An Empty Stage or Heaven Apprehended

New Episcopal Architecture

by Robert L. Woodbury, appearing in Volume 10

The rotunda of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San francisco, standing over a centrally placed altar table around which the congregation gathers. Photo:

The state of Episcopal church architecture today is perhaps best understood by examining a little booklet, The Church for Common Prayer, published in 1994 by the Episcopal Church Building Fund and co-authored by the Rev. Charles Fulton, the Rev. Patrick Holtkamp, and Mr. Fritz Frurip. It was developed by and has the endorsement of the Standing Commission on Church Music, the Standing Liturgical Commission, the Association of Diocesan Liturgy and Music Commissions, and Associated Parishes.

The Church for Common Prayer (CCP) begins with the assertion that “the People of God, the basic symbol of Christ in the world, is the criterion against which design issues are measured.”1 According to CCP, we are aware of a deeply intimate and holy presence of Christ “only when we are in a community of faith.” Thus, the interior space is shaped by the liturgical demands of the gathered community.

There is little said about the architecture that defines this liturgical space, and what is said is an apology for modernist minimalism. Clarity and openness, without confusion and clutter, are necessary for good worship. The building should not intrude upon the communal experience, and “nothing about the space should ignore, compromise, or demean the centrality of the people of God.”

Lest there be any misunderstanding, CCP continues: “Everything about the space should connect the people with one another, with the focal points of their liturgies, and with the mystery of their faith. Anything which draws the attention of the congregation away from itself or the focal points must be questioned.” The focal points in any Episcopal worship space are defined as the gathered community, the font, the pulpit, and the altar table. Sight-lines, acoustics, lighting, and space that allows for ease of movement “to, from, and around the focal points” are absolutely essential. Seating should allow for eye contact with other people.

According to CCP we are to believe that the Church is the community of the faithful and its worship the action of a particular community in which “the holy presence of Christ” is discerned. Missing is reference to the communion of saints with whom the Church on earth is joined, and worship is reduced to the actions of the community as it seeks self-understanding.

One looks in vain for any mention of the Church’s liturgy as a participation in the Pasch of Christ, a recapitulation of her whole life as a priestly offering for the salvation of the world. Instead, the focus is upon the liturgical action of a particular community and how that ritual space should be organized.

It is understandable, then, why CCP speaks so little about architecture. Even though the building is referred to as a tool for evangelism there is nothing said about its exterior, about its significance as an icon of Christ, or about its architecture’s visible articulation of the common symbols of Christian faith. Perhaps this is not so difficult to understand in light of the document’s overriding emphasis on the liturgical actions of the community. The permanence of the temple loses out to the everchanging needs of the community. The Church for Common Prayer tells us that the exterior should do no more than allow the interior worship space to reach out to the visitor with an inviting, clear, accessible entrance and an open, hospitable gathering space. Even though CCP speaks of buildings as tools of evangelism it is unclear how this functionalist approach will create a building that will bear witness to the Kingdom of God in the modern world.

Under the section implementing liturgical principles, CCP tells us that the altar table should be free-standing, designed so as to allow a community to gather around it rather than in front of it, and forward and clearly related to the community without barriers. In the arrangement of font, pulpit and altar, “strict symmetry may not always be the most satisfying solution.” Any physical division of “worship space” that differentiates the ordained from the baptized is pronounced inappropriate.

Beauty is never mentioned; art is regarded as secondary and ought never to eclipse or demean things that are primary, presumably the liturgical actions of the community. This is underscored by the illustrations that occupy the second half of the booklet. Architectural models illustrate the “principles” of organization either in the context of a building or by themselves. The building models are generally Gothic or Romanesque yet devoid of virtually all ornament and decoration. Chairs provide maximum flexibility, platforms should be movable, and in fact “very few things warrant permanent placement in worship space.”

Although this document has no binding force, it must be reckoned with as an influential instrument reflecting the zeitgeist in the design of Episcopal Church buildings. It is important, therefore, to briefly summarize its defects.

First, the document speaks repeatedly with a sense of authority, relying “on roots in the past as well as on the diversity of current experience,” but the lack of documentation and support for its conclusions leaves one skeptical as to the validity of its conclusions. For instance, when CCP tells us that the altar should be free-standing to “allow a community to gather around rather than” simply stand in front, an assertion is then made declaring this to be a “recovered … standard for eucharistic worship,” with no corroboration from historical or liturgical sources.

