Re-Pitching the Tent – Excerpts for Reflection

In our January Vestry meeting, there was discussion of the book Re-Pitching the Tent by Richard Giles. One of our members put together the following excerpts of the book:

Re-Pitching the Tent: the definitive guide to re-ordering church buildings for worship and mission
By: Richard Giles
(Third Edition), 2004

  • “The house of the church is no longer a ‘week-end cottage’ for busy people to escape to on Sundays; it is a bustling centre of activity for a growing family who are in and out of the place all day, every day of the week. The Church’s building is now called upon to provide within its four walls a home, a worship workshop, a source of inspiration, an oasis of prayer, a community college, an advice centre, a typing pool, a soup kitchen and an operational HQ for a missionary organization. These multifarious and often conflicting functions require space and flexibility and a new emphasis on quality of provision, to encourage everything to happen that should be happening in our Church’s buildings, in terms of spiritual growth and social action.” (p. 5)
  • “As the story in Genesis edges from myth into history, the patriarchs are seen responding to God’s covenant and promise by erecting piles of stones in various places where God has made himself known to them and blessed them. Whether in the joy of thanksgiving, when Abram first receives God’s promise at Schechem, or in the darkness of blind obedience, when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his own son, encounters with God bestir in the patriarchs a desire to name and set apart these holy places, and to identify them by the building of an altar of sacrifice. Amidst the terrors of the wild and of the unknown, they carve out places of meaning and particularity where they can commune with the transcendent power of God. They show us what it means to create sacred space, ‘a place of regeneration, creativity and transformation’.” (p. 12)
  • “The word ‘GO’ is seared into the very flesh of Israel, a driving force in its religious consciousness to this very day. They are a people who have had to learn how to remain in the presence and under the blessing of God whilst always on the move, often amidst appalling hardship.” (p. 18)
  • Reflection: “Is there any way in which our local Christian community could express, in its worship and lifestyle, the insights of the semi-nomadic way of life?” (p. 21)
  • David’s son Solomon built the temple in about 922 and, “The result was a magnificent edifice, a wonder of the known world. At first the place, it very soon became the only place in which sacrifice could be made and to which pilgrimage could be undertaken. Furthermore, by its hierarchy of holy spaces symbolized by the series of courts approaching the holy of holies, the Temple reinforced the rigidly hierarchical system by which man was now to approach God. This hardening of the arteries in the relationship between God and his people was a disease which was to rear its head again in Christianity in its later periods of development, and deeply influence its own architectural understanding of sacred space. Only now is the patient beginning to return to normal.” (pp. 24-25).
  • “The synagogue (literally ‘gathering’) had been developed as an alternative means of maintaining religious identity during the years of the Exile when the Jews were deprived of access to the Temple.” (p. 26)
  • “So it was that Judaism turned catastrophe into long-term advantage, freeing itself from dependence on either a single sacred place (so vulnerable to attack), or an institutionalized sacrificing priesthood. Out of adversity evolved a radically redesigned religious system, no longer a hostage to fortune, but capable of being established anywhere and of mobilizing the whole people of God into a community of faith. Judaism was thus re-established as a religion of tent dwellers able to encounter God wherever they happened to find themselves. Furthermore Judaism as a ‘spectator sport’ was no more; all would be priests and all prophets.” (p. 28)
  • “It is not a place that is called ‘church’, or a house made of stones and earth…What then is the church? It is the holy assembly of those who live in righteousness.’ (Clement of Alexandria, Strom 7.5)” (p. 34).
