2015: Advent Religion: Wherever Two or Three Meet Together

by on December 2, 2015

One of the more reliable aspects of an evangelical church building is that they don’t really look like churches. It’s quite common to meet in school halls, while a church is young or otherwise doesn’t have its own building. But even dedicated church buildings are likely to look like a school hall. Pews exist in the older buildings, but having fixtures like pews, or a pulpit, or a non-mobile lectern, is in some sense Doing It Wrong, and the reason is tied into theology.

The chairs have a major practical purpose, of course – it’s difficult to use a room with fixed pews for anything other than church services, so you can’t rent it out to exercise classes or hold youth group in there. But notice the underlying principle: you ought to be using your main church space, your sanctuary, for other purposes than church. In other traditions, the sanctuary is a sacred space. Here, a space cannot be sacred, only an activity. The church is not a building, the church is God’s people. God will be wherever we meet together in His name. You needn’t go to a place to meet with God. He is wherever you are. So we use stackable chairs in our sanctuary and we hold mother-and-baby coffee mornings and pilates classes in there, because church is an activity, not a place, and it would be a waste of God’s gift not to use the building.

It would also smell of idolatory. It’s spiritually suspect to set things aside for sacred use; it suggests you are worshipping the objects. To have a sanctuary with pews, and pulpit, and stained glass, puts you at risk of believing the place itself is special, and going to church is a magic spell to make you right with God. This is also why we didn’t use candles except as Christmas decorations, why we didn’t cross ourselves, and why Communion (the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Mass) was performed with ordinary white sliced bread, cut into squares.

The second of my two childhood churches – the Congregationalist – did have pews, and a pulpit, and an organ tucked away at the back. It had choir pews, though it had no choir. It had a decades-long internal feud over the presence of the pews. It also had the back wall painted blue, and I want to talk about that for a minute because I think it illustrates something interesting.

The rest of the sanctuary was your standard off-white shade, with vaguely wood-like floor tiles. Just that one wall was painted blue, at the back of the rostrum (“stage” would sound theatrical, “dais” would imply the people up there were more important), and only the central part of it. On that blue wall was an unornamented wooden cross, although most of the time you could only see the bottom third because the projection screen was in the way.

That wall, sitting behind the lectern and the Communion table, was painted blue because of the curtain in the Temple. The reasoning goes that the Jewish temple had a blue curtain hung between the main space and the Holy of Holies. The curtain ripped open at the moment of Christ’s death, and the blue wall is to remind you that there are no intermediaries between you and God.

The blue wall, of course, is unbroken. It sits behind the dais, in the domain of pastors and deacons, where the people may not go without invitation. This symbol of God’s unbarred presence is kept protected from the noise and dirty hands of the congregants, and this symbol of the tearing down of walls is whole and complete.

The point I am trying to make is that in fearing symbolism, we became terrible at it. We couldn’t talk about what things represented, we couldn’t openly deal in metaphor, and that meant we wrote bad metaphors. The blue wall was almost furtive, a way of sneaking a symbol past the censors. We didn’t discuss it, ever, so we couldn’t talk about what it really meant or whether it was good at meaning that. We couldn’t engage with the story it was meant to tell. We didn’t believe in material symbolism. If you think measurement is heretical, you’re going to draw bad maps.

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