Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Holy Hardware for the 21st Century

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Our Lady of Bloxham, Oxfordshire

Our honeymoon was a trip through parts of England the year after we were married in 1976. We were quite young, I was still in university and would be for several more years, and we had next to no money. My undergraduate degree was in art history so I wanted to see lots of architecturally significant churches and cathedrals as we meandered about Britain. Ruth was quite patient, although that patience wore thin by the end of our trip. We were both in awe of the magnificent structures which dated back anywhere from 500 to 900 years. Were these museums, monuments to the past, or the vessels for living religion and active Christian communities?

This is the question that has come even more to the forefront in the forty years since our ramble through ecclesial history. A medieval church in the diocese of Oxford has been the subject of a controversy which managed to make the news. Several pews were removed from Our Lady of Bloxham in 2011 to make way for a display and welcome area and a part of the church where children could play. This is a historic church with portions dating back to the 12th century. The pews themselves are Victorian, which means they are "only" 150 or so years old. The building is supposedly protected from alterations without careful consideration but apparently some person or persons sinned boldly and took the pews out. The irony is that for centuries parishioners stood during worship and pews were a later innovation. The chancellor in this dispute ruled in favour of maintaining the removal saying: 

A degree of change and the removal of some pews was necessary in order to serve the wider community and to remain a sustainable place of worship, and that in this case the harm caused to the church’s architectural and historical significance is outweighed by the resulting public benefit.

I've seen a lot of  "dog's breakfast" alterations to churches and I understand the concerns. I've also been instrumental in changes in beautiful sanctuaries to accommodate sound systems and projection equipment and removal of pews for children's areas, as well as wheelchairs. We tried to be sensitive to the aesthetics but ultimately our goal was and is to serve Christ in the time in which we live. There was always resistance to change by those who had the museum mentality and these were often people who fretted about the absence of children and families. The sanctuary below is St. Andrew's Sudbury, which I served for eleven years. It is quite modern, but when we suggested putting a curve on the rows of pews it took months to make the decision!
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St. Andrew's UC, Sudbury Ontario

What do you think about this? Do you embrace or resist alterations to church structures and "holy hardware" to make them more accessible and welcoming? Would be happy to worship in a less formal space, or do you feel a deeper sense of worship in a traditional sanctuary?

Can we experience "ordinary" wonder? My Groundling blog today


Judy said...

Well, it is a challenge to convince some folk that change is needed, but the results can be so beneficial... we are looking at removing just one front pew to make room for more varied musical and possibly theatrical presentations at the front of the sanctuary ... and I am hoping it will b an easy decision to make and carry out!

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