  • “What building form would it be most appropriate for the Church to adopt? Were there any building around which the Church could, with minimal adaptation, use for its gatherings while it worked out a permanent solution? What kind of building did the Church feel most drawn to as a model for its own building programme in the future? The Church’s choice is highly significant, for it chose neither temple nor synagogue nor house as its model, but the basilica, or hall of the king. From the outset, the Church thereby aligned itself with secular authority in an extremely high profile manner. The basilica was an imposing civic building redolent with the power and the glory of the Roman Empire. The type of building previously associated in every town with the dispensation of law and order now became synonymous with Christian assembly. This was to have theological as well as liturgical repercussions. Traditionally, a rectangular building with an apse at both ends, the basilica was modified by the Christians who placed an apse at the east end only, in which was placed the bishop’s seat with benches at either side for his presbyters. The altar, at first a freestanding wooden structure, stood in front of the apse and not necessarily in a fixed position, enabling the people to gather around it. The ambo or reading desk, stood in the middle of the assembly, while the font was housed in a separate baptistery. Both the proclamation of the word and the initiation of new Christians were emphasized and dignified by being allocated distinctive liturgical spaces of their own…Thus did the Christians, adapting rapidly and skillfully to their new-found status in the world, take to themselves a structure familiar to them from their surrounding culture, and imbue it with theological significance.” (pp. 36-37)
  • Reflection: “If the Church today was deprived of all its existing buildings, what kind of secular building would it be most appropriate to adapt or to copy to provide places of Christian assembly?” (p. 37)
  • Quote: ‘Indifference to art is the most serious sign of decay in any institution’. Susan Langer, Feeling and Form, p. 403
  • “The American liturgist David Philippart reminds us that the poor need beauty as well as food, and points out that the church building is the last truly public place in which beauty may be appreciated. The Church has for most of its history proclaimed God through the expressive arts, and this is no time to be abdicating that role, allowing the city art gallery or the shopping mall to usurp its honoured place.” (p. 55)
  • “The number of people who stay outside our buildings vastly outnumber those who venture inside. Unless as a Christian Church we want to curl up and die, we need to re-present our buildings in such a way that people first of all are given cause to notice them and secondly are prompted to pop their heads inside.” (p. 58)
  • “Church buildings have ceased by and large to speak clearly of a present reality, and instead convey a mumbled message of a glorious, though faded past. ‘For the majority of people in this country, our churches are irrelevant, peripheral and seemingly only concerned with their own trivial pursuits’ (Robin Greenwood, Reclaiming the Church, p. 156). A building with grass growing from the gutters and with walls still damp from the last time it rained; last month’s porch notices flapping in the wind fixed by a single rusty drawing pin to a rotting notice board; a stack of battered books, spines missing, announcing that God is prayed to in language of the 17th century and sung to in language of the 19th; every inch of floor space taken up with an over-abundant supply of pews, and row upon row of choir stalls defended every Sunday by two blue-robed ladies with processional handbags; a liturgical focus stuck to a wall behind a fence in another room at the far eastern end of the building; brass plaques on everything that doesn’t move; no room to swing a cat let alone censer; all these things SPEAK. We should not underestimate their message announcing to the passer-by that this kind of building belongs to a group of people who have lost their way, who have forgotten why they meet in this place, who they come to encounter, and what they expect to happen.” (p. 59)
  • Robert Warren, in his book Building Missionary Congregations, says the layout and design of the congregation’s meeting place needs to demonstrate, “that we are called to participate (and therefore re-ordered buildings should demonstrate with clarity the exciting re-discovery that the congregation is no longer an audience but is together exercising a shared participatory priesthood), and that we are a Eucharistic, creative and celebratory community living by grace (and therefore our re-ordered buildings should demonstrate in every detail our celebration of life and creation in all its fullness)”. (p. 65)
  • “The re-ordered building will thereby help us in every way to tell our story. We need no longer be frightened of evangelism, for we shall find we have been busy doing it, using the building as a sharp and effective tool for our task”. (p. 67)
  • For the purposes of this book, one particular distinguishing mark may be taken as symptomatic of our contemporary culture; humanity’s rediscovery of itself as first and foremost a consumer. While the Christian community has in recent decades been slowly rediscovering its roots and its identity, Western society has not been idle; it has discovered shopping.” (p. 71)
  • Quote: ‘We no longer say “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) but “Tesco ergo sum” (I shop, therefore I am)’
  • “Over the last few decades, supermarkets have come to dominate food shopping, managing to convert people from the habits of a lifetime and to persuade them to travel considerable distances and to sacrifice both proximity and personal attention for the sake of lower prices, greater choice and anonymity.” (p. 73)
  • “The diverse and less centralized nature of the Anglican Communion means that, rather than ripping of the sticking plaster of outdated usage, it has removed it slowly, inch by inch – a much more masochistic way of doing things. Whereas Rome has tackled all aspects of liturgy including the design of liturgical space, the Anglican Communion has restricted itself to the renewal of liturgical texts without mention of the setting in which they are to be used.” (p. 82)
  • “All that the New Testament tells us about priesthood can be summarized in two basic insights
    • 1. That Jesus himself replaces both the priesthood and the sacrifices of the Old Covenant; and
    • 2. That the community of faith, as a community not as individuals, shares in that priesthood by virtue of its common Baptism.” (p. 84)
  • “If as a community of faith we are taking a fresh look at our home in this process, if we now have an opportunity of considering a major refurbishment, we need to ask the basic question ‘What do we want our building to achieve for us? How can it more clearly express our priorities and our communal lifestyle?’” (p. 90)
