Friday, January 29, 2016

Scriptural Design of Worship Space, Part II

Using scripture to help center the planning of a worship space is vital, for Richard Vosko, priest and church designer. In this excerpt from his essay in Liturgy 31, no. 1 (2016), you will get a sense of what serves as the foundation for his design principles. This pertains whether a congregation is building a new church or renovating an existing space.

“Where you are standing is holy ground” (Exod. 3:1–15). Among church leaders who recognize that the cosmos is still unfolding—that God is in our midst, that church members are partners with God—some are designing places of worship in circular patterns with concentric seating plans. . . These interiors look more like the forms found in whirling galaxies, storm systems, and spinning seas. These are the same shapes found in conches and human ears. These pastoral leaders are placing the ritual focal points (table or altar, pulpit or ambo) in the midst of the assembly rather than creating distance. These houses of the church affirm the imminent presence of God, who is not only at work in the cosmos but also still self-communicating within the membership, loving them, walking with them, dancing with them, laughing, and crying with them.  
It makes sense to create places of worship that draw the worshipers physically close to the ritual actions, not as spectators in an audience but as actors in the paschal mystery, being remembered and celebrated by that very congregation. Such church designs will, over time, help the faithful appreciate that acts of worship are something they do. The presence of God, the grace of God, are not things delivered to them; worship is not carried out for them by the clergy. The members of the assembly are not objects of the grace of God; they are active subjects engaged with God in the celebration of their own mystery. 
In most Christian traditions, someone is designated to preside over the liturgical event. It would be easy to say that the leaders of prayer need to be on a stage-like platform (chancel or sanctuary) so that everyone can see and hear what they are doing and saying. Unwittingly this approach fosters a passive attitude during worship: that liturgy is something enacted by clergy for the assembly. Churches that are arranged with long rows that distance the worshipers from the areas where the rituals are performed can hinder participation in the action on the cognitive, affective, synesthetic, and kinetic levels. 
A church building that expects all worshipers to be as close as possible to the pulpit and table, as well as other ritual centers, makes it easier for the members of the assembly to participate and come to realize that what is being experienced is an engagement with the very God they are worshiping. . .  
“I am the way” (John 14:6). Life’s roadways are pocked with stress. Where there is available space, especially in the suburbs, congregations are providing. . . walks and labyrinths designed into the landscape . . . for personal reflection and the discovery of the deeper dimensions of a person’s faith. 
“Pray in the Spirit at all times” (Eph. 6:18). Finding a spiritual oasis in life can be difficult. On many church properties, even in urban settings, intimate prayer gardens or courtyards are areas cultivated for personal and small-group prayer and also as outdoor memorials and columbaria.
Vosko includes in his essay photos of a worship space he designed for St. Vincent de Paul Church, in Albany, New York. A picture, of course, is worth a thousand... So avail yourself of the essay!

Richard S. Vosko, PhD, Hon. AIA, has worked as a sacred space planner since 1970. His portfolio includes many speaking engagements, publications, and innumerable award-winning projects in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He is a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Albany and worships with the St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY — a place of “radical hospitality.”

Richard S. Vosko, “Standing on Holy Ground: Encountering Revelation in Sacred Space,” Liturgy 31, no. 1 (2016), 42-50.

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