Dec 31, 2007

Whose Place of Worship?

Online Edition Vol. VI, No. 6-7: September/October 2000

Whose Place of Worship?

"Theologically thin" book adopted by Canadian bishops as church architecture guide

by David Aaron Murray

Our Place of Worship. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, Ontario: November 1999; 87 pages.

"Why reinvent the wheel? What harm could come if the U.S. bishops simply asked the Canadian Catholic Conference to "adopt" Our Place of Worship as our own ‘update’ of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship? The Domus Dei drafting committee could then vote itself out of business, and we could all move forward".

Thus suggested Nathan Mitchell, ex-Benedictine priest and influential liturgist, in the March 2000 issue of Ministry & Liturgy (formerly Modern Liturgy). The document in question had been mentioned by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony during one of his rare interventions into the bishops’ debate on Domus Dei the draft liturgy and architecture document at their November 1999 meeting. Cardinal Mahony found it "quite thin in the theological and liturgical underpinnings which [our document] is rich in", although "its format and layout are very user-friendly" (AB, Vol. 5, No. 9 [Dec 1999 / Jan 2000], page 4).

The authors of Our Place of Worship are architect Michael Boreskie and theologian Mary Schaefer of Halifax ("and her committee", whose members are not named).

Schaefer has a doctorate in liturgy from Notre Dame and teaches at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an inter-denominational institution formed by the merger of Anglican, Methodist, and Catholic seminaries, and chartered by the Nova Scotia legislature. She has co-edited a book on medieval music with J. Frank Henderson, longtime member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL] and co-author of Shaping English Liturgy.

Boreskie, whose web-site describes him as "a liturgical design consultant and facilitator", is chairman of the Art and Environment Committee for the archdiocese of Winnipeg. His architectural company shares office space with the North American Church Planning Resource Centre in Winnipeg.

Theological Thinness

The "thinness" noted by Cardinal Mahony is apparent in the book’s bibliography. Of the fifty items cited, ten are articles in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Ed. Peter E. Fink; Collegeville, MN; The Liturgical Press, 1990), a compendium of recent liturgical essays. Books by well-known church renovaters John Buscemi, Frank Kamarcik, Richard Giles, Edward Sovik, and Father Richard Vosko are included. Only a few of the citations are more than ten years old. Absent are any authoritative documents of Vatican II, papal encyclicals, or documents of bishops’ conferences (although some are briefly quoted in the marginal notes).

The document’s voice: who’s speaking?

Who is speaking, then, in Our Place of Worship? The Canadian bishops? While Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais wrote a foreword, no bishop appears to have been directly involved in its production. Nor is the process clear by which the book came to be adopted by the Canadian bishops.

A document meant to be authoritative situates itself (by citation and other means) in relation to the authority, tradition and principles which authorize it. A "user-friendly" work, on the other hand, is more like an operator’s manual or "how-to" book. Our Place of Worship is functional, designed to facilitate a process. Perhaps that’s why it has the temporary feel of a workbook.

The lists of bulleted items that appear on almost every page read like notes for a Powerpoint presentation. Notes and quotations running along the margins provide a grab-bag of disconnected observations, from the sweeping ("the communication between the infinite and the finite is necessarily evanescent, transitory, and fleeting …", 40) to the banal ("Only qualified personnel should operate and maintain contemporary mechanical and electrical systems", 21).

Sometimes the notes and text contradict each other. One note, for example, claims that "symmetry is characteristic of static, more controlled arrangements, whereas properly balanced asymmetrical designs suggest openness and promote dynamism and action and ‘full, conscious and active participation’". This comment is at odds with the many photographs of "in-the-round" churches which, while un-traditional, are certainly symmetrical. But perhaps consistency isn’t important, since in the encounter with God, according to another note, "intellectual capacity, philosophy, or conscious attitudes give way to the experience of the heart" (39).

"Primacy of the assembly"

Our Place of Worship minimizes the distinct office of the priest, who is always called the "presider". The section on "The presider’s chair" warns that "the presider’s chair symbolizes the office of presiding, but it should never suggest domination, for the ordained president is a member of the faith community through baptism" (28).

But there is a paradox in this emphasis on the "primacy of the assembly". "Greater lay involvement" in the post-Vatican II age has not meant greater involvement for all the laity, but the growth of a new quasi-clerical class of experts who now staff the average parish. The National Catholic Reporter calls this class the nomenklatura, using without irony the name for the old Soviet bureaucracy.