  • “This gets us off to a good start because it reverses the usual set of assumptions in which we end up considering what we can do to better serve the building. We need to remember that it is the building which is the servant, and the assembly the master whose needs always must come first. The whole point of being a people living in tents is that we need never be afraid of God’s call to move on. We never lose our heart to a particular camp-site, remaining at the ready to pick up our tent and walk.” (p. 90)
  • “A paradigm of this unceasing process is the Benedictine Abbey Church of La Pierre-Qui-Vire in Burgundy, the ‘engine room’ of liturgical renewal in France. The Abbey is now onto its fourth re-ordering scheme in 20 years, fine-tuning the building to the community’s needs until it runs smoothly and sweetly. Re-ordering is a cyclical process, as experiment stimulates improved use, and regular use reveals the need for further experiment.” (p. 93)
  • Exercise to help clarify who is the boss around here: “Draw up a shopping list of all the activities which the faith community wishes to organize within this building. Not a list of all existing activities, but of those the community would wish to see in operation arising from its Mission Statement in the context of its Strategic Development Plan. Some activities will be entirely new – uses which the building in its old form has not allowed you to accommodate because of its unsuitability.” (p. 95)
  • “A useful first step would be to invite an informed group of Christians from some distance away to give an honest first impression of how it felt to walk into our building, and what message the building spoke to them.” (p. 107)
  • “When the community of St. Thomas’ Huddersfield removed the stone pulpit from its Victorian building in 1990, much fruitless effort was expended on trying to remove the resultant cement marks from the pier of the chancel arch before it was realized that to leave the discoloration would in fact help tell the story. So the discoloration remains as a kind of ‘high tide mark’ of Victorian clutter, a reminder of changed priorities in the Church over the last 100 years, and already a useful talking point for visitors when being shown around.” (p. 109)
  • “Art is particularly important in teaching the faith because it can stimulate our sense of devotion simply by reminding us of who we are and of how far we have travelled together; it keeps our collective memory fresh. For this reason art provides an irreplaceable means of giving character and color to liturgical space.” (p. 111).
  • “In fact, the creation of space as an essential element of re-ordering is of great significance and value. The horizontal emphasis of any sizeable floor area uninterrupted by furniture has a restful effect which recalls us to tranquility of spirit in a frantic world. It is an antidote to busy-ness, and at a time when every square metre of floor area has to justify its existence, the sheer extravagance of space can remind us of the extravagant love of God.” (p. 114)
  • “The problem of duplication lurks everywhere…the same will apply to the place for the reading and preaching of the Word of God. We have grown accustomed to having at least two points-lectern and pulpit – for this single liturgical purpose, and that is one too many. The community needs to take its time to consider where in the area of assembly is the best position for the reading and preaching of the Word, and construct there an ambo for the purpose. This may consist of either lectern or pulpit repositioned and adapted for the purpose, but it is more likely to require a new piece of furniture and the disposal of both our old favorites.” (p. 116).
  • “The creating of different spaces to enable the community to move from one part of the liturgy to another is primarily a liturgical rather than an architectural matter, and can even be done in one room. Therefore it does not necessarily cost money, indeed as we have noted, many traditional buildings already have the spaces if only they will clear them of clutter and open them up for use. What matters is the prior commitment of the community to ensure that every time they worship together, they move. Re-pitching the tent becomes thereby integral to worship.” (p. 126)
  • “In the English situation, it is important to remember that it is the element of community service in our re-ordering schemes that will unlock funding from secular as well as religious charitable trusts. We have a whole host of friends out there ready to assist us once they see that the Church itself means business. Experience shows that renewal of the building, and enlargement thereby of its capacity for hospitality and service, has led to the renewal of the worshipping community in that place, and to growth in numbers as well as in maturity of faith.” (p. 133).
  • “Anglican clergy in particular are haunted by the fear of ‘losing people’, whereas some selective early pruning is exactly what’s needed to promote vigorous growth.” (p. 136)
  • “No one has warned them just how vicious people can become when their precious church-museum is threatened with ‘desecration’, and all too often it takes only a poison-pen letter (with a copy to the bishop!) to ensure a sudden loss of enthusiasm by the clergy. There is little awareness of the basic fact of life that change, and therefore discipleship, is costly.” (p. 136)
  • Quote: “When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
  • “So it is good sense always to begin with a small working group. Ideas involving change usually begin with a ‘crazy dreamer’ and rarely have immediate appeal to a wider audience. Such ideas need careful nurture in the greenhouse before being exposed to the elements out in the allotment.” (p. 137)
  • “Certainly it seems to have been the method employed by Jesus to begin with an inner circle and to work outwards. Even within the Twelve, he confided first in the inner core of three, Peter, James and John, who alone were party to significant moments in their leader’s life e.g. the Transfiguration.” (p. 138)
  • “Secondly, we have been conditioned by post-Constantinian Christian thought into seeing the church building as a monument when what we need is a home. Drawing upon the Church’s invigorating experience in the domestic era of its development, we need to create in our buildings genuinely human space.” (p. 146)
  • Exercise: “Consider the building’s worst feature, or its main drawback as local centre for worship and mission. What ways can you think of to offset such disadvantages?” (Disguise? Camouflage? Diversion? Cleaning? Signing? Landscaping? Churchyard maintenance? Hard landscaping – is there any way in which your forecourt might be made part of the street?)
