Generosity of Spirit

The Mosque of Jesus the Lord, Seljuk, Turkey
The Mosque of Jesus the Lord, Seljuk, Turkey

Pilgrims and visitors to the site of Ephesus in modern day Turkey, are usually taken to see the remains of the great church of St John which even in ruins is a magnificent sight. Built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, it commemorates the supposed burial place of John the Apostle, and sits high on a hill alongside the citadel of Seljuk.

Liturgists among us will find the building fascinating, not least the immense colonnaded forecourt, reminiscent of the very large gathering spaces found in many of our newest church buildings where the assembly can gather and greet one another, and linger to socialize after the liturgy.

Only after the church has been viewed however, are visitors invited to look down from the parapet of the forecourt into the valley below, where a 14th century building constructed largely of stones taken from the ruins of Ephesus, is in the process of restoration. This structure also consists of a worship space and a large courtyard, and is the Mosque of Isa Bey (Jesus the Lord).

This stirring sight brings home to all who gaze at it the inclusiveness of Islam with regard both to Jesus himself and to Mary (Maryam) his Mother, both of whom are honoured in the Qur’an. Indeed the supposed house of Mary and John stands just a mile or two away from this spot, and is a source of pride and delight to Muslims as much as to Christians. This area of Turkey is holy ground because of these connections.

This is a corrective of vital importance in this age when extremism threatens to engulf all three Abrahamic religions, and when mutual suspicion and arrogant dismissal is so often the order of the day.

We cannot of course look to the Christian scriptures to be equally inclusive of the Prophet Muhammad, for 5 centuries were to elapse before his appearance, but subsequent religious history does not give us grounds for satisfaction about the Christian ability to respond in kind.  The history of Jerusalem is a case in point. When the Muslims captured the city in 637 CE they spared the inhabitants, both Jewish and Christian, and established an era of religious tolerance. When the Crusaders took the city in 1099 (as described by John Julius Norwich in Byzantium), they slaughtered all the Muslims in the city and burnt all the Jews alive in the main synagogue. The followers of the Prince of Peace had arrived.

As Hans Küng reminds us, there can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, and we need urgently to find ways of moving beyond our history of mutual violence.  Whilst it is impossible to conceive of a way to return the compliment of the Mosque of Isa Bey, with a church dedicated to the prophet Muhammad, there are at least ways, when we design or re-design our liturgical spaces, in which buildings set aside for Christian worship might be made more hospitable to all seekers after God, particularly to those of other Abrahamic faiths.

Episcopal Cathedral, 38th & Chestnut, Philadelphia
Episcopal Cathedral, 38th & Chestnut, Philadelphia

Soon after the Episcopal Cathedral at Philadelphia had been re-ordered in 2002, it received an unwitting compliment from an unlikely quarter. Two ladies from the Main Line, arriving at the cathedral for a diocesan liturgy, were overheard struggling to find words to describe their reaction to the spacious openness, the minimalist foci of font, ambo, table and chair, and the complete absence of pews, choir stalls or altar rails. All they could manage to say, in appropriately outraged tones, was “Well! It’s just like a mosque!”

The journey had begun.


  1. Looked at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral Website.

    I like the idea of flexible seating for much if not all of the worship space. One local church has single chairs, and bench chairs that can be fitted together to look just like pews. It allows a lot of flexibility to add seating for events that are well attended, and to rearrange space for special events.

    An advantage of total flexibility is that of putting the nave into a choir configuration, two sides facing each other. One of the closed parishes had that for its liturgy of the Word. They also had an oriental carpet that defined a place for the scriptures to be read, etc. down the center of the choir. The choir configuration may be particularly helpful for ecumenical and interfaith services where the focus should be upon the gathered larger community rather than the Eucharistic center of the Catholic liturgy.

    For most large suburban parish campuses in the USA there are better alternatives than to turn the Church into a multi-purpose center.

    Most of these campuses have a large structure such as a hall which can be used for meetings, banquets, etc. Often these structures are designed and decorated in purely practical secular ways rather than being inspiring and uplifting. This is where we should be inspiring and uplifting, pointing to a transformed secular world without being narrowly denominational, echoing and incorporating religious traditions, proclaiming larger community values, e.g. life, peace, justice.. This should be the common space, the “living room” or “parlor” the formal “ad extra” place where we welcome and give hospitality toward the larger community and make them comfortable while still being ourselves.

    Reserve the Church for the “ad intra” formal family dining room where we welcome family and near family. Let it be the place where when visitors do enter, they experience us as we know ourselves even if they do not completely understand, agree or feel at home.

  2. Looking at the picture of the Episcopal Cathedral at Philadelphia I thought I was in Cordoba, Spain!

  3. Richard Giles:As Hans Küng reminds us, there can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, and we need urgently to find ways of moving beyond our history of mutual violence.

    Thank you for your article and depiction of inter-religious cooperation in Turkey. Your citation of Kung’s call for fresh solutions to religious violence reminds me of Ataturk’s secularization of worship space. I know little about the consequences of Ataturk’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia and other church-mosques of Istanbul into museums. While his secularization of worship spaces has facilitated the restoration of religious art, I often wonder if either Christians or Muslims are ever truly satisfied (pacified?) by worship space resignification. I suspect that no worship space can be fully resignified as secular. Secularization for the sake of cultural preservation cannot fully compensate for the centuries of contention and animosity over the ownership and use of historically significant worship spaces.

    Worship spaces often undergo dramatic changes over the centuries, either through the passing between religious groups or successive renovations in keeping with period trends. Worship space construction, redesign, de-consecration, and even destruction each carry individual historical significance. No worship space can be characterized by only one of its incarnations. Herein lies the peril of Ataturk’s secularization policies.

    1. I have enjoyed speculating on the idea that the space itself should be neutral:

      that the gathering of God’s priestly people makes the space holy by their use of it;

      that the congregation brings in procession, or at least moves into place during the service, every thing needed for the service;

      that vesting takes place amid the assembly;

      et cetera.

      Has any one else seen this thought before, or have any interest in it?

      1. Tom, you are getting at something important in having the community shape the worship space. But advocating neutral space may confuse the issue.

        Many large suburban churches here are used only for weekend Masses. There is a separate chapel for reservation and daily Mass. While not supporting turning worship areas into neutral multi-purpose community rooms, they could be used for more than they are now.

        In addition to the flexible system of seating advocated above, there should be a flexible system of moveable dividing screens, i.e. a moveable iconostasis.

        The altar-table as the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and the community has to have a central place of honor, be substantial and rarely or ever moved. Surrounding the altar-table with a moveable iconostasis, e.g. veiling it during community concerts or lecturers, would heighten rather than diminish it sacredness.

        While we need a reservation chapel for prayer and adoration, the main altar should be used for daily Masses. Put a moveable iconostasis around it; define the area within which people should sit; they will not be able to see if the are outside.

        The nave area of the Church should be able to be arranged as facing choirs (either two or four), circles or semi-circles, and broken up into small group areas. Again a system of moveable dividers would facilitate this. Presumably the elaborate use of space dividers in the workplace means we can make these with sound deadening properties.

        My understanding is that the nave area of medieval churches was often used for “secular” purposes in a Christian world and was the responsibility of the laity. The choir, high altar and side chapels were the responsibility of the clergy.

        In today’s world the nave should be used for those purposes (religious education, faith sharing, support groups, etc.) that strengthen our lives as Christians in the world. Indeed such use could help relate the Eucharist to life.

  4. Yes, many times, but then Richard Giles and I go back quite a few years, and his books go back even further….. And yes, what is being suggested here is an anthropological dimension to liturgy that we urgently need to retrieve, especially with the dehumanization that is approaching us.