Second, CCP mistakenly assumes that architecture is determined by the liturgical life of the community and not by an understanding of the Church as the Paschal mystery that transcends the particularity of the assembly.

Third, to insist upon the primacy of the people of God as the criterion against which design issues are measured reduces the Church to what is visible and the liturgy to what is immediate. This yields an impoverished understanding of the liturgy that again fails to grasp the Paschal dimension of the rites and the cosmic dimension of the Church.

Fourth, by reducing architecture to liturgical considerations, CCP fails to articulate the iconic significance of the church building. Architecture should always be a working out of the mystery of the Church, which is the joining of heaven and earth through the Pasch of Christ. We are led to believe from CCP that the building is little more than an enclosure for the ritual action of the community. Thus the ability of the architecture by itself to declare the Gospel to the worshiper and to the passer-by is unalterably weakened.

Finally, the underlying emphasis upon the church building as a domus ecclesiae, though it follows logically from the theological assertion that “the People of God, the basic symbol of Christ in the world, is the criterion against which design issues are measured,” fails to recognize that the community is called together by God for the worship of God. The building is the house of God for the people of God.

The CCP leaves us with a one-dimensional vision of the Church that translates into impoverished thinking regarding liturgy, architecture, and ecclesiology. On the contrary, the Church and its worship are multi-faceted, nuanced, shaded, and as complex as the human spirit. So too is the Church’s architecture. By its construction, its sacred geometry, and its language of sign and symbol, ecclesiastical architecture speaks to the heart, mind, and soul. It kindles our imagination, it stirs our memory, and leads us out of ourselves into a spiritual journey toward the kingdom. To the world it bears witness to Him who has made visible the invisible presence of God and who in his Pasch has united heaven and earth.

This is a sparse document, restricted by its historical, liturgical, and architectural reductionism. It gives us sparse churches with little capacity to lift us beyond this earthly realm into the sphere of heaven and to give us thereby a vision of glory.

In the remainder of this article we will look at four examples of contemporary ecclesiastical architecture in the Episcopal Church that either draw upon or deviate from CCP. Each represents a particular interpretation of sacred space as a bearer of meaning. Thus, in each example the space becomes a tangible expression of an ecclesiological and liturgical theology embodying all the subtleties of each.

St. Boniface Church, Mwquon, WI. Photo: Author

Saint Boniface Church, Mequon, WI, was dedicated early in 2002. The new church is attached to a rather ordinary A-frame building that was constructed in the 1950s as the original church, and two squat additions built in the 1980s which contain classrooms and offices. The architect was Jim Shields of Hammel, Green & Abrahamson, whose firm was the principle in the renovation of the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Saint Boniface sits in the midst of a sprawling upper middle-class suburb north of Milwaukee that underwent burgeoning growth during the 1980s and 90s.

The architecture is unreservedly Modernist: a rectangular building with a sharply pitched copper roof sitting on brown brick walls. Tall ceremonial entrance doors faced with vertical strips of cedar rise up to a frosted glass window that punctuates the copperclad triangular facade above the brown brick base wall. A slender tapering bell tower, also copper-clad, rests directly on the flat roof of a squat entryway with a second pair of doors off to the east side of the front façade.

The interior also expresses the Modernist vocabulary. Whitney Gould, architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, speaks of “the architect’s honesty in the use of both natural and industrial materials."2 Trusses of Douglas fir and black-painted steel, Gould asserts, are statements of expressive architecture, which let “a building reveal its soul by exposing its structural components.” Cast-in-place concrete pillars were sandblasted to reveal their crushed limestone.

The arrangement of liturgical space pays homage to the principles of The Church for Common Prayer. The sanctuary is pushed forward into the nave with a square white limestone altar resting on a light maple Tshaped platform raised two steps above the slate floor. A communion rail borders the platform. Pews face the platform on three sides connecting the people with one another and the primary liturgical focal points. Chairs for the clergy sit behind the altar. A lectern and pulpit are located on either side of the T behind the altar. The choir and organ console occupy the apse end of the room, the back wall of which is dominated by a large, clear glass triangular- shaped window resting on a wall of square rusticated stones.

