St. Paul's Church Architecture as Spiritual Journey

In my last post I spoke of the Rood Screen and of how that symbol has been interpreted to me by some who view it for the first time.

I've had three written responses to my post. One person expressed appreciation for the beauty of the screen and a positive approach to it. Another person suggest the screen be removed and retired to a special place for it outside in the garden. Another person indicated that my post encouraged them in some writing they were doing on Christian spiritual life.

These varied responses reinforce my understanding that all language and symbols are multivalent1. The mistake of the fundamentalism around which I was raised is to assume that Scripture or theological language can be nailed down to one meaning, and one only, which is always, of course, the one being advanced to you by its advocate.

So it's not surprising to me that a symbol like the rood screen means different things to different people.

Now I want to set the rood screen in larger context, which is the whole interior architecture of our church building.

Norma Marrs, a member of St. Paul's with a background as a Christian educator in the Episcopal Church, shared her thoughts with me about this subject when I first arrived here. What I write here is essentially what she told me about her perceptions of our spaces.

One enters from Walnut Street through the narthex, which is that entrance on Walnut street under the tower and steeple. Doors open from the narthex to the nave, and to the left as one enters the nave is the baptistery, containing the marble eight-sided font. To the right one enters the nave with its rows of pews. From the nave one enters the chancel through the gate of the rood screen. From the chancel one goes beyond the communion rail to the altar.

So let's take this little walk through these spaces as a narrative of the progress of the spiritual development of the Christian people, shall we?

When one enters through the narthex door, one is entering the realm where the Christian story of who we are is told. This represents the time where we find ourselves drawn into the story of the Gospel as having some claim on our imagination, our desire.

The baptistery is near the entrance because baptism represents the initiatory sacrament of Christian life. In baptism we figuratively die and are born again into a knowledge that we are children of God and united with Christ, in whom we discover what our humanity is really about.

Baptism is administered once, but the nave to our right is a space to which we return again and again to be renewed in the understanding of the identity that was conferred on us in our baptism. The nave is the place where we repeatedly return to hear the story of Christ told to us throughout the stages of our life, so that our identity with Christ's work of forgiveness and reconciliation and mission can more and more be essential to our being.

Norma Marrs described the nave to me as being that place where we are the “church militant.” Now, that phrase may seem strange to you, inappropriately warlike. So let me explain. The phrase “church militant”, which belongs to earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, describes the present moment of our Christian life in which we are involved in a struggle with what our baptismal vows describe as the “powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” The roots of this understanding are to be found in the New Testament's Letter to the Ephesians, which describes spiritual life as a struggle not against “enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The nave, then, represents that part of our spiritual journey when we are alive in this world, learning to resist all sorts of forces in this world which make for misery for human life and for the degradation of the earth. The nave represents our struggle in life to live into the promise of God's kingdom. The nave is the place where God's people come for strength for this struggle, and to claim the promise of God's love in Christ and the promise of a New Creation. We are the “church militant” in this spiritual wrestling while we are alive in this world.

Norma described for me the chancel, that place where the clergy and choir sits beyond the rood screen, as representing the “church triumphant.” This phrase represents that phase in our spiritual journey beyond our death, when freed from the struggles of this present world, we are in the nearer presence of the God of life. We all have the promise of going there.

Beyond the chancel lies the communion rail, and beyond that the sanctuary around the altar. As Norma describes this space, it represents for us the ultimate goal of all our spiritual journey, which is total union with God. This represents that phase in our journey where there will be no sense of distance, no memory of estrangement from God. There is just perfect Love. This is a phase of our journey that we can only now evoke in poetry, in metaphor, in music, in art, in forms of ecstatic prayer.

Every liturgy which involves the High Altar up against the East Wall has us for awhile in the nave for the liturgy of the Word, and then streaming up through the chancel to the altar to receive bread and wine as the very presence of Christ feeding us with himself, with the end being that we are totally united with Christ, and in Christ in total union with God.  So, you see, we rehearse this spiritual journey.  We practice it.

Now, like any theological language or symbol system, our church architecture at St. Paul's didn't drop out of heaven.  It is not there to be idolized. The Church of Jesus Christ does not depend for its life on medieval or renaissance church architectural schemes. All one really needs to worship God in the tradition of Christian faith is to me a pretty simple list. One needs water for baptism along with the invocation of the Holy Trinity. One needs a place to gather, with a place for the proclamation of the Word. For that, one needs the texts of the Holy Scripture. One needs a table or altar. One needs bread and wine. And most of all, one needs the assembly. Personally, I find music essential. All the rest is ornamentation. It sure helps if the place is made beautiful.

We have the church building that we have. My point in these posts is simply to offer for your reflection a way to interpret the spaces we have bequeathed to us by our predecessors at St. Paul's.  Perhaps we'll have a deeper appreciation as to how some people can see the space differently from us.

The main thing, I hope, is the main thing. That is that we have a story to inhabit, a story to tell, a story that tells us who we are. It is the Christian story. It is true, and it is beautiful, and it is there for us to receive and to let change us.

That font which initiates us into Christ has eight sides. It took seven days for God to create the world, says Genesis. Well, that eighth side is for the eighth day of Creation, which is the day we are born with Jesus Christ into a new life meant for service to the redeeming and loving of a broken Creation. Lent is here, and it's a good time, through prayer, study, self-denial, and works of mercy, to grow in our ability to manifest that eighth day.

1having many values, meanings, or appeals