And now for a change of pace, I wanted to share a little bit of what I've been working on the last few months. A course in vernacular architecture with Don Linebaugh of the University of Maryland prompted me to dig into the literature on colonial-period Anglican churches in this country, the study of which has a long tradition in the relatively young field of vernacular architecture studies. The vernacularists' interest in the way people move through architectural space, especially with respect to the experience of arrival and the boundaries of public and private, focused some thoughts I'd been collecting but not adequately articulating for myself about the experience of visiting and worshipping in churches of my acquaintance. What follows here and in a second post to come shortly is focused on Episcopal churches because it's those I know best. I write in particular about two churches I know and love, and I write with affection. The churches named below, therefore, should take what follows not as a critique of the quality of their hospitality, but as an exercise in thinking about the practicalities of the interface between sacred and public space.
The entrance to the house of worship needs above all to be obvious. Places of worship seem to specialise in grandiose portals – great west doors and the like – which turn out not to be the entrance but a mere diversionary tactic, the actual entrance being the small door round the side. In this way the visitor is led up the garden path and feels like a fool.
Richard Giles, Re-pitching the Tent
The problem Giles names is so well recognized among Episcopal clergy that if you mention it to a priest, you will likely get a rueful laugh followed by a litany of examples of precisely this phenomenon. The garden path and the hidden entrance that makes the visitor feel like a fool are particularly ironic in a church culture that prides itself on being welcoming to all comers and whose church buildings characteristically seem to assert themselves boldly in the landscape: "I am a church (probably an Episcopal one); here is my entrance."
CONFLICTING SIGNALS ABOUT ACCESS
Here and in the next post, I take a look at two Episcopal churches that offer conflicting signals about access. In both cases, progressive, welcoming congregations with landmarked neo-medieval buildings have sought to reconfigure their worship space for modern liturgical sensibilities and practices. In the process, they have reoriented access to their church buildings in a way that seeks to deformalize the approach to the building and erase distinctions among parts of the worshipping community, but which in fact ends up disorienting and segregating some users of the space.
As a liturgical church, one that expresses its theology through movement and action, the Episcopal Church needs to grapple with its built environment whenever it makes an adjustment in practice or doctrine. A change in attitude towards the sacred means a change in who goes where and who does what, not just in what is said or read or sung. The Episcopal Church in America has tended to be conservative and antiquarian in its architectural taste. For reasons of theology, Anglophilia, and cultural capital, Episcopal churches are more likely than others in the American landscape to be elaborate, medievalizing buildings whose layout and decoration lag a generation or several behind the practices and beliefs of the congregations that use them.
At the same time, the mainstream Episcopal Church is today politically and theologically progressive, tending to experimentation in forms of worship and accepting (in the Anglican tradition) of a wide range of doctrines or lack thereof. Most Episcopal churches go out of their way to proclaim their welcome to people from other denominations, of either the more-Protestant or more-Catholic variety. This can be seen in the way Episcopalians tell themselves stories about their doors. Many Episcopal churches (though not those discussed here) have red doors, which prompts the frequently-asked question: "Why are the doors red?" The most common answer, found all over the web, is that the red door signifies "sanctuary". True or not (the source is hard to document), the story accords with the Anglican church's status as a "middle way" between Protestantism and Catholicism, and with the modern Episcopal Church's ethos of being undoctrinaire and accepting of a great range of beliefs. Many of my friends in the church have experienced the Episcopal Church as sanctuary.
OPENNESS AND OPACITY
The relaxed attitude of many Episcopal churches towards the formal rites of initiation in the church creates a low barrier to entry, in one sense, but throws up other barriers by assuming knowledge that is no longer formally taught. The combination of antiquarianism and anything-goes progressivism lends the Episcopal Church a reputation for weird, secret behaviors. The movements and texts used in worship are something everyone there already seems to know, yet they are not standard from parish to parish. Many parishes offer guides on their websites or in leaflets about what to expect and what to do, but entering an Episcopal church for the first time can still be intimidating. The experience of the newcomer or visitor to an Episcopal church is of concern to parishes in part because, unlike Catholic parishes, and unlike the parish churches of the established Church of England, Episcopal parishes do not draw their congregations only from their immediate neighborhoods. Worshippers are very likely to seek out an Episcopal parish some distance from their home. Episcopalians and would-be Episcopalians are free to go church-shopping, to seek out politically and liturgically congenial parishes.
This is especially true in urban areas, where there are likely to be many churches to choose from. Rural and suburban churches present less of a problem to the visitor because of their setting, regardless of their architecture. In a sense, it does not matter if a village church has an architecturally-unexpected main entrance, because everyone who goes there has known forever where the entrance is. Moreover, extra-architectural features are a reliable guide. As an English priest who serves a rural parish remarked to me, "The churchyard tells the visitor where to go; the doors are used because they are flanked with worn paths and ancient yew trees, so I guess the parishioners have used these doors for about 800 years or more." In suburban or American rural churches, there is likely to be a single mode of approach – the car – and a single point of access off the highway into the church parking lot. The visitor has a chance to appraise the situation from a distance, first while driving up, and then while crossing the parking lot, to see where the flow of people is that she should join. The more isolated a church is, the less likely it is to attract casual visitors who are unfamiliar with the neighborhood and who have no connection with anyone who regularly attends services. By contrast, urban churches are more likely to have multiple street frontages and multiple modes of access – car, foot, public transportation.
