By Robin G. Jordan
North American Anglican congregations that negotiate the minefield of hostile zoning laws and rising construction costs, real estate prices, and bank interest rates can be expected to build much more modest and practical buildings than the Gothic edifices that Episcopalians built during the heyday of the Episcopal Church. These buildings stand empty for most of the week and are occupied by dwindling congregations on Sunday mornings. The days of the white clapboard country church are also gone.
Nineteenth century conventions in church architecture, which Episcopal congregations honored well into the twentieth century, have no place in the twenty-first century. Function must take priority over form.
Twenty-first century Anglican congregations that can surmount the obstacles to having a building of their own will need to construct buildings that are multipurpose and which serve more than as a meeting place for the congregation and a setting for its rites and ceremonies. They will need to erect buildings that will help them overcome an increasingly unfriendly secular society’s negative perceptions of Christians and build bridges to the community.
This is not architectural evangelism—the notion that if a church constructs a particular type of building, the building itself will attract new church members. Rather it involves putting a church building to uses beside worship, which will help the congregation build a positive reputation for the church in the community, eliminate or reduce barriers, and establish and strengthen relationships. These uses will enable the congregation to have a greater impact upon the community, expand its population base, and experience numerical and spiritual growth.
When we launched St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in the late 1980s, the Diocese of Louisiana purchased land for a building in a potentially high-growth area of Mandeville, the community whose expanding population was the primary target of the new church. The zoning for the area was not too restrictive and we managed to obtain a number of easements. The property was not on a main artery but was on an important secondary artery that linked two heavily-traveled state highways.
We adopted a two stage building plan. We first erected a multipurpose building with a parking lot. In the second stage we constructed an educational building and developed what was originally intended to be a baseball field but would become a soccer field. Soccer was the more popular sport in the area. We made the field available to local soccer teams for practice and games. We used the multipurpose building for a mothers’ day out program as well as for worship and fellowship. We also opened the building to community groups for meetings and other activities. The educational building was used as an early childhood development and day care center during the week and for Christian formation on Sundays.
In the event the demographics of the area did not developed as projected or if the area experienced a shift in demographics, we made alternative plans for the use of the education building as a senior center. What we did not anticipate was the negative impact that the growth of the congregation would have upon the church—conflicts over a third service on Sunday mornings, finances, the leadership ability of the rector, and his vision for the church, and a subsequent church split. Developments in the Episcopal Church in 2003 would further negatively impact the church already weakened by a loss of members resulting from the church split. St. Michael’s would never fully recover from the effects of the church split and the election of an openly gay priest as the Bishop of New Hampshire and lost its parish status in 2007.
The church split and Robinson’s election resulted in a shift in the composition of the congregation from charismatic, evangelical and Prayer Book Anglican to Anglo-Catholic and liberal. The change in the congregation’s make-up led to the worship of the church becoming more unapologetically Anglo-Catholic in style with icons of the Archangel Michael, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and banks of votive lights and consequently less attractive in a community dominated by charismatic and evangelical churches.
Before St. Michael’s constructed its first building, the congregation used a variety of meeting places—a tennis club’s clubhouse, office space, a storefront, and a school gymnasium. The congregation was forced to leave the clubhouse due to complaints from residents of the subdivision in which the clubhouse was located. The congregation outgrew the office space. It was forced to leave the storefront when the county school board obtained a lease to the building. The county school board would convert the building into an annex to the kindergarten across the street. The county school board was gracious enough to allow the congregation to meet in a school gymnasium next to the kindergarten until it could move into its new building then under construction.
A sizeable number of twenty-first century Anglican congregations will not have a building of their own—some by choice, others due to their particular circumstances. A number of these congregations will experience a great deal more difficulty in finding a suitable meeting place than St. Michael’s did in the 1980s and 1990s. The world has changed since the closing decades of the twentieth century.
Communities are less amenable to permitting congregations the use of private residencies, apartment building community rooms, hotel conference rooms, American Legion and VFW halls, fire station community rooms, small town community centers, empty buildings, tenantless office space in office buildings, and vacant retail space in malls for meeting places. A congregation may find a desirable meeting place only to discover that businesses and/or residents of the area do not welcome the establishment of a church in the area or the area’s zoning restrictions do not permit the building’s use for church services.
A desirable meeting place is one that has not only enough space for worship, fellowship, Christian formation, and a nursery but also has adequate off-street or street parking. In addition, it also must not be “invisible,” in a location where it can be easily over-looked such as in one of the less-traveled neighborhoods of the community, not on a major artery or an important secondary artery.
An example of an invisible meeting place is the church building of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Mayfield, Kentucky. The church was closed in 2006. The building was built in 1958 and is located at the end of a cul-de-sac in the midst of a large subdivision.
At the time of the building’s construction its location was regarded as ideal. It was anticipated that the church would draw its members from the surrounding housing estate. This did not prove to be the case.
The election of Gene Robinson negatively impacted the struggling congregation as it did Episcopal congregations across the United States. The appointment of an openly lesbian deacon as vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields dealt the congregation its deathblow. The deacon was not able to relate to the community or the community to her.
