Myodicy, Issue 16, September 2002

Sacred Spaces

by Theodore Plantinga

Among the shibboleths of our time is the "Great Wall" that is needed to keep the church separate from the state, or to keep religion from influencing public affairs. Is such a "Great Wall" really needed? According to some very determined people, it surely is.

Many will go further and maintain that such a wall is a "constitutional" requirement. What such folk are referring to is the famous First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...."

Now, the word "wall" does not appear in this Amendment, which was passed in 1789; neither does the word "separation." Historians tell us that these two words got into the discussion courtesy of Thomas Jefferson: in a letter of 1802 addressed to some Baptists, Jefferson stated that the Constitution created a "wall of separation between church and state."

Just what the founding fathers and other leaders in Congress had in mind in inserting such a clause could be debated, of course, and it certainly has been at great length. In the USA the First Amendment functions as a legal principle; in other Western democracies, like Canada, it is regarded by some as an ideal that we should honor, but it is not a requirement in any literal sense. We have no "established" church in Canada, but in some parts of the country, such as Ontario, we do have religiously-based schools that get government support (the so-called "separate," schools, which are Roman Catholic in orientation).

In both countries this "separation" principle (or ideal) sometimes gives rise to situations that many Christians find sad and deplorable. A group of Christian kids in a public high school may try to organize some sort of club or regular activity that includes prayer, only to be told that prayer is not allowed in the school's facilities because they were built with public funds and are maintained by such funds. Now, other religious groups seem to get by with using public facilities, presumably because their gatherings have the character of "multicultural" events, which, of course, are to be encouraged. It doesn't seem fair, and so a great many people, especially Christians, complain about the small-mindedness an outright prejudice that comes to expression in such rulings.

Christians in Canada may dismiss the problem as due to typically American hang-ups in which citizens of the True North Strong and Free do not share. Strictly speaking, we Canadians do not have a "first-amendment" problem. Yet, right now, here in Canada, we have a small squabble underway that raises a similar issue, but in reverse, as it were. The squabble in question has to do with a prison, rather than a school.

Here are the bare facts, as reported in the September 2002 issue of the Niagara Anglican. Melodie Edwards is an Anglican chaplain serving in the Hamilton (Ontario) Detention Centre. She is bringing forward a complaint which, in a sense, reverses the familiar story of the problem faced by the Christian kids in a US high school who would like to use the school's facilities to hold a meeting including prayer. More specifically, what Rev. Edwards is complaining about is "unauthorized use of the worship space" at the jail in which she serves as chaplain. Certain agreements were made at the time the worship space was consecrated for its special use. Moreover, there is a provincial policy to the effect that "no spiritual or religious program in the worship centre [may] be displaced unless it is done in consultation with the chaplain." And if there is any other program undertaken in the worship centre, it must be "consistent with the religious and spiritual care" which is normally offered there. Naturally, someone would need to be the judge of whether a proposed use of the worship centre would qualify under such a policy. And that someone is the chaplain.

The problem, we are told further, is that "the worship space was often used for many secular activities and her protests went unheeded." The dispute has a history, it would appear, and by now it has gone far beyond the protest stage.

The eventual outcome of this dispute will not be my concern in this brief essay. Suffice it to say that I am sympathetic to Rev. Edwards in her chaplaincy role and her desire to protect sacred space for her ministry activities.

It is the issue underlying the dispute that I wish to explore here. More specifically, the question is: should we, in the twenty-first century, still think in terms of consecrated or sacred places, or perhaps spaces?

In certain Calvinist circles we find a doctrine that would seem to promise a quick end to controversies of this sort. Perhaps "doctrine" is too elevated a word for the idea I have in mind, namely, that we should never make a distinction between the sacred or religious, on the one hand, and the secular or profane (in the old sense), on the other.

If we were to apply this doctrine to the two types of situations I have been discussing, we would conclude quickly that the "Great Wall" between church and state that causes disappointment for young Christian students in public high schools should be knocked down, for it is radically misconceived. Every activity that takes place in those "public" high school buildings is "religious" -- not just what happens when some Christian kids hold a meeting. And so the determination to ban Christian prayer and worship is arbitrary, at best, and perhaps downright discriminatory.

Under the same way of thinking one could argue that Rev. Edwards is misguided in her efforts to protect her sacred space. God can be worshipped in a warehouse as well as in a sanctuary, and therefore space used for explicitly Christian ministry work could double as space for any other legitimate activity in a jail.

There are many people who firmly believe this line of thought. They are the ones who are quite happy to have their local congregation assemble for worship each Sunday in some sort of "functional" gathering space like a gymnasium or an all-purpose auditorium. They do not seem to miss the little touches that mark off a normal sanctuary that has been set aside for corporate worship.

