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Worship In A Gothic Setting: Multi-sensory Worship

The Question: How will this form - this Gothic style - contribute to a person's spiritual growth?
The Gothic style in church architecture that developed from Norman architecture between 1200 and 1500. Where Norman architecture (Early English and Decorated periods) was more box like and squat but with Gothic style came improvements in engineering science allowing buildings to be larger and to be taller (perpendicular).   It is a style dominated by the large style of church known as a cathedral.  These are marked by the use of the tower or spire, the arch (Gothic arch refers to the slightly pointed style), the use of buttresses (which added support to allow the church to go upwards) and large windows (often using stained or art glass).  The most popular shape was the cruciform or cross shape with its parts: The Narthex (foyer or vestibule), the Nave (pew or standing area), the cloisters or ambulatories (hallways or aisles along the sides of the nave, and the Crossing or Chancel and altar areas. To each side of this end would be the two cross pieces making the cross and these would be called the transepts.

What has to be remembered is that when these churches were constructed few people could read, few had ever attended any school and all their training had come 'on the job' as apprentices or laborers. The early services were all in the Catholic tradition and the spoken parts were in Latin, a language that only a handful of people (usually only the professionals (lawyers, scholars) and the clergy might understand.
To a largely illiterate populace how do you consistently teach the lessons of the scriptures?  How do you convey simple faith proclamations?  The answer was found in using a multi-sensory approach to worship.
The shape of the building was a constant reminder of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the remission of sins.  Statues, stained glass windows and carvings around the church, in its walls, and engraved on its furnishings conveyed in pictorial fashion scenes of the scriptures and symbols that taught basic doctrinal or scriptural tenets.
In the use of incense, the Old Testament sacrifices were brought to mind and a person was reminded of the fragrances used to adorn the body of the Lord after his crucifixion and before his resurrection.
The light streaming through colorful pieces of glass arranged to show the accepted symbols or representations reminded people of the love of God lighting the dark and empty places of life.
The symbols of the shield, the lily, the rose, the pomegranate, the grapevines, and others reminded people of specific teachings about the nature of God, the church and the life to come.
The use of music was a reflection of scriptural examples of praising God with song, with harp and with instruments.
The use of candles were a necessity in pre-electronic light eras but they also were used symbolically to represent the warming and guiding presence of Christ in the midst of those who gathered in his name.  Christ candles on or near the altar were lit at the start of service to signify the entrance of the presence of Christ  ('where two or three are gathered there I am also') and extinguished to represent they movement of the body of Christ - through the people of the church - out into the world

Worship in a Gothic Setting: A Journey Begins

Recently as I began to attend a church built along the Gothic lines, I have had cause to explore what and why we worship as we do. The contemplation of that subject involves traveling the long and winding road of church history discovering the crossroads, the roadblocks, and the straight roads of what we call the Christian Church.

Teaching a class on general humanities several years ago, I had used church architecture as one of the
exploration possibilities as we discussed the idea of form and function in human history.  We looked at the symbolism of religious structures from several eras and traditions.  They were then urged to look at their own church to see what was being said about worship, people, and values by its form, decoration (or lack of it) and use.  Since most of those students attended modern and non-traditional churches held in auditoriums, store fronts, and old Baptist churches the results would be interesting.

Churches (and the denominations they represent) are classified as Low Church and High Church in regards to their worship styles.

Low Church refers to the less liturgical religious traditions.  Into this area will generally fall most Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Holiness, and non-denominational groups.  These groups will take great pride in following what they understand to be a more Biblical, less Catholic, and purer form of worship experience.  These groups often see history as a shackle to be shaken off and discarded in a never ending search for a new and more impressive spiritual experience in the present.

High Church refers to the more liturgical religious traditions.  Into this area will generally fall most Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and Episcopal churches. These groups will take great pride in following what they understand to be more Biblical, historical, and traditional form of worship experience.  These groups often see history as a companion who enriches, teaches and makes meaningful the life of a person or a church.

Some groups will straddle a middle ground in the use of a liturgy (a word meaning the public service and refers here to an order of worship with responses and specific elements in a printed handout), robes for the clergy and processions into and out of the sanctuary.

Strangely, though, even those churches who would claim to be free of such formalisms as a liturgy actually use a liturgy.  They are like the old Christian who proudly claimed they had "no creed but Christ" not understanding they had just named their creed.   There is an underlying structure to the more "free" church service with its own formal, accepted and repeated practices: a welcome, three songs, a prayer, an offering, a sermon and a prayer/dismissal/altar call. These groups simply do not bother to write it down and often are more flexible as to order or time. 

Given all of these details, as I observed the Gothic nature of the sanctuary of my present church home it caused me to wonder.  What does it mean to worship in a "Gothic" sanctuary? How should the form of this place influence and shape the nature of the worship experience or personal spiritual response?  This led to other questions such as what is the Biblical definition of worship, what are the expectations of the person who worships and how will this form contribute to a person's spiritual growth?

The journey will begin with the last question answered first...


Noel Brooks: A Life Shining and Burning, 1914-2006



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