Sacred Space: Architecture and Worship

crossposted with Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Tom Stovall

This morning’s service at Denton UU was titled “Sacred Space: How Architecture Affects Our Worship Experience.” The guest speaker was Tom Stovall, a retired architect who specialized in church design during his career, and a member of the UU Fellowship of Tyler. I don’t normally review Sunday services, but Tom had some things to say I think are relevant to UUs (who usually have buildings) and to Pagans (who usually don’t).

Tom started by defining worship as “a series of commitments: to yourself, to your community, and to a set of principles.” Then he asked “is a church building sacred space?” A Catholic would say yes, while a Baptist would say no. And he said a church building “expresses and supports a group of people with similar principles.” I can think of no better example than Denton UU. While our founders were for the most part Humanists, they loved Nature as much as any Pagan. Their principles are reflected in the building they designed and built.

Greek temples were built as homes for gods and goddesses, not for worship. Medieval cathedrals were built to emphasize the separation of the people and the clergy. The Protestant Reformation brought the altar and pulpit forward to allow for corporate worship.

A traditional American congregational church, with its rows of pews, center aisle and raised pulpit in the center, emphasizes the spoken word – it is a passive worship experience. The semicircular seating arrangement in many modern churches emphasizes gathering around a central point. For UU churches, Tom says this central point is our chalice.

layout of Tyler UU

Tom showed a diagram of his church in Tyler. I spoke at Tyler UU in 2005 – it’s a beautiful building in beautiful setting. It has an area for gathering as people come in from the parking lot. It has a long hallway with pictures on one side and windows on the other, to allow people to prepare themselves for worship. The doors to the sanctuary serve as a threshold – it should always be a conscious decision to enter into worship.

Tom went on to make some general comments about designing a new church building, something Denton UU will have to explore in the near future. I’m going to leave that topic alone for now, except to say it’s good we’re beginning this conversation.

Any worship space is a compromise between ideals and principles, practical considerations, and finances. Most modern Pagan worship is done in circles – we frequently call our seasonal celebrations “CUUPS Circles.” Like King Arthur’s Round Table, a circle emphasizes egalitarianism – no one is more worthy than any other. It’s an important principle, but when you get more than about 25 people, the circle starts to get unmanageably large. Put 100 people in a gathering and the circle is so large it requires a huge space and people have a hard time hearing and seeing what’s going on. Denton CUUPS typically sets a small inner circle, then adds concentric semicircles around it. The ideal of the circle is compromised for the practical consideration of allowing everyone to get as close to the main altar as possible.

Denton UU has no gathering area. I don’t know why the founders didn’t build one, but I suspect it had a lot to do with available finances – with a limited budget, you put available dollars where they can best meet your needs. Religious Education space and worship space were deemed more important than gathering space. I can’t argue with that tradeoff.

If you refuse to compromise, you end up with things like Wiccan covens who will meet in someone’s living room on a beautiful Spring evening, or with Druid groves who will meet outdoors during a cold February rain. As a Druid I very much prefer that worship be held outdoors, but I make no apologies for moving inside rather than putting up with 100 degree temperatures at Lughnasadh or the occasional snow at the Spring Equinox.

I have to say I’m very much taken with the concept of gathering, preparing, then crossing a threshold into worship. It’s very easy to tell arriving guests “just find a seat in the circle.” But some of our better rituals have involved gathering in one area for announcements and opening ritual, processing to the main circle, and then formally entering into the circle by smudging or anointing.

Salisbury Cathedral

Geometry isn’t the only consideration on sacred space – design and decoration also contribute (or detract) from the worship experience. The glass walls opening onto Nature help make Denton UU sacred space. I’ve been in other churches (some UU, some conservative Protestant) where I felt like I was in a theater, or worse, in a business meeting. When Cathy and I visited England in 2007, we were impressed by Westminster Abbey, but it felt like a museum. Even though Salisbury Cathedral is built on the same general plan, it still feels like a church, like sacred space. Some of our better CUUPS circles have involved spending hours turning Miller Hall into an Egyptian temple or the RE Wing into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (and then turning it back into a UU church in time for Sunday services!).

Whether we are holding a Pagan seasonal celebration or a weekly UU Sunday Service, it serves us well to remember that we are entering into sacred space and sacred time. Anything we can do to make that space and time more special and more intentional will only improve our worship experience.

Gerry Veeder tells the story of our building to our children

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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