By Jamie Howison
The Anglican congregation of saint benedict’s table (sic) has nearly always shared a building with the Parish of All Saints in downtown Winnipeg. After fifteen years as tenant-partners, our congregation has developed a strong sense of belonging in that place.
We hadn’t realized how much the building has shaped us until this past summer, when major restoration work required us to temporarily relocate for about four months. We set about looking for an option suitable to our needs, and settled on Elim Chapel, a local non-denominational congregation that extended us a very warm and generous welcome.
We knew that the differences between the two church buildings would bring some challenges. All Saints is a designated heritage building constructed in 1926 in the Gothic revival style. It has a high altar, rood screen, high open ceiling, and straight rows of fixed pews described by one of members as “soldier-straight.” Aside from the removal of a few rows of pews to make room for a nave altar, the interior of the church looks very much like it did in the 1920s.
Elim Chapel, on the other hand, was built by a Presbyterian congregation at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1970s it was completely gutted by a fire and rebuilt within the old shell. From the outside Elim Chapel looks like a heritage building, but the inside bears few signs of the original church. There are stained glass windows and a pipe organ that replaced the ones lost in the fire, but otherwise it reflects late 20th century evangelical church design. Seating is configured in a semi-circle, with pews set in four wide sections. The floor is gently sloped and the pews upholstered, giving the space a theatre-like feel, which is accentuated by the high platform stage at the front. The entire sanctuary is carpeted, and there is almost no acoustic resonance.
Interestingly, it was the acoustics we noticed first. It struck us immediately and deeply impacted the character of our worship. At All Saints, voices resound, filling the space, while music ensembles accompany the congregation. At Elim Chapel, musicians moved from “accompanying” from the side to “leading” from the front, relying on the high-quality PA system to compensate for muted voices and instrumental sounds.
During our last few weeks at Elim Chapel, I invited people to share reflections on our experience there. With a touch of wry humor, one person noted that when my associate and I preached, we “sounded rather like evangelical pastors,” because of the lack of “resounding’ natural effect of acoustics.” Another person focused on the way in which the room “shaped” how I presided:
Because you do not have to wait for the reverb to finish as you do in the massive cavern that is All Saints, you were speaking into a “dead room,” and you sped up all of your speech to match the space. It was one of the things I have loved about the way you presided [before] — how clearly and thoughtfully everything was said.
I’d had no idea the degree to which I, as a celebrant and preacher, was responding to the acoustics of a space.
We also felt the difference in the arrangement of the space. At Communion we were used to walking down the center aisle and gathering in circles around the Lord’s table. Now, with three aisles and angled pews, we had to negotiate a different way. Describing it as “awkward,” one person noted “the laughter, wide eyes and shrugging shoulders” as we fumbled our way into learning a new formation. One person also noted that, at All Saints, “one is conscious of intentionally deciding to step out and come forward to receive, then actually receiving with others,” adding that, without gathering in a circle, this sense of risk and intimacy was hard to recapture.
More significantly, though (and perhaps paradoxically) was the loss of what several people described as “anonymity” and “privacy.” This may seem an odd desire in a gathering of the Body of Christ, but it immediately made sense to me. The configuration of All Saints’ makes it possible to slip in the door, take a seat near the back or off to the side, and participate as much — or as little — as desired. We are known as a community that welcomes people to land with us as a “second church home,” and many who do are also involved in ministry elsewhere. For such people we provide a resting place and some liturgical and sacramental refreshment, with nothing asked or required. Others come because they’ve had a hard, hurtful, or exhausting experience in another congregation. More than once we’ve been told that we were someone’s “last chance for the church” congregation.
To enter the Elim Chapel sanctuary, you have to come through a large atrium, ascend to the second floor, walk through a reception area, and finally enter the worship space through a door in full view of most of the people already seated. From the door to the sanctuary, it isn’t exactly possible to enter anonymously. It was a harder space for some people, who just wanted to slip in and test the safety of worshipping with us. But we were certainly seen. This positive take was nicely articulated by one congregant: “There’s a transparency. A new vulnerability… It’s not always a bad thing to have no place to hide.”
Now that we’re back at All Saints, we haven’t sunk back into our private devotional silos. We sing as a congregation—and “lustily with a good courage,” in Coverdale’s words (Ps. 33:3). We exchange the peace. We receive Communion in circles, where we can see each other, and Eucharistic ministers are encouraged to look into the eyes of each communicant as they speak the words of administration. For all that, it does remain possible for people to enter quietly and engage at their own level. That ability has been a defining part of our congregational life and ministry, part of our cultural DNA from the earliest days. Elim made us more aware than ever of the benefits — and perhaps the drawbacks — of living out our particular vocation.
Do our buildings shape us? How much difference does a physical space make to the worship and life of a congregation? We learned last year that our buildings do shape us, and give concrete shape to what we can do together. We also emerged with a strong reminder that before all else a church is a people, gathered together — to pray, sing, listen, reflect, worship, and break bread together — and then sent out, beyond the walls of the church building, as witnessing disciples of Jesus. Much as we longed to return to our creaky and familiar home, at Elim Chapel we learned more about who we are and how to remain that local manifestation of the Body of Christ called saint benedict’s table.
The Rev. Jamie Howison is the founding pastor of saint benedict’s table, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.