    1. Paul,

      I don’t know Fr. Giles or his work. But my impression of the post is that it came more out of European experience of religious wars, established churches, and state ownership/subsidy of religious buildings. It might be very useful there.

      I can also understand how mainline Churches in the USA, which are the closest thing we have had to a religious establishment, might market their urban churches to a more general audience as a way to cope with the loss of congregation to the suburbs.

      In the Vibrant Parish Life Study “An understanding of major world religions (Islam, etc)” ranked last in both importance and being well done. In other words, it is not on the parish radar screen. Not a good area for top down initiatives.

      (However a nearby parish has had some shared events with a Turkish Moslem group, a grassroots rather than top down initiative.)

  5. Jack Rakosky,
    One of the healthier examples of a parish community I have seen in the past two decades was one which had its altar on a platform which slid into the wall of the cafeteria after Sunday Mass. It seemed like everyone, down to fairly small children, pitched in to fold up the chairs and re-set the room for the coffee and donuts fellowship which followed and for my presentation against a different wall of the room.

    I also like the example of many synagogues which have moveable walls to open for the larger crowds of the High Holy Days.

    I am not so sure about the need to have the altar in a fixed location. What are your points behind that?

  6. I also have the image of how large banners are sometimes processed into civic spaces for special church occasions in order to convert them to worship space.

    I like it when I see the bare altar table dressed as part of the preparation of the gifts.

    I am not so sure about what is behind the Anglican practice of not vesting in chasuble until after the Liturgy of the Word.

  7. Tom,

    Most of the worship spaces around here which have been built or remodeled in the last couple of decades are inspiring; most of the parish community rooms, banquet halls etc. built or remodeled in the same time frame are definitely drab and practical. I wish the worship spaces were more flexible so I could spend more time in them. I wish the other places were less dull and boring.

    Recently one parish remodeled its entry area into a combination community room with baptismal font under a skylight; another nice place to be in. So empirically, religious symbolism seems to create better spaces; the absence of that seems to result in dull spaces (at least where I live).

    Two parishes where I spend most of my time have fine worship spaces but are very unequal with regard to worship and community. One parish has a far better liturgy while the other parish does much better with regard to community (having many organizations and programs).

    Inspiring buildings do not necessarily produce inspiring liturgies, or inspiring communities. Having beautiful and uplifting liturgies and fine homilies does not produce networks of social relationships. Many fine networks of social relationships do not produce better weekend worship services.

    The fact that the people in Vibrant Parish Life Sturdy were more than satisfied with their worship space and their parish buildings but very unsatisfied with their liturgies and their parish communities says that we put too much emphasis upon buildings. Of themselves they will not create better worship or community.

  8. I have appreciated the constructive and amiable discussion on this topic (not always the case!). Thank you all.
    With Jordan, while admiring Ataturk’s instinct to re-designate Hagia Sophia as a building belonging to no single religion, I wonder about the satisfactoriness of the end result. How wonderful it would be if it could be used by both Muslims and Christians at different times each day. That would give hope to our world! William Dalrymple in ‘From the Holy Mountain’ describes ancient worship sites in Syria where this actually happens.
    I think the question of ‘neutral’ space, on which both Tom and Jack have commented, is an interesting challenge and good for our spiritual health. It forces us back onto the resourcefulness required of the Early Church, before buildings of our own were part of the package. One of the most thrilling and rich eucharistic celebrations I have ever experienced took place in the most drab and characterless of spaces – the conference room of a large hotel in San Diego – at a Form/Reform Conference in the 90s. The room gave us nothing except shelter from the elements, everything else was brought by the 700 participants, whose gifts, skills, music and love transformed that soulless space into the threshold of heaven.
    And Tom, that strange custom of donning the chasuble at the offertory is I think a hangover from the early liturgical explorations of the 60s. I thought it had died out, but you never know (I have even seen a crossed stole or two at diocesan clergy gatherings!). As Tony Soprano would say “waddya gonna do?”

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