It never ceases to amaze me the number of visiting people who comment that Tullow Church building is a structure of great beauty. And in that I cannot disagree as there are many things which make it the intimate and inviting place that Tullow is. However, having attended a recent Church of Ireland colloquium organised by ‘Search’ journal, we were presented with the question: ‘Has the Church become the caretakers of great monuments and should not greater emphasis be put on redesigning buildings to suit today’s usage and in particular the liturgy?’
There is no doubt that the faithfulness of past generations has left us a legacy of some very beautiful structures of which Tullow Church is one. But this comes at a price as old structures need a great deal of care and attention to keep them in pristine condition and to preserve their essential fabric for future generations. So much so that far too often the entire resources of parishes (time, energy and money) are focused into the preservation of their buildings. This, in turn, leaves scarce recognition of what the true mission of the Church should be which is the preaching of the Gospel and the care and concern of our fellow human beings.
The keynote speaker at the colloquium was Canon Richard Giles, a Church of England priest with many years experience of designing and redesigning church buildings in many parts of the world. He referred to a book he wrote on the subject some years ago entitled, ‘Re-pitching the Tent’. In that reference he argued that the early Church had a very flexible approach to the design of their meeting spaces as they met in each other’s homes, sometimes in the open and sometimes even in tents. In fact, he argued that the image of a tent was particularly appropriate as it well suited the image of pilgrimage and movement which are reflective of a Church pursing an active mission in today’s world.
The early medieval Church began the process of building fixed spaces for worship where the entire local community could meet together. However, these structures were often very basic and needed to be rebuilt on a regular basis. Throughout the medieval period and up until just over 150 years ago there was a great deal of flexibility in church layout and design. However, since then things have ‘fossilised’ and very little has changed – except in the last 50 years there have been huge changes in our liturgies.
In the older liturgies, due to the illiteracy of most people, entire Services were said by priests (and later by priest and choir) with minimal input from congregations. Therefore the layout of church buildings was in the shape of an auditorium. When it came to celebrating Holy Communion, the altar table was set as far away as possible from the congregation (in a Sanctuary behind rails against the east wall), in order to emphasise the difference between clergy and people and to increase a sense of ‘mystery’. By contrast, contemporary liturgies assume universal literacy and are therefore much more participatory in content and encourage engagement with each other. In fact, liturgy is, and always was, meant to be the work of all God’s people. There is also a wish to recapture the early Church centrality of the Eucharist where people can literally gather around the Lord’s Table.
This conflict between church layout and our liturgies can create a dichotomy that is very difficult to bridge. On the one hand, those who have a tradition of church attendance have an expectation of how a church building should look – after all traditional church design has not changed in over 150 years. On the other hand, those with little or no tradition in church attendance find it difficult to reconcile our liturgies with our worship space. In response to this, our informal evening Services have moved on an experimental basis to a more ‘liturgical friendly’ layout in the Parish Hall and parishioners will be encouraged to offer their feedback to this initiative. I would encourage as many parishioners as possible to attend and experience this time of worship and fellowship on the 4th Sunday of the month. Our next service will be held on Sunday May 24th at 7:00pm and, by common agreement of the regular congregation, it will be a Service of Holy Communion.
With every blessing,
Rev. John L. Tanner.
Tel: 086 302 1376 / 289 3154