Sacred Space in the City


Thank you so much for your welcome, and indeed for the invitation to speak on this exciting topic at this exciting time. My wife Maggie and I have enjoyed being part of the extended family of Central Presbyterian Church over some years now and it’s a treat to be back here again. (And, let me say, it is a sign of happier ecumenical times: a hundred years ago an Anglican bishop would not have been invited to speak here, and if invited would certainly have refused . . . )

Jason has asked me to speak about the notion of sacred space and the implications of that notion for what is happening here at Central. If you knew my background you might suppose that I grew up familiar with the idea of sacred space, but actually I didn’t. My family worshipped in a church built in the eighth or ninth century, but nobody ever drew my attention to the spiritual significance of that. My grandfather was Archdeacon of Lindisfarne, ‘Holy Island’, where Aidan and Cuthbert had launched the ancient Celtic church; but I just took this for granted as part of history, not a sign of sacred turf. When, in my teens, my faith came alive in new ways through the evangelical message of Scripture Union, I was drawn into an implicitly Protestant world where you could pray to God anywhere at any time. The idea of some places or times being special would have appeared to threaten the much-cherished intimacy and immediacy of practising God’s presence in every place. I went on to study the Bible, and was ordained in the glorious mediaeval chapel of Merton College, Oxford; but I still had no idea of sacred space. I had an aunt who was an Anglican nun, and when we visited her we always commented on the sense of peace and calm we found on going through the gate in the high convent wall; but I never figured out why that was, or why it mattered. I would have thought that any suggestion that one place might be more ‘sacred’ than another was ruled out by Jesus’ words in John 4: neither on Jerusalem nor on this mountain will you worship God, because the Father seeks people to worship him in spirit and in truth. And, he implies, you can do that anywhere.

So how did I change my mind? In the 1980s I began to realise that my faith had been strongly dualistic. This was challenged head-on when I wrote the Tyndale Commentary on Colossians in the early 1980s, coming to grips with the fact of Jesus as Lord of the whole world, not just the ‘heavenly’ bit. Around the same time I had sudden experiences of sacred space in unexpected places, rather like Lucy’s first stumble through the Wardrobe into Narnia. I’ll just describe one. My oldest son went to a school in Montreal which had earlier expanded its premises by purchasing a redundant United Church across the street. They didn’t use it as a chapel; it functioned as an assembly hall, a space for music, theatre, graduations and so on. There was no sign of its former use. One evening my son, aged about 10, was playing the clarinet in a cheerfully chaotic jazz concert. We trooped in with a hundred or two other parents and supporters, all chatty and jolly for a very secular evening out. And as I walked in – I don’t really know how to put this – I was greeted by Jesus. I felt his presence. He was there. We took our seats and the music began: a bit raucous, nothing spiritual or religious about it. And all the time I sat there looking around and thinking, ‘Am I the only one who’s realised? Doesn’t everybody else feel it too?’ The joke at the time for me was that this had been a United church, which in Canada then and I fear still was something of a byword for liberal revisionism. But clearly, though I didn’t have language for it or a theological explanation, Jesus had been invoked there, worshipped there, adored there. And there he still was. Make of it what you will.

Life was busy and I didn’t have time to think it through or read books about a theology of place. But this and other occasions prepared me for the more predictable experience I had on Good Friday 1989 when I went for the first time into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, and in Galilee a few weeks later, there was no question: whether or not you have a theory of sacred space, the sense of Jesus’ presence was palpable, to me at least. In that place, it suddenly makes sense to suppose that the hopes and fears of all the world – and particularly the pain and tears of all the world – might actually be concentrated on one spot, on the one Man who lived and died and rose again there. That’s a whole other story.

And there in Jerusalem, too, I was first struck by the biblical clue that I would now regard as the intellectual starting point for a true understanding of holy places. You might begin way back with Moses being told to take his shoes off because he was standing on holy ground; then, after the Exodus, that is where the Tabernacle is constructed. But coming forward into the later period, you have the Temple and the Psalms. When you pray the Psalms in Jerusalem, you can’t easily escape into metaphor. You say and sing that the creator of the universe, for reasons best known to himself, has decided to take up permanent residence on the little hill just down the road. All our western post-Enlightenment instincts – and the Protestant instincts which surreptitiously fund them – rebel against any such idea. Surely all that stopped when the Temple was destroyed? Surely to go back there would lead to idolatry – or even to something like Roman Catholicism?

