Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Church in the Round

By Dr. Kwok Pui Lan

This blog post is excerpted from a sermon preached at St. John's Memorial Chapel on December 6, 2012. For the full text of the sermon visit Dr. Kwok Pui Lan’s blog.  

St. John’s Memorial Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School was built in the nineteenth century. I asked historian David Sigenthaler what chapel and worship was like when he was a student at the school in the 1950s. At that time the altar was set against the east wall, the faculty sat up in the chancel, and the students sat in the pews facing each other. Each would have an assigned seat and chapel during that time was compulsory. The design of sacred space mirrored the hierarchical setup of the community. In the 1960s when Christopher Durasingh and Ed Rodman were students, the pews were removed and replaced with chairs.
In 1992 when I joined the school, the altar was brought forward to the crossing and the ambo was placed on the west side near the entrance. The students sat facing each other.

To honor Brett Donham who renovated St. Paul’s at Brookline after the fire in 1976 and our presider Rev. Jeffrey Mello, the rector of St. Paul’s, we have created a worshipping space modeling after St. Paul’s in which the congregation and the choir sit surrounding the altar. Donham talked about the rationale of why he designed the church in such a way:

“The traditional forms of church buildings, with everyone facing in the same direction and with the ‘expert’; the intermediary or interpreter, on a raised stage addressing an audience is the antithesis of gathering in community.”

Today many churches are recovering the early roots of Christianity. Donham continues, “In these places people gather in community to offer praise and thanksgiving, to reflect on scripture, to share stories about Jesus Christ and his impact on their lives, to share a commemorative meal, and through this to come into communion with Christ, and with one another. These are communal activities, with many players, several centers of action and movement, and require the ability to see one another and feel as a gathered body.”

The church in the round exists not for itself but for others. One of the hallmarks of the church in the round, as theologian Letty Russell has described in her book with the same title is hospitality to those on the margins. Macrina demonstrated her hospitality by feeding the hungry, providing for the needy, and taking care of young women. The two aspects of gathering for worship and sending out to service are inseparable.

Sometimes we are disheartened because we find the church more like the form of a triangle, in which power is concentrated at the top, instead of in the round. The church design and liturgy reinforce the separation between the clergy and the laity. Worship is often separated from ordinary life and from a sense of mission. It fails to give the sustenance that we need or meet the deepest longing we have for God.

In the season of Advent, a time of anticipation and expectation, let us renew our hope and work for a church in the round. One of my students Lucretia Mann brought to my attention an Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, who has said that church is not an institution, but a way of being, that is deeply bound to the being of human, the being of the world, and the being of God.*

We can each bring something new to rejuvenate and enliven our community and way of being. We do not need to abolish the old church in order to create something new. We can redesign and reoccupy sacred space within traditional buildings so that we can experiment with different ways of being with God. In this semester, we have seen several creative expressions of using sacred space, particularly in the Eucharist led by Stephen Burns and Christopher Duraisingh. In the course of doing so, we experienced new centers and movements as people of God.

The church in the round is also a process and not a perfect circle. Sometimes we move two steps forward and one step back. All we are asked to do is to transform the triangle or the rectangular form in our chapel to make it rounder each day to the glory of God. Amen.

* John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 15.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (with Joerg Rieger) is published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Transformative Liturgy

By Brett Donham

In October I participated in the most transformative worship service in my life. It was held in the St. John’s Memorial Chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School. I say “transformative” because it demonstrated possibilities of imagination and creativity that I had not experienced before. I say “participated” because, although I had very little formal role in the service I felt fully engaged, moved, and impelled by the liturgy. This was not a typical passive experience in a church. All senses were engaged; sight, sound, intellect, and emotions.

We gathered around a Baptismal font filled with water. The presider, Stephen Burns, started the service by having us repeat portions of the Baptismal Covenant following which, as we moved past the font to our chairs, we baptized ourselves again from the water in the font. Seating was arranged in choir form in the nave with parallel rows of chairs facing each other across the nave. The pulpit was at one end of the space and the altar at the other end. We faced one another as a community with the action taking place first at one end, then at another and sometimes in the middle. Lessons were read from one end and the choir led by Ellen Oak supported us in hymns from the other end. The trustees stood where they were seated for their commissioning. The hymns had a greater variety and more intensity than what I was used to. At the Eucharist we all gathered around the altar. The prayers were loosely based on the standard rubric but seemed more personal. During Communion two large drums sounded with deep sonorous tones that seemed ancient and deeply fundamental to who we were in relation to our God and to Christ.

Last week I had a similar experience at the annual service of Lessons and Carols held also in the Chapel. The seating was arranged in a V arrangement, half inclined towards the center aisle and half inclined towards the altar. The choir, sounding better than I can remember, was arranged in a shallow arc on the steps to the apse. A few of the hymns were traditional, sung by the whole gathering, some were Medieval sung in Latin by the choir and some were duets or solos. The sources of song ranged from the full congregation in the middle of the space, to the apse, to the organ loft and to the rear of the Chapel. The readings ranged from traditional to poetic. At one point Ellen started a song at the west end and slowly walked with dance movements to the east end, uniting the various sources of sound. While the music and the readings ranged over thousands of years, there was a unity and artistic wholeness in their selection. The Virgin Mary was a frequent theme.

For me it raised the question, “why can’t all services be like these were, feeding us in so many ways?”

The diocese of MA is experiencing modest growth in members of the Episcopal Church, but much of the country is seeing a slow steady decline. With few exceptions, not many people between the ages of 16 and 56 are going to church any more. One reason, among many, is that the typical Sunday service is frequently boring and takes place in a building that smells musty, is dark, and whose layout stifles creativity, energy, and life.

The new worship team at EDS of Miriam Gelfer (Dean of Students and Community Life), Ellen Oak (Director of Music), and Stephen Burns (Associate Professor of Liturgical Theology and the Study of Anglicanism), appear to have a vision to change all that and we are starting to see manifestations of the exciting possibilities. Ellen and Stephen are experts in creative liturgy and the imaginative use of space to enable it. Miriam has brought them together in an atmosphere of joy and creativity to make it happen. Miriam’s high standards and appreciation for excellent music are key ingredients. These experiments are not 1970’s feel good, hang banners and all will be changed, efforts. Rather, like the Lessons and Carols service, these experiments are being tried with thoughtfulness, integrity as well as spiritual and aesthetic wholeness. They appeal to all the senses and the intellect. The truly exciting news is that these experiments have the potential to change the Church and to make it again an exciting and life giving place for all ages to be. Seminaries are where this change must begin because seminaries have the flexibility and the obligation to immerse their students in new wants of being in community.

Not all these experiments will be entirely successful, but enough will be that EDS can build enough credible models to influence the entire church. Just as important, EDS will be sending forth graduates with a thirst to make worship more engaging and armed with examples of how to do it.

Brett Donham is the former chairman of the EDS Board of Trustees and highly regarded architect who founded the firm, Donham & Sweeney in 1967. The architect firm has designed new religious buildings such as the Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School and renovated others including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline.