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RE-PITCHING THE TENT
by Richard Giles, Canterbury 1997
 

"This book is so significant that I am going to present a copy to all new incumbents." -  Graham Dow, Bishop of Willesden, UK.

Is he right and should all church architects give a copy to their clients?

The book is subtitled Re-ordering the church building for worship and mission in the new millennium.

It is in three parts. The first part looks at the essential historical and biblical background, asking where do we come from? The second part looks at the principles behind the guidelines given in part three, and this third part asks where are we going, and is a liturgical, not technical, design guide.

Before claiming that your denomination is not into liturgy, remember that every building, including church ones, proclaim some sort of message even if by default.

"In too many church communities indifference to the environment of worship is a vice dressed up as a 'spiritual' virtue... what are the distinguishing features of the followers of Jesus when they meet as a community, and how can they best use buildings (if they are allowed any) to express their life together and the message they long to share?"

The book is about how to make a start on thinking about re-ordering, "where theology and architecture meet and embrace."

Giles starts by looking at the history of worship from Abraham onwards, not to return to nor abandon the past, but to recognise our roots and origins to enrich our ongoing relationship with God. Chapter 7 tackles that question of should Christians have buildings at all, and goes on to stress again that, if we have them, they are important for what they say to us and about us.

"All Christians (even those whose dogmatic formulations tell them otherwise!) are fully aware in daily life of the power of sacramental signs. Exactly why the bunch of flowers should nearly always do the trick, why we can almost hear them speak the words 'I am sorry' or 'I love you', is a total mystery, but it works. Our places of assembly must never become no-go areas for the working out of this universal truth. Art, design, layout, movement, clothing and gesture will all be redolent of powerful meaning quite beyond the delineation of their external attributes. We must recognise this quality in the layout and design of our sacred spaces, and use it to the full."

If the words I have emboldened in the above quote confirm for you that this book has nothing to say to you, then read it again omitting them. And, yes, make due allowance throughout the book for its high church language, (unless they are your clients!) and read 'communion table' in place of 'altar' and the book will become very relevant.

An interesting feature of the book are the quotes in the margin, which include some by Maguire, and some dating back to Hammond's Liturgy and Architecture, showing the continuing relevance of his book, and the dearth of recent writing on this subject. Giles too makes for some quotable lines, for example, "re-ordering is a continual process not a one-off event."

Part Three, accounting for a third of the book, then takes us step by step through (and towards first!) our church building asking how it could be improved, or be totally different if we are building anew. The book would indeed make an indispensable gift for a congregation contemplating re-ordering, or indeed complacent with what it has got; but if they follow the advice in selecting an architect you may not get the commission, though you will have helped that congregation.

Every church leader should have a copy, because it is as much about how you lead or take part in services, as about the built setting. It is indeed about "where theology and architecture meet and embrace."
 

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