Monday, December 10, 2012

Church in the Round

St. John's Memorial Chapel
Sermon preached at St. John's Memorial Chapel, December 6, 2012

St. John’s Memorial Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School was built in the nineteenth century. I asked historian David Sigenthaler what chapel and worship was like when he was a student at the school in the 1950s.

At that time the altar was set against the east wall, the faculty sat up in the chancel, and the students sat in the pews facing each other. Each would have an assigned seat and chapel during that time was compulsory. The design of sacred space mirrored the hierarchical setup of the community. In the 1960s when Christopher Durasingh and Ed Rodman were students, the pews were removed and replaced with chairs.

In 1992 when I joined the school, the altar was brought forward to the crossing and the ambo was placed on the west side near the entrance. The students sat facing each other.

To honor Brett Donham who renovated St. Paul’s at Brookline after the fire in 1976 and our presider Rev. Jeffrey Mello, the rector of St. Paul’s, we have created a worshipping space modeling after St. Paul’s in which the congregation and the choir sit surrounding the altar. Donham talked about the rationale of why he designed the church in such a way:

“The traditional forms of church buildings, with everyone facing in the same direction and with the ‘expert’; the intermediary or interpreter, on a raised stage addressing an audience is the antithesis of gathering in community.”

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Brookline, MA
Today many churches are recovering the early roots of Christianity. Donham continues, “In these places people gather in community to offer praise and thanksgiving, to reflect on scripture, to share stories about Jesus Christ and his impact on their lives, to share a commemorative meal, and through this to come into communion with Christ, and with one another. These are communal activities, with many players, several centers of action and movement, and require the ability to see one another and feel as a gathered body.”

We have shifted the feast days and celebrate today the feast of Macrina, theologian, teacher, and monastic. I would like to invite you to reflect for a moment on the image of the church in the round.

Several things in Macrina’s life lead me to think that she will be open to the church in the round. Her brothers Basil and Gregory of Nyssa were bishops and renowned theologians in Cappadocia in modern day Turkey. Macrina as their elder sister admonished them to lead a life of simplicity and not to depend on their knowledge and rhetorical skills, their wealth, and their high positions in church and society.

In the Life of St. Macrina, Gregory said Macrina persuaded her mother to give up all showy style of living and the services of domestics. She urged her mother to share the life of the maids and to treat all her slave girls and menials as if they were sisters and belonged to the same rank as herself.

During her life, Macrina embodied what Philippians said, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord” (3:8).  When we think of the church in the round, we imagine a more egalitarian model in which social status and hierarchal structure both in the church and society can be transgressed.

Most Holy Redeemer Church, San Francisco, CA

Although we don’t have any writings from Macrina about the religious community she has formed, her brother Basil has written a Rule of Life, which preserved some of her ideals. The Rule of Life describes a community living together for worship, prayers, mutual help, exercise of virtue, and assisting others. Though the Rule prescribes obedience to the superior, it also exhorts the superior to reprove offenders with meekness and gentleness. In such a way, power within the community can be more shared and not restricted to the top.

The church in the round exists not for itself but for others. One of the hallmarks of the church in the round, as theologian Letty Russell has described in her book with the same title is hospitality to those on the margins. Macrina demonstrated her hospitality by feeding the hungry, providing for the needy, and taking care of young women. The two aspects of gathering for worship and sending out to service are inseparable.

Sometimes we are disheartened because we find the church more like the form of a triangle, in which power is concentrated at the top, instead of in the round. The church design and liturgy reinforce the separation between the clergy and the laity. Worship is often separated from ordinary life and from a sense of mission. It fails to give the sustenance that we need or meet the deepest longing we have for God.

In the season of Advent, a time of anticipation and expectation, let us renew our hope and work for a church in the round. One of my students Lucretia Mann brought to my attention an Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, who has said that church is not an institution, but a way of being, that is deeply bound to the being of human, the being of the world, and the being of God.*

We can each bring something new to rejuvenate and enliven our community and way of being. We do not need to abolish the old church in order to create something new. We can redesign and reoccupy sacred space within traditional buildings so that we can experiment with different ways of being with God. In this semester, we have seen several creative expressions of using sacred space, particularly in the Eucharist led by Stephen Burns and Christopher Duraisingh. In the course of doing so, we experienced new centers and movements as people of God.

As a teacher of spirituality, I believe that external space also shapes and nurtures our internal space. The change of external space gives us a new sense of our own place in the world. It is no coincidence that many sacred traditions embrace the circle in their holiest sites, such as the prehistoric Stonehenge in England and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and in their religious imagination, such as the Tibetan Mandala (a sanskrit word meaning circle), the Native American dreamcatcher, and the labyrinth found in many cultures.

The reading from Sirach 51:13-22 talks about Ben Sira setting out on a journey to find Wisdom. Sometimes he is delighted for having found her and listened to her. Other times he spreads out his hands to heaven and laments his ignorance of her. The spiritual path is never straightforward, but winds back and forth, and sometimes we will get lost on our way.

The church in the round is also a process and not a perfect circle. Sometimes we move two steps forward and one step back. All we are asked to do is to transform the triangle or the rectangular form in our chapel to make it rounder each day to the glory of God. Amen.
* John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 15.