Not so fast. As many scholars, both Jewish and Christian, have been exploring in recent years, the whole biblical narrative is not about how humans can leave the world of space, time and matter and go off to a supposedly ‘spiritual’ heaven. That is the view of Plutarch, not Paul. It’s Platonism. The bible story is about how the creator makes a world, a heaven-and-earth reality, in order that he may dwell there with his human creatures. Genesis 1 is a statement of intent, and that statement is Temple-shaped: heaven plus earth with an Image at its heart. By the end of Exodus, we get the point. Even though humans have messed up, God calls a people and gives them the highly dangerous vocation of hosting the world’s creator in their midst. The Tabernacle evokes Genesis 1, just as Genesis 2 anticipates the Promised Land. The Tabernacle is the microcosm, the ‘little world’, the small working model of the whole creation, God’s statement of future intent, as in Ephesians 1.10 where the divine plan is to sum up in the Messiah all things in heaven and on earth. The Tabernacle is saying ‘this is what God wants to do with the whole creation’. Israel is called to live with the hope that one day not only the Tabernacle or Temple but the whole creation will be full of the divine power and glory as the waters cover the sea. Holy places are not a retreat from the world; they are the beginning of God’s advance into the world.

From the Tabernacle we then find a straight line not only to Solomon’s Temple – with all its ambiguity and tragedy – but also to John 1.14, where the Word becomes flesh and tabernacles in our midst; and ultimately to Revelation 21, where scripture’s story reaches its climax in the dwelling of God with humans. John’s theology rather obviously, and Paul’s less obviously but just as powerfully, is Temple-theology. The Tabernacle, and then the Temple, and then Jesus himself, and then those in whom the Spirit dwells, are all about inaugurated eschatology, about God doing, close up and personal, what he intends to do in and for the whole creation. I have often summarized the doctrine of justification by saying that God intends to put the whole world right in the end, and having launched that project in Jesus he puts people right in the present so that they can be models and agents of his putting-right project for the world. You could equally say that God intends to renew the whole creation and fill it with his loving presence, and that having launched that project in Jesus he fills people with his Spirit in the present, not so that they can escape the world but so that they can be models and agents of God’s plan for all creation.

One of my favourite passages for this, as I was saying yesterday, is Psalm 72. This Psalm highlights the vocation of Israel’s coming king: to do justice and mercy, to care for the widow and the oppressed, to set right what has gone wrong in the world. And the Psalm ends with the prayer: ‘Let the whole earth be filled with his glory, Amen, Amen.’ Do you see what’s happening? The other obvious vocation of Israel’s king was to be the Temple-builder: David planned the Temple, Solomon built it, Hezekiah and Josiah restored it, and one of the problems after the exile was that even Judas Maccabeus didn’t really get it right. The point of building the Temple was so that the glorious divine presence would come and dwell there. The king builds the Temple so that God’s glory will fill it; the king does justice in the world, putting everything right in society, so that God’s glory may fill the whole earth. Heaven and earth are the true and ultimate temple, with humans as the Image, dwelling in the holy, hallowed place. All that is at the heart of biblical theology. The great climactic moments of the New Testament – obvious passages like John 20, Romans 8 or Revelation 21 and 22 – are soaked in these themes.

So where might this take us in terms of a theology of sacred space in general, and the possibility and challenge of sacred space in the world today – in New York today?

The overall point I want to make – and it’s exciting to be able to make it in a place like this – is that church buildings, though they can sometimes be idolised and treated as though they were the reality to which they point, nevertheless do point to that reality. It’s easy for us Platonized westerners to imagine that a church building is meant as an escape-hatch from the world, a place you go to forget the world for a while. Absolutely wrong. A church building is an anticipation, an ambiguous anticipation but an anticipation none the less, of God’s desire to be known and loved on every square inch of the world. A church building is a bridgehead into the world, not an escape-hatch away from the world. And therefore the more it can point to the eventual goal of filling the whole creation with God’s glory, the better.

That’s why the great traditions of church-building have been what they have been. Take, first, the early practice of building churches on top of pagan shrines. People are often startled by that. Our western dualism shies away from the idea of worshipping Jesus on ground where Mithras, or Caesar himself, had been worshipped. But that misses the point (a Colossians-style point, I think). All pagan worship is a parody of the truth, taking some element in the good creation and absolutizing it. To worship Jesus instead is to celebrate the goodness of creation. In every eucharist, we are trumping the old corn-kings, and Bacchus the wine-god too, with the self-giving life and love of creation’s true lord. By putting a church like this at this point on a great street like this, the builders, and you the restorers, are saying that Jesus belongs on the High Street, not just down some dark back alley. There are new challenges on the High Street and you must be prepared to meet them. Indeed, staking a claim to such a place is to invite such challenges. But this is where the gospel belongs.

