13 October 2016

Liturgy 2016-2017 (Full-Time)
3.2: the theology of space and
the use of church buildings

A procession moves freely into Philadelphia Cathedral, which was re-ordered in recent decades by Dean Richard Giles

Patrick Comerford

TH8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Years II, Full-Time:

The hartin Room, Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 12.30 a.m.

13 October 2016

Liturgy 3.2:
The use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church (Discussion, based on readings from Richard Giles, Re-pitching the tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004).

Chapter 8: pp 53-58.

Chapter 14: pp 103-108.

Introduction to the readings:

The Church of the Savior was built in 1898

The Diocese of Pennsylvania was established 1784, making it the second oldest Episcopal diocese in the United States and in the Episcopal Church (TEC). However, Philadelphia has one of the newest Episcopal cathedrals in the US. The Church of the Savior was first built in 1898 to a design in the Italianate style by Charles W. Burns, and was rebuilt in 1906 after a disastrous fire.

Its crowded and ornate interior – typical of the period – survived until the 1990s, when the rigidity of its layout was recognised as a severe handicap in the building’s new role as a cathedral. During this time, the number of pews was steadily reduced to create more space.

In 1992, the Diocese of Pennsylvania designated the church as its cathedral and set about reordering the ornate Italianate interior to reflect the life and theology of the people of the diocese today.

Dean Richard Giles blesses a young worshipper

In 1999, the Very Revd Richard Giles, an Anglican priest from the Church of England with a background in town planning, and the author of Re-pitching the Tent: Re-ordering the Church Building for Mission and Worship, was appointed Dean of the Cathedral, with a mandate to completely rethink the liturgical space.

Working with the architect George Yu, Dean Giles completed a comprehensive renovation of the cathedral’s interior in 2002. The original building by Burns was a basilica in shape, though not in internal layout, and the renovation sought to remedy this. The basilica was the first form of Christian church building, adapted from the public assembly hall of the Roman Empire. The cathedral interior now replicates the layout of a place of Christian worship in the 4th century. An Orthodox visitor described the space using a phrase from the Orthodox Rite of Burial, ‘homeland of my heart’s desire.’

Richard Giles’s vision for re-ordering churches, influenced by the Cistercians, favours a clean, austere space with architecturally strong lines. Furniture is spare and movable to allow for various seating configurations.

Much thought is given to light, both the natural light available through clear windows and illumination for evening use. In contrast to Saint Gregory’s abundant, almost riotous, variety in texture, colour, and iconography, which speaks powerfully of the rich diversity of God’s creation, Richard Giles worked to achieve a single focus – one crucifix, one icon.

This focus is in keeping with his insistence on one table, one ambo or reading desk, one baptismal font, and one cathedra, or bishop’s chair.

He created a space that comes most fully to life only with the addition of the real church: the gathered assembly.

Layout and Design

Each component in the renovated cathedral teaches us about who we are and where we have come from in our Christian journey. The space articulates with clarity the basic elements of Christian liturgy, giving prominence to the four basic elements – initiation, word, sacred meal, and episcopal presidency. Each of these is expressed by a single item of liturgical furniture, without duplication.

The Font

The baptistery is given special prominence, as a sign of our common baptismal covenant. The cathedral is essentially an assembly hall for the baptised. The font incorporates the old font from the former Church of the Savior together with a new pool to allow baptism by immersion (rather than submersion), water flowing continually between them. In this way the fusion of the old and new, past and future, is symbolised.

Around the edge are inscribed words from Revelation 22: 3: ‘The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the lamb, through the middle of the street of the city.’ The font is a gift from the people of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), partners with the Episcopal Church since 2001 in the Call for Common Mission.

The Ambo

The ambo is the place from which God’s word in the sacred scriptures is proclaimed. In the first Christian buildings, the ambo served as both the lectern and the pulpit, the functions of which became separated in a later era. The design is based on the bema or reading desk of the synagogue, at which Jesus himself would have read the Scriptures (Luke 4: 16-17).

The ambo, like the altar-table, is set in the midst of the assembly. In this way it is a reminder that the people of God are fed at the two central tables – Word and Sacrament. The ambo is set on the central axis at the west end of the nave, facing east, as it would have been placed in the Christian basilicas in the early centuries. The ambo is inscribed in Hebrew with words from Psalm 16: 8: ‘I am ever aware of the presence of the Eternal.’