The arrangement confuses the visual focus; the altar, which is “forward and clearly related to the community rather than to the east wall,"3 is diminished, not enhanced, by its position. The eye is led forward along the north-south axis toward the altar, but it only rests there momentarily, fixing itself ultimately on clergy and choir. It may be argued, of course, that the eye moves beyond clergy and choir to the window and the tops of the pine trees outside, but then one must ask how the pine grove and the altar are related. In any case, by this time we are visually beyond the altar, the focus of the Eucharistic sacrifice. If the design is intended to enhance the “centrality of the people of God"4 by gathering the assembly around the altar table, connecting the people with one another and allowing them “to see one another,” we are left with an assembly gathered into a self-enclosed circle looking inward, without direction, no longer opened on what lies beyond. The assembly becomes the “primary symbol of Christ,"5 and the Church is reduced to the visible community gathered at that particular time and place.

The Sanctuary, St. Boniface Church. Photo: Author

The architectural expression of Saint Boniface in a form “of our own time” possesses a certain verisimilitude, but its efforts to locate symbolic meaning through structural expressiveness and hints at historical reference are anemic. One must rejoice in the substantiality of the stone altar, but alas it is the centerpiece of a building reduced to the image of the liturgical assembly. Here is a building that closely adheres to the mandates of “honesty of design, integrity of materials, care of crafting, and fidelity to function,"6 but, in the end, is time specific, failing to articulate the historical and transcendent iconography of the Church throughout the centuries.

The pre-renovation Cathedral of the Saviour, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral.

The Cathedral of the Savior, Philadelphia, underwent a three-step renovation under architect George Yu, beginning in 1999 and culminating in 2001. The predominately Romanesque church, which dates from 1906 and was designed by the noted Philadelphia architect Charles W. Burns, Jr., contains a splendid mural by Edwin Blashfield, St. Michael and the Heavenly Host. The Cathedral’s Dean, the Very Rev. Richard Giles, who authored Re-Pitching the Tent, describes the interior when he arrived in 1999 as a mixture of styles in which the Blashfield murals were overcome by a “frenzied business of the whole space, in which anything that stood still for a half-hour was stenciled upon."7 Overall he found the interior overpowered “by the forms and images of a bygone age. …The ethos of the place continued to call the shots, dragging the worshiping community back into the past. Despite the best efforts to renew liturgy and to move ahead, the building always won."8

The renovation was based on an understanding of “the nature of the Church as assembly of the consecrated people of God."9 The form and the shape of the renovated space derive from the liturgical action of the assembly, which a priori is the icon of Christ. Giles remarks, “No matter how beautifully and carefully designed a worship space may be, it remains an empty stage until the cast has entered who will bring to life the words of the story. The worship space is the empty board on which the Christian assembly will, in the colour and dynamism of its own liturgical action, paint the face of Christ for the world today."10

Here is architectural and liturgical reductionism that treats the building as little more than liturgical space. According to Dean Giles, this is entirely consistent with Jesus’ over-riding message that “humanity must escape from enslavement to outward forms and external observance to encounter the living God within."11 If Episcopalians should be indebted to the Roman Church, as Giles maintains, a closer examination of the primary sources, The Rite of Dedication of a Church, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium, reveals something quite different. Here the building clearly is referred to as an icon of Christ, a symbol of the Church and the Kingdom, and the place where the Pascal liturgy is celebrated.12

Alexander Schmemann, writing from within the Orthodox experience, concurs: “There is no better witness to this [the eschatological symbolism of the kingdom of God] than the fundamental Orthodox experience of the temple and of iconography, an experience that crystallized precisely during the Byzantine period and in which the ‘holy of holies’ of Orthodoxy is expressed better than in the redundant rhetoric of the ‘symbolic’ liturgical interpretations."13

The Cathedral of the Savior is essentially devoid of iconic significance. “The forms and images of a bygone age” that ornamented the walls have been covered over with a sand finish stucco-like plaster, and all that was viewed as inappropriate for expressing a “theology of participation and inclusion"14 has been removed. This gives expression to Giles’s assertion that the building should not attain greater significance than the people who use it.15

The reordering of the Cathedral was embedded in an understanding of the Exodus wherein “the primitive concept of holy place is given a new dynamic in the complementary concept of God journey-ing with his people to meeting them wherever they come to rest. Crucial to this understanding is the experience of journey."16 This concept of journey and its principle of traveling light underlay the architectural renovation.

