Monday, January 28, 2013

EDS Faculty Visit Wilson Chapel

(l to r) EDS faculty members Suzanne Ehly,
Kwok Pui Lan, President of Andover Newton
Theological School Nick Carter, EDS professor
Lawrence Wills, EDS Board Member and former
chair Brett Donham, and professor Stephen Burns.
By Dr. Kwok Pui Lan

Last Friday when the temperature dropped to the teens, Professors Stephen Burns, Suzanne Ehly, Kwok Pui Lan, and Lawrence Wills of the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) braved the cold and visited the award-winning Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) in Newton, Massachusetts.

Mr. Brett Donham, the former Chair of EDS’s Board of Trustees and the architect who designed the Chapel, accompanied them on the visit. The visit was prompted by Mr. Donham’s lecture on “Does Form Follow Function: The Design of Sacred Space” delivered at EDS in December, as well as growing interest among the EDS community to think more innovatively about the use of chapel space for worship.

Wilson Chapel attracted the faculty because it is intended to be a house of worship for multiple faiths: the predominantly Protestant ANTS community, a Jewish prayer group, and a Sufi group.

EDS has received a major grant from the Luce Foundation to support curricular revision, faculty development, and online continuing educational programs on religious pluralism. During the last academic year, a trip was organized to visit the RamakrishnaVedanta Society of Boston to learn about Hindu worship and religious life.

ANTS is the oldest seminary to offer graduate studies in the country. Its old chapel was not handicap accessible and can no longer serve the growing needs of the community. The school decided to build a brand new chapel on a former parking lot for multireligous services and multi-purposes. Mr. Donham met with the school community twice and listened carefully to them before finalizing his design.

The Wilson Chapel, built in 2007, has an open and transparent design, with no fixed iconic images, so that it can accommodate the needs of multiple religious communities. It was built by stones quarried in Brazil, with square windows that allow much light to shine through. Inside the Chapel, the stones were from Jerusalem.

For Professor Lawrence Wills, the building reminds him of the Pantheon in Rome, a temple consecrated to all gods. He said, “The indentations in the Pantheon ceiling achieve a windows effect as the shadows change over the course of the day, and it creates a truly awesome presence of divinity that I find captured also in the actual windows of the Wilson Chapel.”

President Nick Carter of ANTS warmly welcomed the EDS visitors and told the group that the school has seen a 300 percent increase in the use of the chapel since moving into the new space. The whole school community gather for worship on Wednesdays and throughout the week, denominational worship services, morning prayers, and complines are held. Since the chairs are moveable, a group can use the whole space or a section of it, depending on the size of the group.

The space is very good for dancing, President Carter added, and this is especially important for the Sufi group.

One of the favorite design features of worshipping space at Wilson Chapel is that of the circle, which reminds us of the theme “the church in the round” we have experimented with in the worship services during the January term at EDS.

Another favorite design aspect is in the form of a semi-circle facing south. The south side of Chapel has no stones, with only square glass windows, which signifies being open to the people and churches in the Global South, where Christianity sees its future. During festive activities, colorful banners will be hung to celebrate the richness and diversity that the community embodies.

There is also a meeting room for group reflection and a prayer room downstairs. The little prayer room has an intimate design, with icons from different traditions stored in the cabinet for people to choose to use.

At the end of visit, I shared with the group that I have been interested in the design of sacred space for a long time, because my church in Hong Kong was built in Chinese architectural style. The Holy Trinity Church in Hong Kong is one of the three churches in Hong Kong built in the Chinese style. Inside the church, Christian and Chinese religious symbols decorate the space. In addition to the symbols of the vine and fish and loaves, there are the symbols of thunder and clouds, found in traditional Chinese buildings. The candlestick holders on the two sides of the lectern are made of wood shaped like the Chinese bamboo tree.

It was not until much later that I recognized how the hybridity of Christian and Chinese symbolism and religiosity of my church has shaped my spirituality and my understanding of the Anglican tradition in an expansive way.

The faculty plan to expose our students to the creative use of sacred spaces in our area. Mr. Donham is renovating St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Boston. Several hundred Muslims use spaces of the Cathedral for their Friday prayers each week. The Wellesley Multifaith Center, housed in the first level of the Chapel building at Wellesley College, provides multifaith sacred and meeting spaces for prayer and study, and facilities are made available for Muslim members to wash themselves before prayers.

Supported by the Luce grant, we will continue to visit worshipping spaces of other religious traditions to learn about their spirituality and community life. As the United States is going to be religiously more diverse, such exposures will be invaluable in the formation of religious leaders for the future.

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

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