Friday, January 15, 2016

Scriptural Design of Worship Space, Part I

Priest, architectural planner, and advocate of beautiful worship spaces, Richard S. Vosko, offers for Liturgy 31, no. 1 in 2016 a look at the scriptural proscriptions he uses when designing sanctuaries. He addresses the question of how the space for worship itself expresses God’s Word, in keeping with the theme of this issue: “Embodied Listening: The Relevance of Dei Verbum for Christian Worship.”
Some places on this planet are declared sacred because they inspire us—vast, dry deserts, enormous mountain ranges, and sweeping seas. Other works of nature could be considered sacred because they are more powerful than we are: hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The Hebrew people discovered God’s presence, first of all, in nature. Their understanding of the cosmos was limited when compared to what we know about the universe today. For them God lived beyond a great dome that separated God’s dwelling place from earth. Later, with the help of the prophets, the Israelites learned that God lived among them and was interested in establishing a long-term relationship with them. 
. . . Ideally, a church building bridges the past, present, and future. It resonates with the people’s history, current ecclesiology, and eschatological vision. In this sense, buildings used for worship are symbolic expressions of the particular congregations that use them. The structures remind them of who they are and what they believe. A church that architecturally and artistically reverences only the past may not adequately reflect a congregation’s ever-changing identity—not to mention the contemporary issues it may be addressing. Churches are not intended to be museums. Their primary purpose is to house the worship rituals of a community as they develop from age to age. 
A Christian house of worship is constructed with scripture and tradition in mind as well as the concerns and yearnings of the congregation. Studies in building technologies, archeology, history, and theology are just a few disciplines that can shape a church structure. However, most planning committees or congregations seldom think of the social, philosophical, and theological underpinnings for creating a place for worship. They are not focused on the Bible as a blueprint for building or reorganizing their churches. Diligently, they do concentrate on the budget, the magnitude of the project, energy conservation, and the quality of the materials. And, in some denominations, there is the pressure to conform to the prescriptions church leaders may have issued . . .  
Vosko settles on some key scriptural assertions as sources congregations might use for design of their worship spaces.
. . . [M]y experience as a sacred space planner for Christian and Jewish congregations has taught me that different religions have much in common when creating of a house of prayer. In this regard, I will focus on the commonalities and not those features that may be unique to one Christian religion or another. 
“And God saw it was good” (Gen. 1:24). The idea that God is above nature, epiphenomenal, and that humans are grounded on earth has served as a basic model for church buildings for a long time. The traditional longitudinal plan, where the nave is oriented toward a distant, fenced-off chancel or sanctuary, continues to foster the staged notion that the holy of holies is removed from the assembly and that from that location the clergy (and other ministers) of the churches distribute services (e.g., preaching and communion). In other words, these church plans suggest that whatever is of a holy, God-given, grace-filled nature, is guarded and delivered to the assembly by privileged members of that congregation.

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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