The renovated Philadelphia Cathedral, and a view of the font, altar table, and presbytery. Photo: Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral

In the Cathedral of the Saviour the journey begins with the Word, is sealed in baptism, and ends at the table. Architecturally this meant removing all that would drag “the worshiping community back into the past."17 Using the basilica as a point of reference, the interior was arranged along a linear axis; all the pews were removed and replaced by movable chairs. In the apse, where once the altar stood, the cathedra now occupies the center of a wall-hugging semi-circular stone presbyterium.

It seems curious to remove the cathedra and the presbyterium to the back of the apse, raised several steps above the floor of the nave. When in the Roman basilicas the seat of the bishop had been brought into this center apse position, he assumed a kind of imperial authority that brought about a “separation, instead of a mere distinction, between clergy and faithful, completely unknown in the primitive Christian worship."18

The lectern-ambo is sited at the west end of the central axis and from here the Word is read and the homily preached. At the east end, on the pavement level in front of the apse is the new square wood altar designed by Dean Giles, which stands unpresupposing and unadorned.

The baptistery is situated in the south aisle about mid-way between east and west. Water continually cascades from the old font into a rectangular pool. Locating the baptistery here anticipates a new main entry into the cathedral church on the south side, in effect turning everything sideways and confusing the liturgical movement of the journey along the central linear axis.

The altar is located at east end at the foot of the steps leading into the presbyterium to affirm the priesthood of the whole community, “who are the sacred ministers gathered around the altar-table to make eucharist,"19 and ostensibly to model the simplicity and perceived authenticity of the early Church when Christians gathered in each other’s homes. It gives, we are led to understand, visual expression to a non-hierarchical community and a nonsacerdotal worship. Dean Giles would have us believe that a hierarchical division of the assembly and sacrificial and sacerdotal worship is “at odds with the teaching of the whole Western church today."20 This thinking, however, is contradicted by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is quite clear in its assertion that the church building, which is a symbol of the Church, should have distinct places for the different ministries and charisms.21 As Schmemann reminds us, “if the ‘Assembly as the Church’ is the image of the body of Christ, then the image of the head of the body is the priest. He presides over, he heads the gathering, and his standing at their head is precisely what makes a group of Christians the gathering of the Church in the fullness of her gifts.” A clearly defined sanctuary underscores the role of the priest within the ecclesia.

Even though the stained glass windows were retained, the renovated building lacks a clear iconic reference to the cosmic and transcendent, which, independent of the sacred action of the community, orients the pilgrim to the liturgy of heaven. The Romanesque nave, while not architecturally perfect, might have become a threedimensional canvas upon which the worshiper would be surrounded by mosaics of angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven drawing him or her into what happens in the liturgy, testimony that heaven has drawn near. Erwin Blashfield’s mural remains in the apse, but regrettably is spatially removed from the altar table by the new presbyterium. The only other art consists of two paintings and an abstract sculpture over the Baptistry. One painting, on the left near the entrance doors, a nonobjective piece titled The Open Door, evokes all the bright colors of Christmas wrapping paper. The sculpture at the Baptistry is comprised of a mass of shimmering silver filaments dropping down from the ceiling, each one capped at the bottom end with non-representational gobs of pewter.23

The Cathedral of the Saviour is an expression of the ideology promulgated by The Church for Common Prayer and the liturgical consultants in the Roman Church who wish for us a one-dimensional liturgical experience, focused on a communal meal, in a minimalist architecture stripped of cosmic reference.

The Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, exterior, by Goldman Architects, showing domed entrance rotunda for altar table and tower over apse. Photo:

The exterior of the 1995 Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, resembles a contemporary Arts and Crafts style Eastern Orthodox Church with some rather distinctive Asian influences. Inside, two rooms seamlessly flow into one another. One enters through a large octagonal rotunda crowned on the exterior by a cupola with a cross at its apex. In the center of the space is a D-shaped altar table that sits on a wooden labyrinth floor. To the right there is a more or less square space with an apse at the end. From the exterior the apse is articulated architecturally by a tower containing clearstory windows and a round pointed roof surmounted by another cross.

