical or mental.

What, if anything, enlivens our worship? Do the words, the music, the people or the actions which facilitate genuine worship, or is it something else. Some believe it is the priest or worship leader who has been specially set apart and anointed to lead services. But God is not a slot machine, that mere words and ceremonies alone will - as it were - command Him. The Biblical record palpably demonstrates this. There must be something else at work in genuine worship.

' is not our faith or our expectation or our activity, still less the power of the priest, that produces the encounter with God. He has always got there before us.'7

So, maybe it is not the words and other elements that summon God. More likely, everything offered in whatever setting works upon the congregation so that they may better perceive the reality of what already exists, that God is already present.

From Biblical times onwards, saints and sinners have also discovered that God is with them in the direst circumstances. An extreme example would be of those Christians imprisoned or tortured for their faith. Paul and Silas in jail, Stephen in the act of being stoned to death and Peter. Within living memory, people like Terry Waite have kept their faith whilst in captivity. The person who really impressed me when I was a teenager was Pastor Richard Wurmbrand in his writings. He was imprisoned by the Communists for refusing to deny Christ. He wrote the following of his experience:-

'We were surrounded by angels; we were with God. We no longer believed about God and Christ and angels because Bible verses said it... We remembered about God because we experienced it. With great humility we can say with the apostles, "What we have seen with our eyes, what we have heard with our ears, what we have touched with our own fingers, this we tell to you'8

In conclusion, the writer of this psalm put it best:-

'Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast'.9

I proved this myself when I went to New Zealand. I was about as far away from England as I could get on the Earth, yet God was there. You might possibly say I took Him with me.

'For Thou, within no walls confined,
Inhabitest the humble mind;
Such ever bring Thee, where they come,
And, going, take Thee to their home'.10

1 William Bullock

3 Architect Daniel Lee

7 A Guide to the Sacraments by John Macquarrie

8 Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, imprisoned and tortured for his Christian faith

9 Psalm 139

10 Hymn by W. Couper

Not quoted directly, but consulted:-

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