Sacred worship space, you mean there is a history?


To engage questions proposed in my previous post, it might be helpful to review the basic ascriptions and liturgy that have remained relatively constant in Christianity throughout time. Also, we must account for how the church aesthetically adorned sacred worship space. I recognize that this latter issue is a nearly impossible task as there are some traditions that choose not to engage in the common liturgy and aesthetic treatments. There are many, but one such example would be the Quaker tradition. However a few examples should not distract us from the fact that the majority of Christendom has employed aesthetic adornments in sacred worship space and it is still true today.
From early Christian writings, it is clear that Christ followers concerned themselves with the aesthetics of their worship space. The earliest Christian era reveals little about Christian sacred space, but by the third century, Domus Ecclesiae had replaced the early house church. This move set in motion the institutionalization of the church and its sacred space. Tertullian describes the church services as including a meal, the Eucharist, prayer, reading of the scriptures, application of scriptures to the current times, and an offering, all of which was presided over by appointed elders. These activities remained constant in one form or another, celebrating the work of Christ in community. As church matured, the architecture changed dramatically and worship became more formal, but the basic elements of the church remained similar to Tertullian’s description of the liturgy. The church sang, in the voices of a choir, prayed, read scripture, commented on it, collected offerings, and participated in the Eucharist. The sanctuary too remained similar in that it provided a focal point to conduct the service, an altar to celebrate the Eucharist, and a place for the community to participate or observe. This entire area was bound off from the more common areas of the church. The protestant reformation boosted laity involvement and closed the gap of separation of clergy and laity. Luther’s theology declared the priesthood of all believers, thereby diminishing clergy’s mediating role between God and laity. The Bible and its preaching became central for understanding divine power. The reformers continually affirmed the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism, but the sacraments no longer suggested mystery over laity. The architectural changes introduced by the Reformation were no less significant. First, an emphasis was placed on the pulpit location and its aesthetic treatment. The pulpit, now elevated, was moved closer to laity, and was decorated with high relief figures painted on the sides, and provided teaching through auditory and visual senses. Second, the altar, which displayed the Eucharist, maintained a distinct proximity to the elevated pulpit. The altar and the pulpit created two focal points for the sanctuary. These two focal points were joined later to a lesser degree by the baptismal. The arrangement of these items would remain fluid through the eighteenth century. Several changes were considered to alleviate the multiple focal points in the sanctuary, primarily resulting in a centralized location for all three. This brief overview of the liturgical, architectural, and objects of worship should inform us that the church has used aesthetically pleasing objects and ideas to enhance worship of the Creator. In the modern context, what is the church doing to promote that tradition? Has the church ignored the role that aesthetics of sacred space can play in advancing the Christian story?

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