Founded in 1978, the parish has drawn upon diverse cultural and religious traditions that have shaped its building and its liturgy. Like its patron, St. Gregory of Nyssa, the parish draws the liturgical practices that underlie its common life from many places and times, and in this manner it emulates Gregory’s holistic, progressive, mystical, and democratic principles. Byzantine Christianity, which has been part of the Anglican ethos from the English Reformation to the present day, has influenced the architecture and liturgy.

The building plan was inspired by the earliest Christian churches of Syria. In these churches we have the remnants of a Semitic, non-Hellenic Christianity whose buildings maintained continuity with the Jewish synagogue, albeit in a Christianized form.

The western room has a long aisle or solea running up the center on either side of which are rows of chairs facing each other. This solea, which was typical of the churches of Constantinople in the Justinianic period of the sixth century, continues up to a platform or bema located in the apse which is dominated by a wide chair, a Thai elephant howdah, for the celebrant or presiding priest; on either side of the howdah are chairs for deacons and cantors. Behind the bema is an impressive icon rising to the full height of the wall depicting the marriage of Christ and the Soul, inspired by Gregory’s commentary on the Song of Songs. At the other end of the solea, at the conjunction of the two rooms almost in the center of the building, is an elevated lectern before which is a standing censer. Behind the lectern a menorah connects this space with the ancient Syrian churches and their Hebraic roots. Behind the menorah, where synagogues had set a curtain, stands a forest of Ethiopian processional crosses with colorful cloth streamers.

The altar table in the center of the eastern rotunda is covered with colorful cloths from African, Asian, and American folk weavers and dyers, selected according to their richness, not according to any liturgical seasonal color. At the Offertory the assembly, led by the clergy, dances into this room in a spiral around the table in a liturgical action that involves censing the altar. Here the Eucharist is celebrated. Afterward, coffee and cakes join the other gifts on the table. The altar, therefore, centers and supports the whole life of the community. 24

Around the walls at the top of the rotunda is an unfolding modern icon depicting circles of saints chosen from all humanity and many faiths “who exemplify Jesus’s pattern of life and Gregory’s teaching.”25

The baptistery is situated outside, across the altar from the entry doors. It is a monumental sculptured rock emerging from a cliff with water cascading down into a pool. Above are carved St. Paul’s words from 1 Cor. 10.

Floor plan of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco.  A. Entry rotunda with inlaid labyrinth floor for standing worship.  B. Altar table.  C. Menorah, standing censer and lectern.  D. Ethiopian processional crosses in stands.  E. Solea.  F. Bema with presiderʼs howdah.  G. Apse with icon of Christʼs marriage to the Soul from the commentaries of St. Gregory. Photo: St. Gregory's

There is much to admire here. The whole building has iconic significance both in plan and architecture. Drawing upon diverse faith traditions, the particularity of its worship is subsumed in the universality that must at all times be inherent in Christian liturgy. Oriented along a common axis, the building encourages a movement from one focus to another that was characteristic of early Christian worship and restricts a “liturgical” approach to the altar until the offering and consecration of the holy gifts.

That said, there are some troublesome things, most notably the inversion of the common axis locating the altar at the entrance of the building. This is deliberate and based upon the notion that “the eucharistic table is Jesus’ own chosen symbol of incorporation into God’s kingdom.”26 The Rev. Richard Fabian, Co-Rector of Saint Gregory’s, argues that contemporary New Testament research confirms that it is Christ’s table and not the font that marks one’s entrance into the ecclesia. “Christ’s table has always defined his disciples’ authentic identity,” he writes.27 While the primacy of baptism as the initiatory sacrament into the Church has prevailed from at least the second century, Fr. Fabian contends that modern patristic scholarship shows this to be contradicted by the historical Jesus who invited the unready and the unqualified to his table with no other prerequisite necessary. One is troubled by this willingness to unilaterally deviate from two thousand years of Christian tradition embodied in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer that upholds baptism as the sacrament of incorporation into Christ’s Body.