The Altar

The entire congregation gathers around the altar-table during the Eucharistic prayer

The altar-table is the central liturgical focus in Christian worship, for it is symbolically both a place of sacrifice (where we recall the sacrifice of Christ and offer ourselves sacrificially to God), and a place of communion (where we gather to celebrate the presence of the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread).

It is square in shape, symbolising the centring of the community, and indicative of the equal access to God’s table enjoyed by all members of the household of faithful. It is set in the midst of the assembly of faith, not set apart at the east end, to symbolise the rediscovery of the Eucharist as a participatory sacred meal, instead of a distant ritual celebrated exclusively by the ordained.

The Sanctuary, Philadelphia Cathedral

It is neither fenced off by rails, nor distanced from the worshipers by steps, for it belongs to the whole people of God. It is movable, reminding us that we are a pilgrim people like our spiritual forebears the Jews who carried the ark with them, and to allow for many different configurations in the same place.

The Cathedra

Drawing on ancient tradition, the cathedra, the seat of the Bishop of Pennsylvania is not a separate chair, but set in the midst of a presbyterium or synthronos, the semi-circular stone bench on which the bishop was seated among his priests and deacons), symbolic of shared oversight. This was its place in the first Christian buildings of the fourth century.

The bishop’s cathedra dominates the layout of the space, but with simple dignity rather than with ostentation.


Our excerpts for this discussion are from Richard Giles’s book, ‘Re-pitching the Tent’.

Richard Giles retired as Dean of Philadelphia in 2008. On his return to England, he became a Visiting Fellow of Saint John’s College, Durham. He continues to work as a consultant in liturgical design, and lives in Tynemouth. His work and his books remain influential in understanding the use of church buildings and liturgical space.

His particular expertise in the design of liturgical space bore fruit in the publication of Re-Pitching the Tent, now in its third edition, Creating Uncommon Worship (2004) and Times and Seasons (2008). His other works include Mark My Word, daily meditations on Saint Mark’s Gospel, How to be an Anglican, a light-hearted introduction to Anglican belief and practice, and Here I Am, reflections on the ordained life, all published by Canterbury Press.

In Re-Pitching the Tent, Richard Giles says that when it comes to the environment of worship, we should never underestimate the influence of our building upon the way we think about God, about each other, and about the relative importance of the activity we have come together to engage in. Our buildings need to speak clearly to us of what we are about as the people of God.

Throughout Christian history, every fresh insight into the nature and love of God, every reform or revival, has been worked out in bricks and mortar as well as in tracts and texts.

The re-ordering of the church building can be the catalyst by which a parish community is recalled to the pilgrim path, to the adventure of going with Jesus into the unknown, to essential Christianity. … Like the house-churches of the early centuries, our buildings should provide us houses which can become homes for the Christian assembly, showing us how to be fully human in order that we may become more fully church.

At the heart of Christian worship lies the mystery of the transformation of the people of God themselves into temples of the Holy Spirit, and the task of transferring this truth to the drawing board is not an easy one.

The people who stay outside our buildings vastly outnumber those who venture inside. … For those outside, our ecclesiastical world remains alien territory requiring considerable effort and courage to penetrate. Our task as Christians with a welcome to give and a story to tell is to remove one by one every obstacle which might just conceivably deter anyone from taking a closer look at who we are and what we are doing.

We are above all designing for mystery, for something beyond that which we can contrive or control.

Movement both recalls us to our nomadic roots as God’s journeying people and helps us in a practical way to involve all those present at worship to participate in the liturgical action … Movement is the hallmark of a community which knows it has not arrived, but is in transit, discovering God not at the end of the journey but in the journeying. We move because we must.

We are beings-in-relationship rather than creatures in ourselves, and our buildings should demonstrate the corporate nature of our worship.

Next week:

20 October 2016 (9 a.m. to 11.30 a.m.):

4.1: Creation, Trinity and theologies of worship and prayer;

4.2: Traditions of prayer (1): seminar readings on Benedictine, Franciscan, prayer.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 13 October 2016 was part of the MTh module, TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thnaks for this. Clarifies internal furniture for me. Some churches are big on the Word, and so the pulpit dominates the nave. Contrasts could help with understanding. CHurches where all the pews face the front illustrate the strength of leadership by the clergy and the official aspects of church life. Chairs in the round, as above illustrate something powerful about the nature of community and the possiblity of sharing conversation together, rather than listen to a word from on high...