This is why church buildings have traditionally symbolized the joining of heaven and earth. This brings us from the question of place to the question of sacred space as a sub-category of how we understand the theology, the sociology and the cultural significance of buildings in general. When you visit Eastern Europe to this day you see the Brutalist housing into which people were put as so many dehumanized units. The buildings people live in, work in, and visit say a great deal not only about them but to them about the sort of people they are and are to become. Churches have always done this, often with great sophistication which today’s casual functionalism ignores at its peril.

So how do buildings speak of heaven and earth coming together? The Eastern Orthodox do it horizontally: earth is where the people stand, and then, behind a screen covered with icons of the saints, heaven is at the altar where the priests celebrate the liturgy. The two are joined as first the gospel-book, and then the sacramental bread, are brought out from heaven to earth, and in other ways as well which symbolize the easy though scary commerce between God’s space and ours. In the Western churches we have often built gothic masterpieces, of which this church is a modern variant. The point here is vertical: the building is far too high to make sense as a place of human activity, but we humans find ourselves then sharing the space with the angels and archangels. (That idea of sharing the angelic liturgy goes right back to ancient Judaism and remains central to many Eucharistic liturgies.) And the way we do that in particular is through music. One of the things that has always excited me about Central is its vibrant music ministry. When you make music, and specially when you sing – perhaps I should say specially when you sing the Psalms, or when you use the music designed for these great buildings, like Tallis and the other masters of the high English Renaissance, you are physically inhabiting the upper spaces, joining with the angels. Of course, it may not always feel like that, but that is the theory, the framework for what we believe we are doing. That’s why I’m excited about the developments here, not least the organ.

Another thing that great churches have done down the centuries is to ring bells. Sometimes newcomers to English towns and villages complain about the noise of the bells, but that’s like buying a house beside a farm and then complaining that the cows moo too loudly. The bells offer an ancient, haunting message and even when people couldn’t put into words what that message is they often find it evocative. Simply chiming the hours and the quarters can be important: one of the church’s primary roles is to remind the world what time it is, and the striking clock keeps that vocation symbolically alive. Sacred space, properly used, creates contexts for the gospel in the heart of the world that is supposedly secular but actually often ready for something deeper. A colleague of mine once worked in a village parish in the west of England where the tower of the ancient little church stood on a prominent hill where you could see it from a major highway. He used to get letters and other messages from people who had driven by, families, truck drivers, whatever, who said that just seeing the church there had reminded them of deep truths to which they needed to pay attention. Now you could of course explain that as a kind of atavistic folk-memory in the culture. Perhaps that is indeed part of how it ‘works’. But once you get to grips with the biblical theology of sacred space I think there’s much more going on.

So here, on a world-famous Avenue in a world-famous city, a great cathedral-like building like this is a gift to be cherished, a sign to the world around, so that the casual shopper, the cab-driver doing a quick U-turn, the homeless man wandering by, the young executive on the way to the office, may all be reminded of the truth that nobody ever totally forgets: that we humans are called to bear God’s image, that heaven and earth are made for one another, and that one day this will become reality. We often say in Britain that our cathedrals function like the Athenian altar to the unknown God: many people walk by and wonder, many come in to look around, frequently with an inarticulate sense that something is going on here that might just offer hope and healing, solace and a sense of direction.

In our often over-rationalised world, some people want to put up little signs in churches and cathedrals with biblical verses or helpful truths. But actually that’s often a mistake. It ignores how sacred space actually works. The building itself will speak to people, as architects will tell you. Actually, any building which becomes a house of prayer may well have the capacity to speak like this; a Christian home which has been a place of love and prayer and welcome can do it too. But buildings which are designed prayerfully and consecrated prayerfully to embody and symbolize the truth of the gospel, of the coming together of heaven and earth through the redeeming love of God in Jesus his Son, can and will do it in the way great art always does it, in its own language and with its own profound effect.

There are of course buildings, including alas some churches, whose architecture has a negative impact. I think of one where I was told in advance that the outside of the church says to you ‘I wouldn’t come in here if I was you’, and when you go inside it says ‘There, I told you so!’ But I know of many others, thank God, which mysteriously draw you in, which welcome you, and which gently suggest at certain points, without any fussy people or little signs badgering you, that you might want to stop and pray. That is how, quite often, sacred space actually works. If you’ve ever been to the Island of Iona you’ll know that the great Abbey there does that amazingly. Every stone seems to say, Why not just stop here a moment and pray?