The other reason advanced for the placement of the altar at the entrance is an adaptation of a modern plan suggested by Louis Bouyer in his little book Liturgy and Architecture. Contending that “the Christian family must always be open, open to the invisible Church of all the other Christians in this world or the next,” Bouyer suggests moving the altar into the nave in front of the central doors. Then “there will be not just the clergy on one side, but a part of the congregation together with them, and the other part on the other side (or rather sides) of the altar … while the great central door will open beyond it.”28

Bouyer seems to contradict himself here, for elsewhere he speaks of the liturgical journey as one of movement toward the table of the Eucharistic banquet, toward the “eschatological image of the parousia: of the heavenly Jerusalem. ...”29 In bringing the congregation around on all sides of the altar, Bouyer blurs this imagery and also contradicts his carefully articulated position that historical evidence supports an eastward-facing celebration with the priest and the people standing on the same side of the altar. Indeed, as Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us, “Everyone joins with the celebrant in facing east, toward the Lord who is to come.”30

The inversion of the common axis distorts the concept of journey, the destination of which is to share in the Passover of Christ from this world into the kingdom. In the apse of Byzantine churches this is given iconic significance with the Blessed Virgin depicted as ascending to her Son, and above the altar the Last Supper, gathered up in the “heavenly liturgy of the angels bearing through the heavens the instruments of the passion.”31 As Alexander Schmemann says, “The Eucharist is always a going out from ‘this world’ and an ascent to heaven, and the altar is a symbol of the reality of this ascent, of its very possibility ... And that is why it is so important to understand that we regard the altar with reverence—we kiss it, we bow before it, etc.—not because it is ‘sanctified’ and has become, so to speak, a ‘sacred object,’ but because its very sanctification consists in its referral to the reality of the kingdom, in its conversion into a symbol of the kingdom.”32 The altar table is, he reminds us, exclusively the table of the Lord’s Supper.

A view of the rotunda, altar, and a bema at St. Gregory's. Photo: Author

There is something unsettling, therefore, about placing coffee and cakes on the table at Saint Gregory’s along with any unconsumed bread and wine for the coffee fellowship after the Eucharist: “The people will finish the bread and wine there along with cakes, cookies, coffee and juices— and champagne on occasion— as an extension of the eucharistic feast.”33

The effort to draw deeply from the well of history and wide to embrace the diversity of Christian experience is admirable. One must ask, however, if such a synthesis of East and West, Christian and non-Christian, is too subjective and idiosyncratic, far removed from the mainstream of Anglican Christianity. Although the architecture accommodates the liturgical requirements of the gathered community, one must wonder where the lone pilgrim might linger for prayer and devotion before the living presence of God.

Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, WI. Photo: Joanna Woodbury

Our final exhibit is the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist at Saint John’s on the Lake, an Episcopal retirement community in Milwaukee, WI. It was designed by Alvin Holm with consultation from Steven Semes on the design of the furnishings. Like St. Gregory of Nyssa, this Chapel reaches back for inspiration to the old Christian synagogue churches of Syria, though working this out rather differently.

Somewhat quadrilateral in shape, with two rows of columns creating two side aisles, the Chapel resembles the typical Greek basilica used for public meetings first appropriated and adapted by the Jews and subsequently by the Syrian Christians. From the entry doors the eye is led forward along a linear axis broken by an intermediary focal point, the lectern, recalling the Ark of the Covenant. In the old Syriac churches the readings and prayers took place on the bema, an elevated platform located in the center of the nave. The Ark of the Covenant, the repository of the scrolls of the Torah, was also there, between the bema and the apse and marked out as in the synagogue by its veil and menorah. But now the Torah had been replaced by the Book of the Gospels, and the “Seat of Moses,” on the opposite side of the bema, had become the seat of the Bishop.

If synagogues were oriented toward Jerusalem and the Temple with its Holy of Holies as the place of God’s earthly presence, the earliest Christian churches were oriented toward the east. The early Christians looked toward the rising sun now associated with the morning of Resurrection and the rising of the Son. No longer would Christians set their faces toward the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem as the place where the divine presence, the Shekinah, would be localized. Now the presence would be manifested under the common elements of bread and wine wherever the Eucharist may be celebrated. Thus, into the old synagogue plan there was introduced at the visible end of the oriented axis, at the east wall or apse, an altar on which the Eucharistic sacrifice could now be celebrated.