The building is invisible not only because it is located at the end of cul-de-sac in the midst of a large subdivision but also because the building cannot be seen or easily reached from the nearest main thoroughfare. One must take at least three side streets to reach the entrance to the cul-de-sac.
As well as not having a building of their own, a sizable number of twenty-first century Anglican congregations will be using a less than ideal meeting place. How to make the best use of this space will challenge the creativity and ingenuity of these congregations. It will require them to break with conventional ways of “doing church” and to think outside the box.
A working group commissioned with the development of rites and services for a denomination such as the ACNA’s Prayer Book and Common Liturgy Task Force can be a tremendous help to these congregations. It can craft rites and services that can be used in a wide range of contexts. It can provide an array of worship resources from which congregations can choose those which best meet their particular needs and circumstances.
On the other hand, such a working group can also be an even greater hindrance to these congregations. It can craft rites and services that are suitable for use only in a particular context. It can limit a congregation’s choices to a tiny number of options in a particular rite or service. In some cases it can offer a congregation no choice at all. This is the direction that the ACNA’s Prayer Book and Common Liturgy Task Force has taken in its drafting of rites and services for the Anglican Church in North America.
The context in which a congregation worships involves more than its physical setting. It involves such factors as regional cultural milieu; regional musical tastes and preferences, regional attitudes toward a particular type of church, its beliefs, and practices; prejudices and actual past experiences of potential guests; denominational or religious background of potential guests, and similar factors. Among its implications is that one size does not fit all: what works in one context may not work in another.
In planning its worship, a congregation must first study its context and then tailor its worship to that context. In taking the second step, it needs access to a large assortment of worship resources from which it can select the components for its worship gatherings.
Liturgical books like the Sarum Missal, the Sarum Breviary, and the 1549 Prayer Book come from the late Middle Ages or show the influence of the late Middle Ages. In the late Middle Ages the English people were nominally Christian. It was a time of widespread error and superstition.
The popular religion of the time centered on the veneration of saints and relics, pilgrimages, indulgences, alms-giving, and non-communicating attendance at Mass. A large segment of the population attended Mass. Those who did not go to Mass were likely to incur the suspicion of the Church and to face the possibility of a fine or worse.
A tiny segment of the population practiced the “old ways,” elements of the pagan religions that had been practiced in the British Isles before Christianity became the dominant religion. This is not to suggest that the rest of the population was free from pagan beliefs and superstitions. Such beliefs and superstitions have persisted to this day and in some areas of the British Isles have been enjoying a revival.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer compiled the 1549 Prayer Book to ease the transition from the Medieval Catholic Latin Mass to a reformed vernacular liturgy. It was not intended to be a permanent service book. Cranmer adapted material from the Sarum Rite and the Lutheran German Church Orders. In his essay, “Of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished, and Some Retained,” Cranmer explains what he saw as the main purpose of the Prayer Book—to set forth God’s honor and glory and to reduce the English people to “a most perfect and godly living, without error or superstition.”
Their task as the English Reformers saw it was to transform the nominally Christian English people beleaguered by all kinds of superstition and error into a godly people free from such error and superstition. The task that twenty-first century Church faces in North America, on the other hand, is to introduce the increasingly non-Christian population to Christ, encourage and support those who accept Christ as their Savior and Lord, instruct them in the teaching of the gospel and the Scriptures, and form them into effective disciples of Christ who can replicate themselves. These two tasks are not the same and different kinds of worship resources are needed to accomplish them.
A major drawback of using liturgical books like the Sarum Missal, the Sarum Breviary, and the 1549 Prayer Book as the basis of a modern liturgy is that they are not designed for the task facing the twenty-first century Church. The Sarum Rite was designed to perpetuate error and superstition. The 1549 Prayer Book was designed to decrease error and superstition in a nominally Christian population and increase godliness in that population.
A modern liturgy based on these liturgical books is not going to aid the twenty-first century Church achieving its task. On the contrary such a liturgy will prove a serious handicap to the twenty-first century Church.
I am not suggesting that we do away with the old simply because it is old. But where we retain the old, we should first ensure that it is clearly agreeable to the teaching of the Scriptures or has been reformed to make it conform to the teaching of the Scriptures. Secondly, we should make sure how it is used serves the central task of the twenty-first century Church. Cranmer in his liturgies retained what he believed was agreeable to the teaching of Scripture or could be reformed to make it conform to the Scriptures’ teaching. He then used it to serve what he perceived to be the central task of the Church in his day. In principle we would not be doing anything differently from Cranmer.
Cranmer designed rites and services for a sixteenth century English context. We should be taking steps to make certain that the rites and services used in ACNA churches are designed for a twenty-first century North American context, a context that is more varied than that of sixteenth century England. The central task of the twenty-first century Church as discussed in this article is a part of that context. It also should be the central guiding or ruling principle for the development of rites and services for use in North America, the world’s seventh largest mission field.
In the third article in this series we will continue our examination of how a working group commissioned with the development of a common liturgy for a denomination can meet the challenge of context and other challenges that it faces. We will take a look at how a number of Anglican provinces have responded to these challenges, the difficulties that they encountered, and the steps that a congregation might take to avoid or mitigate these difficulties.
See alsoA Prayer Book for Whom? The Challenges of a Common Liturgy—Part 1