A Reexamination of Planning History

Liturgical Space: Christian Worship and Church Buildings in Western Europe

by Nigel Yates
2008 Ashgate, 212 pages

Nigel Yates left both a considerable legacy and a void in the field of ecclesiastical history when he died last year. In his final work, he researched and catalogued the planning histories and liturgical practices of many hundreds of parish churches in the United Kingdom and western Europe. Yates’ aim was that, armed with his observations, those entrusted with both planning and liturgical care of churches would gain a bit of historical perspective. Clearly, this work is intended to improve the quality of the architectural and liturgical debate through an injection of historic validity. 

Yates chronologically arranges examples of common planning trends with parallel traditions and juxtaposes these with current beliefs. Without overturning conventional history, Yates has highlighted where adjustments in thinking need to be made. Along these lines, he defends the Protestant idea that the reformation was less a theological rebellion than an attempt to return to the early church and purify a corrupt hierarchy. Yates asserts that Protestant churches have increasingly returned to an instinctive desire for the sacramental, whether liturgical, hierarchical, or architectural. Further, Yates points to how the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have increasingly embraced ecumenism and now share more common ground than they have done since the sixteenth century schisms.

Yates’ rendering of these histories gives a positive note to the book, but leaves one to wonder about his message.  He implies that by understanding the history of a region, one may critique new church work simply as cultural artifacts. Yet some of Yates’ conclusions may demand an additional level of scholarship that employs the same rigor that Yates showed in his primary research.

With respect to Yates’, one has the impression that he was an admirer of the architectural writer Pevsner. Firstly, Yates shared Pevsner’s passion for documenting the relative historical “significance” of particular buildings. Secondly, although Yates was not strictly an historian of art, at certain moments his criticism derives from zeitgeist determinism.

Although one should not exaggerate any flaw in Yates’ information, by itself, his framework leaves one critically impoverished and lacking in direction toward issues such as validity, meaning, symbolism, and beauty. Had Yates’ extensive reading list suggested some initial purpose, it is likely that his recommendations would have been more compelling. Instead, Yates’ moments of judgment in this book must be considered perfunctory and potentially misleading. 

Considered simply as a book to bolster one’s historical appreciation of liturgical planning history, Yates must be commended for an invaluable contribution. The difficulty begins, however, if it is considered to be much more.