In the worship of the synagogue, the assembly looked beyond the Ark, the shrine of the Word, toward Jerusalem. At the altar, the worshipper is now taken beyond what the Temple had foreshadowed into the one eternal Sacrifice of Him who lifts him out of the this world into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sanctuary and lectern, St. John the Evangelist. Photo: Dorothy Beck

In the Chapel of St. John, our eye is led beyond the lectern into the apse where its altar points beyond itself to the symbolic East with its image of the heavenly kingdom. Behind the altar is the tabernacle, linking us with the Holy of Holies, however now in fulfillment of all that it represented. What the Temple in Jerusalem pointed to is here in a supreme way.

The Chapel also represents a continuum with the symbolism of sacred space that is our rich patrimony as Christians. From earliest days we were oriented both horizontally and vertically, toward the life-sustaining sun and toward the North Star, the symbolic center of the cosmos. One enters through the narthex, a space of transition between the sacred and secular world. Passing over the threshold, one begins a journey along the solar axis into that mystery where time and eternity meet. The poles of the longitudinal axis are light and darkness; light emanating from the rising sun in the east, darkness stemming from the setting of the sun in the west. The journey continues along the solar axis toward the apse. Here is the world, indeed the whole cosmos in microcosm, and here the Eucharistic sacrifice takes places under Christos Pantocrator, the risen Christ established in glory.

The chapel expresses a sacred geometry of circles and squares setting forth the essential relationship of God and humankind. The nave represents the terrestrial sphere while the circular apse and dome represent the divine: The material world and the spiritual realm meet in architectural form.

The architectural language is Classical; through mass, space, line, and coherence, it addresses our conscious and unconscious sensibilities and represents the material form of the spiritual reality by which we live. A historical faith is embodied in an architecture that is immersed in an unfolding tradition, both linked together by certain underlying principles. Here too an Incarnational faith is given form by an architecture that is anthropomorphic, drawing on the human body.

The Ionic order of the columns and entablature adhere to human proportions, the columns drawing the eye forward and the dome drawing it upward through iconography representing the constant embroidering of God’s creation. The story is told through ornament contained within the dome’s coffers, arranged in four ascending tiers.

The eye ascends and then descends to be led forward once again toward the apse, that half-circle that echoes the dome, leading us from the visible to the invisible. Here is heaven apprehended by the senses. But in its reality this invisible realm is impossible to see; the altar is only its approximation, a hint and intimation of the true reality. We are beckoned forward by those who have received the other world, whose countenances have been transfigured into “angelic images of the angelic world,”34 who have made the invisible close and accessible to us. Icons of Saint John and the Theotokos on either side of the apse are such angelic images who bear witness to what lies on the other side of our mortal flesh. They are windows into eternity, bearing their testimony to the light of God’s glory.

While architecturally the Ionic order continues into the apse, the sanctuary is set apart by its elevation above the floor of the rest of the chapel, by the altar rail, by the altar with its marble mensa, by the reredos framed by the more elaborate Corinthian columns, and by a silver crucifix, tabernacle, and candlesticks. As the early churches were often built over the grave of saints or places associated with them, this altar adheres to this more ancient pattern by holding relics of three saints, Peter, Paul, and Joseph, thus uniting us with their physical presence.

Through the language of Classical architecture, the Chapel of Saint John the Evangelist speaks to its time and beyond its time. It “imitates” the ideal Church which is beyond time, invisible and eternal. It refers beyond itself to the kingdom of God where the Eucharist is accomplished, where Christ offers himself to the Father. It reveals the Church itself as a community of faith whose meaning is set forth in orna-ment and symbol, form and image, color and light.

In this Chapel the faithful assemble as the Church to recreate the liturgy of heaven, that eternal offering of the Son to the Father “on behalf of all and for all.” It is also true that the individual may enter this sacred space for contemplation and prayer, removed from the distractions of the world. Beckoned by the holy ones who join the visible and invisible world, the worshipper may adore the Risen Christ Whose Real Presence is marked by the flickering flame of the Sanctuary Lamp. Here is where heaven and earth meet, where the soul is enlightened by the testimony of the ages mediated through the sacred iconography of architectural form. This is the temple of the living God where the faithful may glimpse the never-ending day of the Kingdom.

