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.

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