A Tale of Two Churches

Interior of the Cathedral (former abbey church) in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Sometimes, you just feel it in your bones. Maybe it’s because that’s how you grew up. Or perhaps it’s what you came to believe on your own as you grew into adulthood. Some places say “home” and others say “not home.” And for a boy raised in New England Congregationalism, educated in secular California and Calvinist Scotland, and steeped in Process Theology in divinity school, sometimes cathedrals just say “not home.”

And maybe that’s the point: they aren’t supposed to be home for humans…they are supposed to be an overwrought tabernacle where God dwells. But if we really think that God is just at church, then what happens outside the church? Is that not of God?

Columbanus wrote, “There is no God who dwells far from us, whom we seek…for He resides in us like the soul in our body. Ever must we cling to God, to the deep, vast, hidden, and lofty God.”

Maybe you thought panentheism was a new thing, but we have it being espoused by a sixth-century Irish monk! Panenthesim (not pantheism) is the idea that God is simultaneously intimately within us, among us, and infinitely far beyond us. The real stumbling block for many Christians is that God is not a judge sitting somewhere “out there” keeping tabs on us. After all, if God is also within us, it takes power from the church and its ability to sort the saved from the damned.

And those ideas clearly get expressed in architecture. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” What ideas were behind ornate Baroque cathedrals? What image of God were they trying to convey? What did they say about the church and its power?

That was clearly an issue for our Pilgrim and Puritan forbears, who preferred a plain, white meetinghouse to an ornate cathedral. (Not to mention Presbyterian iconoclasts who rampaged through Scottish cathedrals and Cromwell’s minions who ravaged Ireland…that’s a post for another day.)

The Reformers and Catholic folks in St. Gallen, Switzerland, seem to have avoided iconoclasm rather well. Calvinists didn’t tear up what their Catholic forbears had created…although the entire library at St. Gallen was moved, and some of it was appropriated by the cantonal government in Zurich during the Reformation…and even today, they’ve only returned some of it “on loan.” The monks went to other monasteries.

The Laurenzenkirche (Church of St. Laurence) is part of the same stream as many of our United Church of Christ congregations: Evangelical & Reformed…and as progressive as we are.

The interior is comparatively simple…no inconographic images, but plenty of 19th c. ornamentation. (The communion table is off to the right…concert grand piano ready for a concert that night.)

Just in case anyone needed reminding, preaching the word is literally the high point in Reformed worship. Not a pulpit for acrophobic ministers!

I felt a lot more at home in the Laurenzenkirche, which is “evangelisch und reformiert” a merger of Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism, which is a component of our United Church of Christ tradition in the U.S. The aquarelle painted walls are actually beautiful and not too distracting. The church is open for prayer during the day, and they have a staff of three clergy. I’d love to have been there on a Sunday!

What is the image of God you get from this church? God still seems pretty transcendent (up there), but there is a lot more room for human understanding of Christian life and sacred texts. With balconies pointing inward toward the rest of the congregation, it seemed to convey and ecclesiology (theology of what church is and means) of community…and pretty exalted clergy leadership in understanding our sacred texts.

And peoples’ theology does change even when the buildings are not so malleable. Within the over-the-top Baroqueness of the cathedral, there were clean, Swiss, understated elements for today’s worship. At the rear of the cathedral, a lectern containing a psalter and gospel book encompassed three massive quartz crystals, and pilgrims setting out on the Camino to Santiago de Compostella left prayers of intention written on rocks.

The scallop shell is the emblem of the Camino…a walking path to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. This one is embedded in the steps outside the cathedral in St. Gallen.

At the front of the cathedral (between the congregation and the locked choir and chancel), a really simple alter, ambo (lectern), and stone benches were in place for the celebration of the mass. This felt more “like home” to me, too: people leaving their own prayers, the words of scripture beautifully and accessibly displayed, the clergy and the community together in worship. That bespeaks a theology far different than God above, humanity below, and a governing prince-archbishop in the middle. (Interesting that Pope Francis yesterday allowed greater latitude in vernacular translations of the prayers of the Catholic Church, raising the hackles of theological conservatives. What would happen if they got something wrong? Maybe God wouldn’t understand their translation?!?!?)

What does your space say about your sense of who God is and what God is doing?

What is your worship space like at church? What is the centerpiece visually, acoustically? What feeling do you get (home, someplace set apart, public venue, cold, warm, common, private, accessible, inhospitable, anonymous, intimate)?

What is your home space like, and how does that express your theology? Americans invest heavily in their private spaces, more so than many Europeans. How does that make sense to you in light of what you think God is doing in the world?

Space matters. Common space matters. It tells us something about who we are individually and collectively, as well as what we hope to become.