The Shackles of the Present

Review by Matthew Alderman

A lesson from the book of Unintended Consequences. Some years ago, a cathedral underwent a renovation in which all the pews were removed, the reredos ripped out and replaced with a little table in the nave, and a large synthronon with bishop’s throne placed in the center of the apse. Much of the colorful wall decoration was painted over in tasteful beige, though some of those in the apse, above the chair, were spared. It included the inscription: “Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto Him that sits upon the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.” The throne mentioned is not the seat of the inadvertently deified bishop, but the old high altar, now gone.

The Art of Tentmaking
Making Space for Worship
Edited by Stephen Burns.
Canterbury Press Norwich. Pp. 208. $45

The church is Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, and the progenitor of
 this makeover was its former dean,
 Richard Giles, celebrated in The Art of
Tentmaking. In the introductory essay,
“Secure the Stakes,” Roman Catholic 
liturgical renovator Richard S. Vosko
 comments that the church building “is 
not, per se, the place where God
 dwells. Rather, it is a meeting house
where the community engages with
 God and one another.” As a young Roman Catholic, it pains me to watch Anglicans adopt the buzzwords that made
 my childhood Masses so stale and colorless. Even for those my age who may
be less “spikey” in their liturgical
 tastes, modern church architecture
 seems barren and lifeless. The young 
want the “[s]teeples, stained-glass windows, and religious imagery” derided
 here, in addition to the “hospitality, outreach, education, and small prayer groups” beloved of contemporary church folk. But it is precisely in the ostensibly new, “open,” “big-tent” spaces that one feels the dead hand of the past, circa 1968.

There is still much to like. Giles and his cohorts display a degree of culture and sensitivity often lacking in similar polemics on my side of the Tiber. Martyn Percy’s “Pitching Tents: Some Interpretive Sketches on Sacred Space” praises the humanity found in public squares and offers an enticing vision of Benedictine-style hospitality (Giles began his career as an urban planner), while Stephen Cottrell’s “Richard Giles, Tentmaker by Divine Appointment,” starts off with bold words from the dean that might embarrass some churchgoers today: “We gather because we worship God.” Those of us who find the static chattiness of most modern worship trying can cheer at Giles’s reminder that ceremonial, movement, and ritual are frequently just as important as the prayers themselves.

Yet, even more can be found that is troubling. Percy praises St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for its non-divisive “common space” in terms that imply not the bright specificity of St. John’s heavenly Jerusalem, but a luminous vagueness: “clean, uncontroversial, tidy, and neat.” Cottrell’s glowing description of one of Giles’s earlier parishes, austere and “breathtakingly beautiful,” sounds on reflection little more than an empty box: “a place where things happened. A place to be occupied.” Ron Pattenden’s “Worship with Eyes Open,” on religious imagery, is illustrated by three pieces of art: one borderline blasphemous, one incomprehensibly au courant, and one abstract. A reader will hunt hard for a recognizable theology of the Mass, or even the Lord’s Supper in the Reformed sense, with the possible exception of “Life Passages for Faith,” which touches it only slightly, and “The Scandalous Table,” which begins with a description of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, a truly singular liturgico-architectural space, and focuses mostly on open Communion.

There is little to suggest liturgy is something handed down, giving continuity and order to worship and life.

We interrogate liturgical custom as to “why we have ended up doing things the way we do” with the goal of changing the Church rather than appreciating the strata of built-up tradition. Yet, for all the praise of Dean Giles’s work as prophetic, so many of the spaces that he has inspired seem comfortably, fashionably minimalist, challenging in only the way the age would like to be challenged. A century or so ago, by comparison, the Ritualists were fighting to turn the plain meeting house back into something redolent of the house of God, even, in some cases, to the point of facing jail time. Incense, vestments, and Christmas carols — all the old pomp — were dangerous and daring. Many Roman Catholic liturgical scholars, such as Uwe Michael Lang and Alcuin Reid, are now seeing as treasure what The Art of Tentmaking derides as so many accretions, “the shackles of the past.” Clearing churches of seemingly pointless clutter not only throws the baby out with the font water but endangers the altar and Lamb as well.

One wonders what Dean Giles would make of the liturgy that a group of Harvard undergrads recently helped arrange in the space-age MIT Chapel, the first solemn high Latin Mass there since the 1960s. The church was packed with the young and the curious, and it was not the worship, but the architecture, that felt out of date. Here endeth the lesson.

Matthew Alderman is a project architect at Cram and Ferguson Architects of Concord, Massachusetts. His work as an artist, designer, and illustrator appears at


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