In this brief look at the architecture of the Episcopal Church today we have encountered a propensity toward architectural and liturgical reductionism. All too easily have Episcopalians embraced the Modernist credo that has reduced architecture to a minimalist aesthetic with its novelty of form and structural expressiveness. Similarly, we have given credence to those who would insist that the Church is realized only through the liturgical action of the community, ignoring thereby the constitutive significance of the Pasch of Christ. This reduction, which fails to articulate the Paschal Mystery as the essence of the Church and her worship, has significant consequences for how we architecturally interpret sacred space and understand the liturgy that occurs within it.

The exception in our analysis is the St. John’s Chapel. Here is sacred architecture that counters prevailing fashion by drawing upon that long history of grand and noble architecture which points beyond what is merely immediate and transient to the transcendent, the mysterious, and the eternal. That architecture could be given new wings were we to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of the seventeenth century Anglican Divine, Jeremy Taylor:35

But when I consider that saying of S. Gregory, That the Church is Heaven within the Tabernacle, Heaven dwelling among the sonnes of men, and remember that GOD hath studded all the firmament, and paved it with stares, because he loves to have his house beauteous, and highly representative of his Glory, I see no reason we should not do as Apollinaris says GOD does, In earth do the works of heaven. For he is the GOD of beauties, and perfections, and every excellency in the Creature is a portion of influence from the Divinity, and therefore is the best instrument of conveying honour to him, who made them for no other end, but for his own honour, as the last resort of all other ends.

1. All quotations in this section are from The Church for Common Prayer. Fulton, Charles, et. al. Episcopal Church Building Fund. 1994. 2. This and other quotations from Whitney Gould are from her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column, “Church’s shiny new building is inspired.” January 14, 2002. 3. The Church for Common Prayer (CCP), p. 12. 4. CCP. p. 18. 5. CCP. p. 19. 6. CCP. p. 9. 7. Runkle, John Ander. Ed. Searching for Sacred Space: Essays on Architecture and Liturgical Design in the Episcopal Church. Church Publishing Incorporated. 2002. p. 192. 8. Runkle, pp. 184, 193. 9. Giles, Richard. Re-Pitching the Tent: Reordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission. The Liturgical Press. 1999. p.43. 10. Giles, p. 118. 11. Giles, p. 47. 12. Lumen Gentium 3. 13. Schmemann, Alexander. The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1988. pp. 44-45. 14. Runkle, p. 186. 15. Giles, p. 51. 16. Giles, p. 17. 17. Runkle, p. 193. 18. Bouyer, Louis. Liturgy and Architecture. University of Notre Dame Press. 1967, p. 22. 19. Giles, p. 182. 20. Runkle, p. 201. 21. General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Third Typical Edition. 2002. Chapter V, par. 294. 22. Schmemann, pp. 24-25. (Schmemann echoes Clement of Rome who, writing at the end of the first century, speaks of Church order in a way that prefigures later Catholicism. This order, which is continuous with that of the Old Testament, seems fairly well established by the time of Domitian’s persecution of 96 AD. See Cyril C. Richardson, ed. Early Christian Fathers. Vol. 1. The Westminster Press. 1953. p. 62.) 23. Sixty-five filaments represent those killed when terrorists crashed a plane into a Pennsylvania field on 9/11/01 and forty-five for the number of births on that day in Philadelphia. As a point of interest sixty-five and forty-five add up to the number of floors in each of the World Trade Center Towers. 24. About Our Worship. St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. See: http:/www. p. 6. 25. Fabian, Richard. Worship at St. Gregory’s; Building Plan & Symbolism. All Saints Company. 2001. p. 4. 26. Fabian, p. 3. 27. Fabian, Richard. First the Table, Then the Font. Paper for the Association of Anglican Musicians. 2002. p. 4. 28. Bouyer, p. 112ff. 29. Bouyer, p. 88. 30. Ratzinger, Joseph. The Spirit of the Liturgy. Ignatius Press. 2000. p. 72. 31. Bouyer, p. 69. 32. Schmemann, pp. 60-61. 33. Fabian, Richard. Worship at St. Gregory’s. Notes [93-117] Note 102, p. 6. 34. Florensky, Pavel. Iconostasis. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1996. p. 61. 35. Smith, Logan Pearsell, ed. The Golden Grove: Selected Passages From the Sermons and Writings of Jeremy Taylor. 1930. pp. 139-140.