Some of this "functional" emphasis in matters of this sort is a form of radical Protestantism. A significant theme during the Reformation era was that the Roman Catholic love of images as helpful for our worship and devotion was radically misguided and mistaken. Those images, and all the rest of the art and statuary in the churches, had to be removed, and exactly that was done in a great many churches that were taken over for use as Protestant sanctuaries. What was left, typically, was bare whitewashed walls. The Congregational churches of New England embody such thinking in particular and are well know for their stark, austere interiors. In more recent years, however, various Reformed and Presbyterian churches have allowed symbols, images and banners to creep back into the sanctuary here and there, usually accompanied by some explanation in words.

There is also the issue whether the sanctuary may be used during the week for non-worship purposes. Many congregations frown on the idea: they are determined to keep their sacred space ever reserved for the worship of God. Could a sanctuary double as an auditorium? Some churches don't like the idea. Could the pews or seats be cleared away so that the open space could be used for exercise? A while back I used to go to what I jokingly called "Presbyterian yoga." Actually, it was just a yoga class that happened to meet in the sanctuary of one of the local Presbyterian churches. I have known people to find this strange -- that a church would allow so profane an activity as yoga to go on in its worship space. But the Calvinist attack on the sacred/secular split would surely hail such use of a church's facilities as appropriate.

Also to be considered here is the idea that the church is people -- not buildings or bricks-and-mortar. The church-as-people emphasis is even embodied in some of the hymns we sing, and it surely has some validity. But it again leads us away from the idea of sacred space, the idea that Rev. Edwards and others (including the undersigned) would like to hold onto a little longer.

At this point we need to explore the connection between "space" and "place." Both have a deep religious significance. In Christian terms, the latter seems connected especially with the Old Testament, where the journey of God's people has a destination. A "place" is promised them (Palestine, the Holy Land), and they journey toward it, encountering difficulties and making various detours. Along the way they also establish sacred spaces, such as the tabernacle, which is mobile and gets carted from one spot to another. Eventually they come to the Holy City, in which we see a union of space and place. The Holy City is a fixed place or point on the earth, but it also becomes the permanent site of the moveable sacred space that is the tabernacle. In the days of King Solomon, the tabernacle is expanded to become a temple. The people are invited to "go up" to the house of the Lord, for Jerusalem is a high place overlooking the lands around it.

Sometimes we are given the impression that the geographical specificity of the Old Testament is left behind in the New. The people of God then seem no longer to care about space and place. They maintain that the whole earth is the Lord's (although this note was already struck in the Old Testament: "For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills." [Psalm 50:10] And there is to be no thought of a "Holy City" as the exclusive abode of God's people, for we are told: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation." [Mark 16:15] Yet the Holy City motif returns at the end of the New Testament, when we read about the New Jerusalem of Revelation 22. What are we to make of these New Testament givens?

First, that there is a commendable impulse behind the desire to abstract our faith from any attachment to place: it is understandable as a response to God's desire to reclaim the entire earth that he has made and to gather a people of all tribes and tongues. There is indeed something universal about the people of God, the New Israel that supplants the ethnic Israel of the Old Testament. This is the healthy side of the desire to get away from God being in a specific place or being honored through some special sacred space.

On the other hand, God's "Go ye out" is accompanied by a "Come to me" theme. I think especially of Matthew 11:28, where we are told: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Our weary souls need to be able to respond to this call, and to do so, they must know how and where to find the Lord. If he is "everywhere" -- which is tantamount to saying that he is nowhere in particular -- how are we ever going to find him? Are we then to stay put, so to speak, since we cannot go to him?

Our tradition has assigned him places -- the sanctuary in which we worship, even more the altar in that sanctuary. We also "go to" him by partaking of the Lord Supper or Holy Communion. It is especially in the latter that I find my personal opportunity to respond to our Lord's "Come to me." I love the practice of going forward to receive the sacrament, and I am deeply stirred by the sight of my fellow worshippers doing the same. We "come to him" during the service, and after the service it is time for us to "go out" into all the world to serve him in manifold ways.

But there will be no "Come to me" if there is no space and place reserved for him. This is the most basic reason, I suspect, why the beauty and aesthetic appropriateness of a worship space means a great deal to me. I could never worship contentedly in one of those churches which regard the meeting place as mere empty, abstract, neutral space -- the churches that would seem content with a warehouse or an airport hangar.

In the Old Testament the tension between God's claim on all of our earth and his specific tenure in sacred space was already known. It's a theme that runs through the temple dedication: think of the prayer uttered on that occasion by Solomon. "But will God dwell indeed with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!" [II Chronicles 6:18] Indeed, but God is nevertheless pleased to inhabit the sacred space that is the Temple.

My best wishes, then, are with Rev. Edwards and others of her ilk who fight their battles -- often lonely battles -- to preserve sacred space in which to mediate the love of God to people who need it so desperately. The earth is indeed the Lord's, but let it no longer be said that the Son of man has no place to lay his head, or that there is no place where the worshippers of Christ can seek him out. His home is in my heart, but also in my church -- and in Rev. Edwards' worship centre. May many find him there. [END]

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