This system of the "clericalization of the laity" has been advanced in Cardinal Mahony’s April 2000 pastoral letter As I Have Done for You. After repeatedly reminding priests that they must not seem "authoritarian" or separate from the community, the letter declares:

In our own day, in addition to the call to the office of bishop, presbyter, or deacon, and the vocation to the consecrated religious life, some lay persons are called to "lay ecclesial ministry", a vocation of full time Church service in response to the needs of each local community. This must be distinguished from the vocation of all the baptized to advance the Reign of God through their commitments to marriage and family, workplace and social responsibility. It must also be distinguished from the many other lay ministries that flourish in the Church for the building up of the Church and the transformation of the world. Within the context of the common call to service which is given to all the baptized, "lay ecclesial ministry" refers to professionally trained or otherwise properly prepared women and men, including vowed religious, who are in positions of service and leadership in the Church (my emphasis) (Part III, #3).

How much this new "clericalism of expertise" improves on the old clericalism of office remains an open question.

"Another century" of change?

Our Place of Worship speaks of participation and inclusiveness, showing that the authors recognize a potential problem. We’re told that "the need to hear those with objections is as great as the need to hear those positively disposed. The community’s … decision-making processes are not the property of cliques" (46).

According to his website, Mr. Boreskie is the originator of a series of exercises for involving the congregation in renovation and building decisions; an appendix to the book details his "seven phases of process". No doubt his experience informs Our Place of Worship when it insists on the value of taking a long-term view of the investment in fees paid to consultants and experts.

But in a section on "Selecting experts" (51-3), we learn that,

the average worshipper has not yet totally grasped these new perceptions of [Vatican Council II], due in part to the fact that changes are so substantial and still developing. The renewed liturgy itself will require at least another century of use and development before it takes on an enriched, cohesive presence. The environment of worship will require an even longer period of gestation (51).

Here the authors take on the ringing tones of a vanguard elite, prophets of an "inevitable" future of constant change.

"Symbols" and mystery

OPW’s theological thinness is underscored by expressions that often seem breezily careless. A hanging crucifix is said to be a "distraction from the sacramental representation of Christ’s self-offering" …. A section called "Liturgy as symbol" suggests that the entire liturgy itself is merely a symbol:

The purpose and nature of these symbols is to engage and form the life of faith, to help encounter the dimension of mystery which cannot be encountered directly (39-40).

But what is the Eucharist if not a direct encounter with the living Christ Himself? Other assertions confuse:

Because Jesus died "outside the camp", Christianity is radically secularized. The sacred is to be found wherever creation is open to what God intended for it. Authentic worship of God is not localized in a holy place separate from the sphere of the world (63).

A whole tradition in Protestant theology, going back to Kierkegaard, opposes Christianity to "organized religion". But why do such ideas appear, with no explanation or context, in a discussion of Catholic church architecture?

Positive-sounding remarks about "mystery" are sprinkled throughout the book. Indeed, the very first sentence says, accurately, "A church building is never merely functional; it points beyond itself to convey something about God".

But the document’s understanding of "mystery" is fuzzy at best. We read that "[w]orship spaces can speak of mystery, of realities which surpass human comprehension, with a design which displays an equilibrium between transcendence, mystery and sacredness on the one hand, and immanence, humanness and hospitality on the other" as long as it doesn’t "overwhelm or alienate" worshippers (19).

But is a "safe" Christianity which never overwhelms truly Christian? Vague talk about God’s being "infinite" or "ungraspable" may sound like respect for His transcendence, but it can just as easily be an attempt to keep Him comfortably at arm’s length. A genuine awareness of God’s presence is rarely comfortable, as almost every figure in the Old and New Testaments testifies ("Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man", says Peter after his first encounter with Jesus).

Architecture and spirituality which seeks only comfort, reassurance or novelty misses an essential part of the Christian experience. In a work published as the directives of Catholic bishops for so central an element of Catholic life as the churches in which we worship, this lack becomes a fatal flaw.


David Aaron Murray has been Managing Editor of AB since June 1998, and will now be working for a St. Louis PR firm. We are grateful for his contributions to AB, and ask God’s blessings on him and his family.



David Aaron Murray