Set Apart? ~ Rev. Gordon Murray
Can congregations afford to have (or not to have) "Sacred Space"; that is a building or Sanctuary that is set apart solely for worship or 'holy' rites? Glibly, one can say, "we haven't done that for years!" Indeed, church buildings and church sanctuaries have been used for the Arts: concerts, theatre, dance, as well as conferences and civic events. Church buildings have been made available to community groups from sports clubs to self-help groups, events and organizations that have served the public good.
With dwindling supporting households, rising maintenance and capital costs, congregations have or are considering to turn their real estate into a revenue source.
According to United Church Polity, one of the roles of a congregation's Session or equivalent governing body, is the appropriate use of the church edifice, particularly, the church's Sanctuary (UCC Manual B.7.4.1 (h)). In the minds of congregants, the Church Sanctuary can be, on one end of the theological spectrum, a space "set apart" solely for the worship of God; while on the other end, a multi-purpose space. In the mind of the former, pulpit, organ and pews, chancel and nave are exclusively set apart; i.e., are "holy". On the other end of the spectrum, holy spaces can be created by ritual whether the space is a church sanctuary, hall, small or large meeting space, a field or forest. Intrinsically, spaces can feel "holy", as with "power places" for Indigenous peoples. They can be a forest glade or mountain-top, beside a watercourse or in an expansive prairie. Biblically, they are places, because of the experience of awe, that evoke what Jacob proclaimed, after his dream of the ladder or angels in Genesis 28
‘Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 17 And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
Spaces can evoke a sense of the holy because of what is physically there the architecture, iconography, sacred relics - cross, crucifix, candles, lamps, Bible, communion or eucharist ware, etc., or because of the rites and rituals that are held there and only there.
Contemporary protestant theology has shifted away from holiness that is intrinsic / permanent, to situational or created sacred space. Yes, rituals can be 'performed' anywhere and relics, like a cross, can be brass or made of sticks or stones. The holiness is not necessarily in the objects but in what those objects evoke - an awe, a sense of Presence, a link to sacred or religious history. I suspect most people can remember a 'place' which, for them, had a sense of the holy, the greater, a place of wonder or awe. For others, the structures evoke holiness: the Church building itself, its sanctuary, the pews, pulpit, lectern. communion table, cross, stained glass, organ, and what is done there: scripture read and proclaimed, baptisms, communion, hymns, etc. The building, the sanctuary, the sanctuary furnishings, etc. are icons. They are not, however, the only ones or must be the only ones. Time, space, specific behaviours (rites and rituals) can and do evoke the 'holy' despite the location.
In the rapidly changing times, with supporting households in decline, it is time to decide whether it is practical to continue to have a building set apart solely for the worship of God; or to have a church sanctuary with fixed pews and furnishings. Our stewardship of inherited and historic church buildings is facing many congregations, particularly those in which hundreds once praised God. An obvious step for such historic buildings is to make them more flexible, have seating that is not fixed but flexible, have furnishings and instruments that can be moved into central positions. Maybe historic churches, transformed into flexible spaces, can remake their space to create income instead of being a financial burden. Perhaps a 'conferencing" staff person can be hired. Accessibility, washrooms and kitchens will need to be modernized.
Kindred Works - the United Church's Property Resource Corporation - is in the business of helping congregations transform to better meet the larger community needs and not just a community of faith's religious or spiritual needs. They help our buildings help us pay the bills.
Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones. God asked, "Mortal, can these bones live?" (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Then, God said,
"‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
If so led, "Help us, Holy One, to see how our building is to be set apart for your praise and glory!"