a theology of contamination

20 September, 2005 at 12:29 pm 6 comments

We're privileged to have Richard Giles, author of Re-pitching the Tent, doing a course at the Centre as I write. For those of us in the URC, buildings are a real issue. They soak up huge amounts of time, energy and resources. Most importantly, membership in the URC has declined by 51% in the last 30 years, while the number of church buildings has declined by only 16%. In other words, we've got fewer than half the people supporting nearly the same work. Add the complications of increasing maintenance charges because of age, increased standing costs as utility costs rise, increased expectations and the requirements to conform with ever-burgeoning legislation and it is small wonder that buildings generate frantic activity just to stand still! They throw us into "survival mode" in ways that few other aspects of church life do.

Richard pointed out something very interesting this morning. He is an Anglican priest (presently Dean of Philadelphia Cathedral but keen to return to his native shores at every opportunity!) and he started out with a slide of the Jewish temple, with its courts at varying distances away from the Holy of Holies. He then put up a slide of a typical parish church, with the knave acting like the court of the Gentiles or the court of Israel, the choir acting as the priests (all robed etc) and then the altar – the Holy of Holies. His argument is that we reproduce the temple in our church buildings. And he's right!

What struck me even more forcibly is that the traditional seating plan in churches, where we fill up (from the back) and gaze forwards to the action spot (where God is) is based on a theology of holiness and contamination. God is holy. That means people must keep their distance. The holier we are, the greater proximity we are allowed to the "God spot"! For all the difficulties of worshipping in the round, it struck me as vitally important that we do so. It says something – that we are a community, gathered around God. We have equal access to God. It is a necessary corrective to a theology of contamination, expressed weekly in "performance", whereby we gather at a "safe" distance from God.


Entry filed under: mission.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lucy  |  21 September, 2005 at 12:14 pm

    Had a very lively conversation about church-in-the-round recently where I worship.
    The pain of the round, as opposed to pews, rows etc, is that one (literally) no longer knows one’s place.The round (for some) is a physical manifestation of the discomfort we feel as we try to find out where we are in relation to God. This is ok if we have accepted that we will be on the move spiritually for the rest of our lives.

    But it’s scary too. I remember my first move from my family home, as a young woman. I didn’t know how to pray any more because my unfamiliar surroundings made me feel separated from God. But I needed that move very badly in order to realise that God wasn’t merely my domestic, parochial, personal god.

    Knowing one’s place is a comforting and dangerously narrow concept –

    Any way, if God’s up one end, shouldn’t we all crowd up that end too?

  • 2. Sean Winter  |  21 September, 2005 at 2:17 pm


    I have picked up this thread at the following:



  • 3. homileo  |  21 September, 2005 at 6:18 pm

    Christchurch got rid of it’s pews about 10 years ago and replaced them with comfortable chairs that could be moved about to make the worship space flexible. But guess what! The chairs were put exactly in the old pattern of the pews. So now we have a church with modern pews. Could someone please explain the psychology to me.

  • 4. Keith Alexander  |  23 September, 2005 at 10:14 am

    Alkrington & Providence URC, Manchester, replaced their chairs with comfortable modern ones when they refurbished the church interior. In their case the new chairs were set out in a fan which I found very condusive to worship.

    In my present church, even if we ripped out the pews we would have a problem achieving a circle. Having said that, I insist on preaching at ground level with a closer contact between me and the congregation.

  • 5. Wol  |  23 September, 2005 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for the comments, folks. Richard’s problem with traditional church layout (“God-at-one-end”, Lucy) is that it mimcis the theology of the OT temple, with its different courts. Different classes of people were only allowed within a certain distance of God. The “God-at-one-end” idea with everyone facing forward he refers to as the Boeing 747 layout, with all the action happening in the cockpit and the passengers just … well, being passengers! Of course, people find the round very threatening, but then it’s often a matter of conditioning.

    I was in a Methodist church recently having done a Make Poverty History thing in the sanctuary and we were putting the chairs back. The supervising Stweard was ensuring not only that chairs were replaced in the same spot, but that the same chairs went back in the same spots!!!! She then took out a rulder to measure the distance between the rows … No, NOT Christchurch, homileo, but same dynamic. I think it’s explicable in terms of people wanting to be more comfortable but not wanting to change the tradition. It’s minimal change. You know the old riddle: Q How many church members does it take to change a lightbulb? A 100 – 1 to change the lightbulb and 99 to say how much better the old one was!

    Thanks for picking the thread up, Sean. You’re right to identify a “that’s how we do it” mentality as being as significant or even more significant for low church people than theological considerations. The question I’d want to follow up was what sort of preaching happens in these churches? Is God the holy, uncontaminable God who must be protected from dirty sinners? If so, the worship layout reinforces that. I suppose I’m saying that I reckon our layout is always and at least “pretheological” rather than “atheological”. How and who we understand God to be, and our relationship to God, MUST influence the way we order our worship space, doesn’t it?

    I reckon I’d be quite happy being part of your congregation, Keith! The main thing is to be creating worship spaces that express the character of God and the relationship between God and the people.

  • 6. craig  |  28 September, 2005 at 10:33 am

    Wol said, “The main thing is to be creating worship spaces that express the character of God and the relationship between God and the people”

    and this seems to be crucial – I want to create worship space which is intimate, which values all people, which says we all belong equally and no place is more important than another. But it is the intimacy that people fear. For a few weeks I rearranged the chairs so that we were in the round and the choir moved into the body of the church – one of the choir members complained that they were too close, he felt that everyine was looking at him – I responded that the choir always sat with everyone looking at them – but his point was that they were far enough away for him not to be aware of the congregation.

    Sadly, we may be getting rid of pews, but we are long way from moving people away froma pew mentality.


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