By Jessica Patchett
Standing in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had years ago in a small church in Concord, North Carolina. That particular evening, our session had an important matter in front of us: While a church member was mowing the grass one Saturday, a pregnant woman approached him wondering if he could unlock the church door for her. One of her sons was playing soccer on the church fields and her other son needed to use the restroom.
“Well, why didn’t we think of that? We should open the doors every Saturday morning,” one elder said.
“We took on debt three years ago to renovate this building and are about to pay off our loan. We can’t let little kids in cleats run around our sacred space. If you open the door for one of them, they’ll all come in,” another elder replied.
“Why don’t we hand out water bottles to soccer families?” asked another elder.
“Then we’ll have to hand out toilet paper, too, and we definitely can’t afford that,” someone quipped.
“For the love… Hundreds of people show up for soccer every Saturday and would come in and use our bathrooms, but would never come back for worship. They probably have games somewhere else on Sunday mornings. Is nothing sacred anymore?” This elder clearly didn’t want an answer, but it was a question we could no longer avoid.
What is sacred?
If it was once sacred, is it always sacred?
How can the same ritual point some toward the divine and others toward the door?
Some 15th and 16th century Christians raised questions like these:
Does bread become sacred when it’s placed on the communion table?
Does it change when an ordained person says ‘This is my body’?
Protestant Reformers dared to answer that the words ‘hoc est corpus’ (Latin for ‘this is my body’) did little to leaven the church that was supposed to be nourishing their souls, and went on to create new churches, sacred rituals, and expressions of Christian faith. Others, who were equally unmoved by the Catholic ritual, responded differently. In John Stewart fashion, magicians of their day appropriated these words for both show and social commentary as they waved their wands and made a mockery of the church’s ‘sacred’ words saying, “‘Hocus pocus’ – now you see me, now you don’t”.
Now you see me, now you don’t. It’s the reality that has left many contemporary church-goers in Scotland, the United States, and elsewhere wondering why their neighbors, co-workers, and many times, children or grandchildren aren’t coming to church.
I wonder if some of the people who disappeared from our churches experienced something like the Reformers and magicians did centuries ago. I wonder if some of our neighbors and family members were sitting in worship one day, looked around and thought, ‘These words, these rituals aren’t sacred. They’re not pointing me toward God and the source of my life. So, why am I here?’. And, waking up to this new reality, people just didn’t come back to church the next week. Or the next week.
It would be easy to hear such a reflection as an indictment on the patterns of worship many long-time church goers have found and still find life-giving and God-honoring. But I believe there’s another way to hear and understand the experiences of many people who have left our churches.
Standing in the St. Giles Cathedral, our tour guide pointed out a series of windows. One looked very different than the others.
‘See this one? It dates from the 1800’s, a Victorian era stained glass series that depicts the life of Christ. That one over there? It was added in the 1900’s and depicts Jesus commanding the storm and walking on water – probably an important statement for a generation who remembered the World Wars and the German bombing of the British Isles. Look behind you. This window is strikingly contemporary, installed in 1985. It depicts people of every race, color and creed standing in unity in a lush, green garden. It reminds the congregation here at St. Giles that though they stand in the shadows of a long historical tradition, they are not just here to preserve the architecture – they are a working church on a mission that is unique to their time.”
The congregation that worships where John Knox once preached does so in a very different space and style than he outlined when he brought the insights of the Protestant Reformation to Scotland. It seems that what the congregation of St. Giles learned from Knox is that worship is the work of the people of each new and changing generation. And, each generation must decide how to draw on both the resources of their forbearers and the creativity of their God-given gifts to offer worship in such a way that it points their community, neighbors, and loved ones toward the beautiful and life-giving reality of God in their midst.
What makes something sacred?
Does it inspire real people with unique experiences to notice God calling and carrying them into new life and vitality and wholeness?
Is it an open door through which the human soul and the Holy Spirit can conspire, breathe together, in the divine work of restoration?
Is it a window into the new creation that Jesus unveiled and invited us to enjoy and share in unique ways in every time and place?
One of the things I appreciate the most about the congregation in which I serve is that its members create and offer a diverse range of sacred doors and windows through which they can invite their friends, neighbors, and loved ones to experience the divine life. Choral anthems soar through our gothic sanctuary and inspire people to know that God is greater than the expanses of the universe; a dynamic band offers a soulful ballad in the Fellowship Hall that helps people put words to their most intimate prayers to the God who is as near as our own breaths; a piano and violin liven the steps of those who gather around the chapel communion table to be the body of Christ in the world.
It’s beautiful. It’s sacred – all of it. And, as people live longer and generations change more dramatically with the racing speed of innovation and global travel and communication, our congregations may look more and more like that sanctuary of St. Giles, proudly displaying new windows into the divine life side by side with those created by previous generations. For the love of all that’s sacred, I hope so.
The Rev. Jessica Patchett is Associate Minister at Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, North Carolina.