WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

The Environment for Worship – Considering the Liturgical Environment

WelCom May 2019:

Cardinal John Dew’s invitation to rethinking how we use our church and parish building and how we go about the ‘work’ of church is a spirit-filled invitation. Nevertheless, there is an impact on people when a church is destroyed or badly damaged, as with the churches in Sri Lanka’s recent bombings and the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, or when a church is repurposed as a café, family home or apartment block. No matter how humble, the church building invites one into the sense of the sacred. In being called to look outwards, to the mission of the Gospel, the building becomes a place that refreshes and reconnects believers to the presence of Christ in the scriptures, the eucharist, the minister and each other.

Declining numbers force certain realities upon us. Twenty years ago, I ministered in a city parish in Münster, Germany. Three parishes were fused together, two rejoining the original nineteenth century parish. Within a short time, the 1960s church, the best for liturgy, was repurposed as the diocesan publication centre. The original church became the parish church again and the third church was sold for 1 Euro to a Catholic charity, who repurposed it in four floors. The ground floor houses 10 homeless men over sixty. The floor above them is rented to lawyers, whose rent pays the accommodation costs of the 10 men below. The third floor is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation day clinic. The fourth floor is rented to architects and their rent keeps the day clinic going. This the best example of the reuse of a church that is both practical and Gospel-conscious.

Religious buildings contribute in religious and social ways to the framework of human meaning. In the best instances their architecture stirs the soul and their design contributes to the evolution of building technology. Their artistry extends the fine arts through glass, colour, carving, and effigy. Socially and religiously they are places of sanctuary for travelers, care for the poor, havens of silence and places of prayer for believers.


Joe Grayland

Stained-glass windows, St Mary of the Angel’s Church, Wellington. Photo: WelCom

The creation of sacred spaces and holy places is an enduring element of human existence.

Across the world we find natural spaces and built places that are considered holy. In the natural environment mountains, trees, rivers and caves are invested with supra-natural meaning, and in the built environment walls, windows, roofs and furniture become part of the fabric of worship.

Construction is designed to control the natural elements and, out of the uncontrollable cosmic space create a controllable human-sized space. The religious building is created to honour God and to protect us from God. The cosmos of God is immense and beyond our control, so we invest our worship spaces with divine meaning and structure them in ways that enable us to control religious thinking, and practice.

We take ordinary elements – shelter, table, reading stand, chair – and invest them with special meaning through rites of blessing that make them church, altar, ambo and presider’s chair. We have separated them from their ‘common-sense-world’ and through them created an ‘other-sense-world’. The religious building becomes a connection point between these two worlds. For Christians this is not an absolute separation, because we can gather anywhere, inside and outside, because we name our gathering, church, after ourselves. If we called ourselves the ‘Pilgrim People’ then we would meet in a building call the ‘Pilgrim’ – ‘I’m off to the Pilgrim for Eucharist’. Consequently, our buildings are both necessary and unnecessary.

We use buildings to gather in, because we don’t want to stand in the rain or sun while we pray but we could stand in the rain and sun and pray equally well. The church building is not a requirement of belief, though it is a tool to help us worship and a teaching aid to what we believe.

“The church building is not a requirement of belief, though it is a tool to help us worship and a teaching aid to what we believe.”

In its infancy, Christianity rejected key aspects of civic religion associated with emperor worship, cultic priesthood and altars associated with temple sacrifice and commerce including ritual prostitution. Instead, they retained many of the domestic elements of Jewish worship and, in time, included practices from Hellenistic, African and Roman domestic living. Christians focused on the table (mensa in Greek) of the meal, the scriptural stories, spirit-filled initiation and liturgical leadership through elders and deacons.

A specifically Christian environment for worship began to develop sometime from 100AD onwards. The earliest example is the Christian house-church and baptistery at Dura Europos in what is today, north eastern Syria (constructed early 200s ACE and abandoned in 256-257 ACE). It was a typical Roman upper-class house, centred around a columned courtyard and atrium with a pool at its centre.

From the 4th century onward things changed. Christian theology was overlaid with cultic images of altar, sacrifice, priesthood, militarism, judicial process and courtly manners, which all eventually reformed the place of worship.

Throughout the next two thousand years the architecture of Catholic religious buildings developed through eight broad periods of architecture.

  • The earliest are the Byzantine and Roman periods that set patterns like the basilica and the font.
  • The Romanesque and Gothic periods marked significant developments in design and construction.
  • The Reformation and Baroque periods reflected the opposed theologies of nature, grace, redemption, salvation and revelation.
  • The Neo-Classical movement of the nineteenth century emphasised revivalism.
  • The Modernist, Brutalist and Bauhaus movements of the twentieth century, inter World War and post-World War II years signaled significant social change.

As result we have a more evolved local vernacular style, though earlier elements remain. The evolution of liturgical thinking over the last 60 years, and the influence of Māori and Polynesian cultures, have shaped the liturgical environment, through reforming the ways we think about salvation, worship, revelation and community. The argument that there is a particular form of church building that must be adhered to is historically and theologically naïve.

“The argument that there is a particular form of church building that must be adhered to is historically and theologically naïve.”

Sadly, the liturgical environment is often designed through consideration of secondary issues. Places are constructed for private parties not community events and ritual movement is often ignored. Many communities still sit the ‘liturgical bus’ seating pattern facing the back of the person in front of them and banks of pews and chairs dominate the space. Social outreach is rejected, so we build one-purpose building that can’t be used for any social agency and reactionary and conservative thinking still wants to create shrines for God and avoid places of community prayer.

The Liturgical Space is an interplay of several Ritual Places. The Liturgical Space should reference form, aesthetic and the local vernacular, while the Ritual Place, the location of function and rite, should reference the sacramental rites.

The contemporary Liturgical Space should understand the contemporary person and their ability, or inability, to symbolise. Symbolisation cannot be presumed! Ancient symbols such as fire, water, food and drink work, because they are essentially human symbols aligned to the sociological needs of warmth, food, shelter and community. Other symbols are not so resilient and, over time, quickly become archaic.

The proliferation of churches and parishes, created to provide livings during the post-Second World War boom in clergy numbers, has created a new problem: what to do with buildings that are no longer necessary? Consequently, parishes and dioceses now need to be amalgamated to match the REAL resources to the REAL need. Living in La-la-land is only for the movies. The real need is to see the situation as it really is and not as it once was or might be. The person who lives in the past or fantasises about the future, always avoids living in the present.

Fr Joe Grayland is a theologian (studied in Germany – Dr Theol.) and is parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes, Palmerston North, St Mary’s, Foxton, and St Joseph’s, Shannon.

Read more:

Notre Dame Cathedral – ‘A major symbol of the Catholic faith’