Claiming a Space for Worship through the Arts Throughout history, Christians have been formed and shape ...
The Unsanctified Sanctuary: When Church Is Not A Building
Dr. Gwendolyn Starks, PhD
I grew up in an old Anglican Church surrounded by the rich reflection of stained glass and smoothly carved dark wood. We sang the entire service led by the junior and senior choir, accompanied by the resounding tones of the pipe organ. The minister enacted the breaking of the bread and we made our pilgrimage up to the high alter for the Eucharist, the smell of incense wafting into our nostrils. The Anglican Church of Canada in the 60s and 70s was steeped in the centuries old Theo-artistic traditions of ritual and elegance.
The Sanctuary I worship in today is pictured below. It is a Legion Hall built in the 1950’s. This windowless room with dartboards, a bar at the back, and, occasionally, remnants of the Saturday rental from the previous evening, is my Church in Ontario, Canada.
This type of meeting space is common for many congregations in the 21st Century. We gather in storefronts, school gymnasiums, conference rooms, pubs, and basements. When I was last in St Andrews the Baptist Church worshiped Sunday morning in the gym at Madras College while the Free Church of Scotland were across town in the Boys Brigade Hall. In the Western Protestant tradition, while some denominations are selling their buildings to developers, these places of worship are more and more common.
Every Sunday, hours prior to the Congregation’s arrival, ‘Set Up Teams’ all over Christendom perform the same ritual as my Church. The “Chairman” drags out dozens of seats; the Sound Team rolls out the cables; the Worship Band plugs in for practice. Elsewhere in the room a few brave souls may have risen early to pray for today’s service. This is our experience of preparing a space for worship.
Despite my own weaknesses and over-enthusiastic attempts to introduce change to the Legion Stage area at Christmas, nothing really stuck. It wasn’t until I really opened my heart to who the congregation were as individuals within a larger body that I began to conceive of an idea. The room has no windows, but on the periphery it does have huge blank panels that cover the dartboards. Other than covering them with banners or posters or individual works of art, how could these be used?How do we claim a space such as this for Worship? Those of us involved in the arts can think of all sorts of ways to re-shape a space like this. We must keep in mind, however, that, first, this is a shared space, temporarily used by the congregation. Whatever we do must be put up and taken down every week. Second, many of our churches are not filled with practitioners of the Arts; stepping forth creatively is very intimidating for the average person. Third, change is not always welcome and it is hard to introduce something new to a large group of people, especially when it involves individual views on God and their Church. Unless they have a clear understanding of the end result, some individuals will find it very hard to step into the process. While some may be delighted, some may be hesitant and others may even be adamantly opposed.
Over the next few weeks this blog will document an art project that was introduced to my Church the first Sunday in Lent. It gave anyone in the congregation: child, adult, infant, senior, a chance to participate. It revealed a theological truth. When finished on Easter Sunday the result delighted the congregation with a positive view of themselves as not only individuals but also as part of God’s work in the world.
Dr. Gwendolyn Starks, PhD
Gwendolyn Starks has been involved in Performing Arts for over 30 years as an Actor, Writer, Director and Instructor. Her PhD from the University of St Andrews, UK, has a Theology and Theatre focus.
She is the Community Liaison with the Board of Directors for the Semaphore Fellowship of Artists and the Flagship Gallery in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and a part time Theatre Instructor at Redeemer University, Ontario. She is also on the Board of Directors for Historic Waterdown Arts and Events as the representative for literary and performance artists for ArtsFEST 2017. As an Actor/Writer Gwendolyn is researching for her third one-woman play: Canadian Artist, Emily Carr. For the role she is rediscovering her love of painting and other Visual Arts.