It does depend in part, of course, on the building being open. That depends in turn on having properly trained people to staff it, appropriate security systems in place, and so on. I don’t know what will be practical for you here or how that would work. In some city churches I know they have a rota of trained volunteers available so that people can find someone to talk to if that’s what they want and need; though again often it’s the building that does the talking.

It is only fair that I should also say what sacred space is not. It is not a bit of sympathetic magic. I have taken part in the consecration of churches and other buildings, and I believe there is wisdom and good practice in that kind of thing. But it doesn’t, so to speak, work automatically. Like the children in C. S. Lewis’s story, it’s always possible to blunder into the wardrobe and find that it is only a wardrobe after all. Many will look and look but never see. But I have observed down the years that sacred space still works like the wardrobe, not least for people who aren’t expecting it. I recall a young man with no overt faith who spoke of sneaking into a midlands Cathedral while his family were playing in the park nearby and just sitting there enjoying something he couldn’t explain. I remember a highly secularized young woman walking into another Cathedral and, hearing the choir practising for Evensong, suddenly dissolving into floods of tears without knowing why. These stories could be multiplied many times – and of course, we remind ourselves, they could be matched by stories of many other people who go into the same buildings and come out with no apparent effect; or, worse, those who go in as professionals, even religious professionals, and allow familiarity to breed contempt. That’s another warning: don’t expect that the work you’re doing, which is a real sign of God’s coming kingdom, will go ahead without attacks. From the senior leadership down, you need to be prepared for that, and those of us who care about what’s going on here need to be committed to praying for your safety and wisdom. Sacred space, to repeat, doesn’t work automatically. And there are real tragedies when people who have loved a particular building come to love it above the truth it was meant to embody. There are temptations to idolatry at every level, and the greater the good the greater the temptation. There have always been seasons in the church’s life when iconoclasm has seemed the only way, though often, as in England’s Puritan period, this picked up a darker energy from existing social and cultural tensions.

The antidote to idolatry, then, is not to escape the world; that merely leaves the pagan deities ruling the roost while we escape. The antidote is sacred space of all kinds: the sacred space that we make in our homes when we pray and love and welcome strangers and celebrate God’s goodness; the sacred space we make in our cities when we put the vision of Psalm 72 into practice at every level; the sacred space we make with our art and our music when we use our creative talents, and encourage others to do so, to the glory of God. And when families and justice-makers and culture-makers and beauty-creators come together to worship in a place they bring that sacredness with them and the place itself, this place itself, becomes sacred too: not as a cold, detached shrine, but as a place where, in Eliot’s words, ‘prayer has been valid’. I remember when I first read that being shocked; surely prayer is ‘valid’ wherever it is offered? Yes indeed, of course; but as we live between Easter and the final new creation it seems to be the case that when God’s people have prayed in a particular place for many years there is an ease, a naturalness about prayer in that place which you don’t find in many others.

All this is to say that church buildings ought to be modelling and proclaiming the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ is public truth. We have been browbeaten by secularism for quite long enough, and many Christians have retreated into the private world where the secularists want us to stay, the world in which we might indeed build prayer spaces but we would see them simply as places of escape. They are not. They are signs of hope and outward-looking theology and mission. They belong on the theological map which Paul draws in Romans 8 where he speaks of the Christians’ ‘inheritance’ in terms of the renewal of the whole creation. Part of our problem has been that we have seen the ‘inheritance’ as ‘heaven’, and so have imagined a world in which buildings are merely functional. That, actually, plays right into the secular post-Enlightenment narrative in which the older implicit theology of place was ousted, so that – as native Americans and many others found out to their cost! – ‘place’ simply becomes a commodity or investment, a merely pragmatic convenience. No: the whole world is God’s world; actually, if Paul is right, the whole world is now God’s holy land, claimed by Jesus and by the promise that one day it will be filled with his glory. And every place of prayer, not least when that prayer is the inarticulate groaning of which Paul speaks, from the place where the world is in pain – every place of prayer is a sign that every place will finally be claimed as God’s promised domain.

So to conclude. The biblical theme of Tabernacle and Temple points forward to Jesus and the Spirit in the New Testament, but we cannot infer from that that the idea of holy place and sacred space is now abolished. No: it is fulfilled. We are creational monotheists, not Platonic dualists. That’s why, unlike the single shrine in the Old Testament, we have built more and more places of worship around the world: to declare to the whole world that Jesus is Lord, to encourage more and more communities and individuals to pray and praise and worship and witness. Thank God for the holistic vision of scripture; for the holistic salvation of Jesus and the spirit; for the holistic hope of new creation; for the holistic ministry of a strategic church, a holy place to symbolize God’s claim on the whole city and a sacred space to symbolize and embody God’s desire to fill all creation with his glory.


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