  • “In fact, the worshipping communities that shout loudest about lost seats are often those who long ago lost the people to sit in them. Where the church community is genuinely short of worship space, far better to hold a second service, or simply pack everyone tight for the special occasions (it does wonders for one’s image!).” (p. 164)
  • “…our gathering place should boast the best materials, a high degree of comfort, and superb lighting. Unless the community can commit itself to such an approach, it would be better to wait a little longer before attempting such a project. The breweries are the people to watch; they know exactly how (apart from their addiction to games machines!) to spend money wisely to create the right ambience which will encourage people to enter, to linger, to chat and (in their case) to spend money. We have a higher motivation, but should remember our Lord’s comment about learning a few tricks from the ‘sons of this world’ (Luke 16.8)”. (p. 164)
  • “One thing is certain; the font should never be in the sanctuary. To place a font in the sanctuary, lined up with the ambo and altar on a kind of liturgical stage, deprives it of dignity and reduces it to a mere object among many, instead of the central feature in a distinct area of liturgical activity. Increased visibility for an assembly too lazy to move around is no excuse. Such provision assumes fixed seating and an assembly that is static, spatially if not theologically.” (p. 168)
  • “Because nothing could be of greater importance in our preparation for worship than our renewed awareness of being the community of the baptized, we need to see the water, touch it and hear it. Water should well up in our assemblies, splashing and gurgling, reminding us constantly of Jesus’ promise of a ‘spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4.14). It should not be mean and mealy-mouthed but joyous and extravagant. It is water itself (not its container) which is the primary symbol of baptism, and it should be readily available to every member of the community entering the assembly.” (pp. 168-69)
  • Reflection: “What importance does baptism hold for our community as on on-going experience? Does the siting and design of our baptistry help us to celebrate and proclaim the centrality of baptism? (p. 171)
  • “An assembly sitting in tidy rows facing the same way will expect to be instructed and entertained, whereas an assembly sitting in a semi-circle, or facing one another in choir formation, will expect to participate and to exercise ministry.” (p. 175)
  • “Flexible seating is therefore essential if a real process of liturgical formulation is going to be stimulated every time the assembly meets for worship. Not only do we need to break free from centuries of captivity in serried ranks of pews, but we need also to be frequently ringing the changes in our seating plan to denote different ‘moods’ of the assembly appropriate to different seasons of the Church’s Year, and to ensure that we never settle down for too long in any one place, but instead, as God’s pilgrim people, are constantly re-pitching the tent. For large parts of the year an antiphonal arrangement may be appropriate, at other times an arc of seating embracing the ambro, at other times a complete circle. For all these reasons, the removal of fixed pews is a non-negotiable top priority.” (pp. 175-76)
  • “This area which we traditionally (and most unhelpfully) call the ‘sanctuary’ is set apart only in so far as it is set apart for the altar-table. It must never be thought of as being set apart from the people, for it is the people – the whole of the priestly community – who are the sacred ministers gathered around the altar-table to make eucharist.” (p. 182)
  • Importance of altar being on the floor: “…the altar-table needs to be a strong simple structure of dignity and beauty of a size which will relate scale to the size of the area or room in which it stands. It should be square in shape (as indeed was the original altar of the Israelites: Ex. 27.1) and in that it is not a ‘counter’ across which the assembly is being ‘served a meal’ by a member of a priestly caste; all members of the priestly community participate in the offering and all have equal access. To spell out the same point about equal access, the altar should stand on the floor, not on a platform, in the middle of the space. This level approach is a feature of the first altar of Moses (Exodus 20.26), as mentioned in chapter 2.
  • “It will also have served some purpose if it makes us impatient to see the environment of worship transformed to reflect accurately our spirituality and theology, so that in liturgy what we do and say matches what we believe. As yet, this is not the case in most parish churches, and we live out a liturgical half-truth as, fearful of the future, we cling to familiar furniture and tired tunes. For the most part we are content to continue going to church as a means of avoiding becoming the Church.” (pp. 210-11)
  • “The renewal of our buildings to create sacred spaces which can speak of our renewed vision of God today is nothing less than a conversion experience, not only for others, but for ourselves. In rediscovering our communal need to re-pitch the tent in order to journey into God, we discover our true identity as a pilgrim people.” (pp. 211-12)