DEFORMALIZING THE WORSHIP SPACE: IMPLICATIONS FOR ENTRY
The Episcopal Church inherits from its Anglican foundations and ultimately its medieval roots a "two-room" plan for the organization of churches' interior space. In the two-room plan, the space is divided into a chancel or sanctuary, the location of the Eucharist and historically the province of the clergy and others with ceremonial roles in the liturgy; and the nave, the area where the laity gather. Waves of liturgical renewal have altered the way the worshipping community uses this space, with varying degrees of interpenetration of lay and clerical space. Altar rails have been removed and the altar brought forward, either to the front edge of the sanctuary, into the end of the nave nearest the sanctuary, or all the way into the center of the nave. Congregations that have taken the most radical steps in bringing sacred space out into lay space have in essence created one-room churches inside two-room ones, or round churches inside rectangular ones.
A church originally built on a two-room plan communicates the disposition of its internal space to its exterior. However great the change has been in recent times to the way the congregation uses the space inside, it is usually not possible to reverse completely the location of chancel and "west" façade. The (liturgical) east end, even if it no longer contains the altar at which the community normally celebrates communion, is likely to contain the focus of the church's artistic program (sculpture, windows, choir stalls, the original altar attached to the wall). The east end may be apsidal and so not lend itself to the creation of a new façade. Even when it is not, the orientation of the church to public space outside normally puts the historic main façade and entrance, the west front, on the street, while the chancel end is visible but inaccessible on foot.
Congregations that have refashioned their interior use of space, therefore, have the option of continuing to use the west end as the primary entrance but changing what happens after one enters there, or switching to using a subsidiary (side) door as the main entrance, or both. The stubbornness of the building in continuing to say what it was designed to say about where to enter is then in conflict with what the community believes the building should be saying about where to enter.
ST. MARK'S, CAPITOL HILL
St. Mark's is a late-nineteenth-century red brick Episcopal church in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The church's form is essentially a basilica plan, a rectangle with side aisles. The church sits at the corner of 3rd and A Streets, S.E., with its chancel end to the south and its main façade on the north side, fronting A Street. The 3rd-Street side of St. Mark's articulates the building's basilica form, with a long run of aisle windows below and clerestory windows above.
The church's main façade is asymmetrical and does not have central doors, but is strongly marked as the public face of the church: a huge, round-arched window is set in the gable end, and to its right is a tower that dominates the corner of 3rd and A Streets. A series of attached buildings that were added on over the course of the 20th century runs perpendicular to the chancel end on the east side of the church and forms a courtyard that opens off A Street. There are two large doors at the base of the tower; an arched door at the other end of the main façade, and two doors leading off the courtyard into annex buildings.
St. Mark's is as well known for its political and liturgical progressivism as for its Tiffany windows. It removed its pews in 1965, an early instance of what has now become a more widespread trend. William Baxter, rector at the time, tells the story of the pews in an oral history. It had always bothered Baxter that worshippers had to sit looking at the backs of other people's heads, and the distance from nave to high altar was made worse by the gloomy atmosphere in the cavernous space. During a brief period when the pews had to be removed anyway so the floor could be refinished, the community worshipped for a few Sundays in the parish hall, where they set chairs in the round. When it was time to move back into the church proper, they found they had become accustomed to the more intimate seating arrangement.
St. Mark's congregation continues to this day to hold worship in the round, seated on chairs arranged around a central altar in the middle of the nave. St. Mark's prides itself on being an inclusive and nonhierarchical community, and its style of worship expresses those values. But how does that inclusiveness communicate itself to the visitor via the building's entrances?
A visitor approaching for the first time would go to the corner of 3rd and A Streets, probably approaching from 3rd Street, a through street giving access to Pennsylvania Avenue to the south and the natural approach for anyone walking from one of the two nearby Metro stations. That corner is dominated by St. Mark's tower; the tower has two impressive doors in its base, and next to one of them on the 3rd Street side is the church's sign, announcing its name and service times in shiny blue and gold. Steps and wrought-iron banisters sweep the visitor up...to a door which is not only locked, but has no handles! The situation is the same on the 3rd Street side of the tower.
So where is the entrance to this church? Not at the other side of the main façade, apparently:
...or at directly at the head of the spiffy new paved path from the street into the courtyard:
Further exploration finally reveals a comparatively unassuming door tucked in the angle between the chancel and the adjacent addition, in a corner of the courtyard. This turns out to be the main entrance for Sunday worshippers.
The interior reveals the reasons for the confusion of doors on the outside. The move of the worship space into the nave and the circular seating arrangement have put the backs of the nave seats very close to the doors of the main façade. Meanwhile, the unassuming door at the angle of the church and annex on the courtyard side, while appearing to lead primarily to a small office corridor, affords access to what would have been the crossing if this were a cruciform church – that is, an open space directly in front of the chancel:
The arrangement is confusing to the visitor, assuming that visitor has found her way to the side door. The huge and splendidly-decorated chancel with its choir stalls looms at left, while at the right, the circle of chairs appears closed to the person approaching:
The handle-less tower doors are unlocked during Sunday services, but those doors open almost directly onto the backs of the seats in the circle. This might appear not to be all that different than the experience of arriving at the back of a longitudinal church, but in that circumstance there are almost always one or more aisles that clearly offer the visitor a way in and a choice of seats without the fear of disrupting the proceedings. While there are aisle-like breaks in the circle here, they appear to the uninitiated to lead nowhere but to the center of the circle, into a space at once very public and ambiguously sacrosanct. There is no question that the circle-in-a-rectangle worship space at St. Mark's makes for a vibrant and intimate liturgical experience. It is, however, a church where even being an experienced Episcopalian is not always a reliable guide to what is about to happen, and the layout affords the visitor no safe space to pause and assess the situation before being thrust into the midst of it.
Next, Part 2, coming shortly: On to Cleveland, and multiple modes of entry to the urban church.