Rev’d Dr. Robert Chapman
The Making Suburban Faith project hosted a wonderful day at Royal Holloway’s house in Bloomsbury entitled, ‘Architecture, creativity and the spaces of everyday faith’, and its content gave rise to a compulsion to offer a brief (well fairly brief… ) reflection.
Being the only theologian (and vicar!) present the inevitable opening introductions on the day made by geographers and architects could have made me feel like a gate-crasher at a wedding. However, the insightful contributions of the symposium proved how these different disciplines interwove often in subconscious ways.
I have just come out of the season of Lent and Easter and in light of the Making Suburban Faith symposium have been profoundly aware of place, situatedness, and the creative use of space. Whilst I sat in the Lady Chapel of St Thomas’ Hanwell (one of the buildings explored by the project) on the night Maundy Thursday the discussions from a couple of weeks earlier filled my mind.
On the night of Maundy Thursday the church symbolically re-enacts the events of the first Maundy Thursday when Jesus washed the disciples’, celebrated the Last Supper, and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, whilst instructing his disciples to watch and pray. The symbolic re-enactment of that night takes the form of the priest washing the feet of 12 parishioners, the celebration of holy communion and the placing of the bread blessed (Jesus’ ‘body’) at holy communion into a temporary ‘Chapel of Repose’ (situated in the Lady Chapel). Once there a rota of parishioners ‘watch and pray’ until the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday at 3pm (the hour Jesus died).
Now all of this happens thousands of miles away from Jerusalem and two thousand years away from its institution, so I reflected on what prevents this, and all those other religious rituals of ‘everyday faith’, from being twee inadequate expressions of a long gone faith or even simply just other-worldly and bizarre?
The Making Suburban Faith symposium did begin to answer these theological and philosophical questions through the creativity of architecture which symbiotically speaks to communities and responds to their needs, and the observations of social geography reflecting on the answers new communities give to the perceived ritual needs of their faith.
Towards midnight that Maundy Thursday, as I sat ‘watching and praying’, the Making Suburban Faith discussions, and the ‘sacred space’ I was occupying, somehow diverted my devotions to the French theologian and philosopher Louis-Marie Chauvet. At that moment, Chauvet seemed to articulate how the ‘other’ is experienced in ordinary, suburban space; the very space I was in.
Louis-Marie Chauvet in The Sacraments (Collegeville: 2001) argues that symbols work only when they:
• Fit and ‘crystalize’ themselves within a bigger ‘whole’ such as country, political regime or faith.
• The symbol also, causes recognition or identification to/with the object e.g. bread = Christ’s body. And finally,
• There is submission by the community who accept the symbolic identification e.g. those gather ‘know’ that bread = Christ’s body.
The result of this is that the effective symbol must always remain connected to the thing to which it belongs, and thus, concomitantly sacred space and geography can perform a similar role thus they are of central importance, think of pilgrimage sights. Outside of Chauvet’s schema of ‘symbolic exchange’, the relationship between symbol and space is instinctively felt to be true, for example, bread in the supermarket is just bread, in church, Christ’s body.
However, Chauvet also argues that there must also be the element of distance in symbols; they are not as effective if they are too much like thing they seek to be connected too. Hence, the effective symbol is both close and removed. This may sound like post-modernity having its philosophical cake and eating it, but what he means is that if the thing resembles too closely the thing it is trying to convey it becomes farcical (it arguably ceases to be a symbol). For example at St Thomas’ Hanwell, the architect Sir Edward Maufe did everything he could, in terms of design, to ensure that the priest and people were facing Jerusalem. Of course, he could have ‘simply’ tried to replicate the temple of Jerusalem as at 30AD and not worried about whether the temple in Hanwell faced east or not. However, to do that would have meant the space would merely be replica rather than one which connects the people to the object of their devotions and the community in which they belong.
That second dimension was a theme the architects had to wrestle with as they negotiated with leaders, and the holders of purse-strings who desired something just like x or y in the next town, city or pilgrimage site.
It struck me that Maundy Thursday that where ‘it’ does work, when closeness and distance are effectively employed, the result is a space that connects the people to that ‘other’ to which they belong. Thus, a community feels ‘it’ works, and the philosophical death-knell of Greek and Cartesian immanentist concepts of pure, objective language through which the world, suburban or otherwise, is mediated is avoided, and a liturgical polis, rather than a necropolis, is made manifest.
As a priest in a suburban church that seems to work (in spite of the paternalistic approach of the architect) this juggling act is aided by a tradition and community. How geographers and architects grapple with is now a source of admiration, and dare say prayer!
Rev’d Dr. Robert Chapman
Vicar of St Thomas the Apostle
182 Boston Road