congregational aesthetics: the weight of history (1/3)

What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation?

When you think about the artwork or memorials or liturgical accoutrements of your congregation, what kind of profile emerges? More importantly, perhaps, what does this aesthetic profile say about the identity of your congregation. It’s an interesting and compelling question (and a multi-faceted one) when we stop to ask it.

For many congregations the question of aesthetics is one that hangs only vaguely in the background of church life. In such cases, a congregation receives its building with furnishings and artwork from a previous generation and accept that these have defined, and shall define (!), the aesthetic space within which worship and Christian friendship shall be expressed.

Of course there are some congregations that are profoundly aware of the aesthetic dimension of their congregational life. These aesthetically aware congregations could perhaps be subdivided into two categories: (i) those preoccupied with how nice things look, where niceness is defined by a sense of tidiness and welcome, and (ii) those pushing to think about how our faith is expressed or shaped by the aesthetic spaces we inhabit as congregations.

214The congregation I serve has had such questions thrust upon it. This is because we are in the process of subdividing our property/buildings, and selling our beautiful 700-seat sanctuary. Not only this, but for various reasons our large sanctuary had become home to a number of significant items of historical and ecclesial significance: including those from historic St. Gabriel Street Church, the first Presbyterian congregation in Montreal.

The question of aesthetics has been thrust upon us, and we should be (are!) grateful that it has – for suddenly we are faced with the twin questions of how to faithful with what we have, and how to imagine and shape our space (aesthetically speaking) for the future. With decisions to be made, we can no longer simply accept that the way it has been is the way it will be…

In a series of blog posts over the next weeks I want to explore the question of congregational aesthetics, and begin simply with the weight of history – the question of how we respond to that which has been passed on to us by generations past. Let me do so by sharing what we have thought about, and are learning, at Kensington church:

photo 3THERE ARE SOME THINGS WE JUST CAN’T TAKE CARE OF ANY MORE       The congregation of Kensington has been a steward of historical artifacts, which have also shaped the space of our worship and friendship in Christ. From St. Gabriel Street Church these include (among other things) the church bell, a lovely wooden clock, the cornerstone, and many wood/leather communion chairs. Given the size and financial resources of Kensington Church today, we simply do not have the resources to care for these in the way that they need to be cared for if they are to be appropriately preserved as artifacts. As a result, with some sadness, but respecting our call to be good stewards of these gifts, we are passing them on to be cared for by other institutions that are able to do so.

WE DON’T HAVE ROOM FOR EVERYTHING   Well, actually, we do have room for everything. But if every item that has been handed down to us were placed in our new, smaller quarters, our building would become a museum, which we are not – and which we do not wish to be. Especially here in Quebec, where much is made of the religious patrimony of the province, we must be clear that we are a living community of those who follow the risen Jesus.

So choices have to be made, and questions have to be asked. Where, if anywhere, is a large war memorial appropriately placed? Does the St. Andrew’s cross (with thistles) on that pulpit fall reflect a particular ethnic and cultural history that shouldn’t have prominence any more, given our multicultural nature? Does the wear and tear on a particular much-loved piece suggest that it belongs, now in storage. Do these ministerial portraits reflects a continuing clericalism, so that maybe they also belong in a cupboard? Hard questions! But good questions to wrestle with as we think about who we are and where we are going…

195SOME GIFTS OF REAL BEAUTY HAVE BEEN PASSED ON TO US    In this vein I think especially of the Celtic cross window that graces our church hall – which is now, also, our place of worship. That stained-glass window was was removed from the building of First Presbyterian Church (Montreal) when it was being converted to condominiums – the window was left in a pile of trash and rescued by members of Kensington. The cross is a fine piece of craftsmanship, with the most beautiful and subtle of colours – it is a testament to life and joy that is ours in Christ, and which comes to unique expression in each of us.

This is not to say that past generations always got it right in terms of their theological and aesthetic vision (they didn’t). But in cases where they did, we can celebrate their faith and receive their gifts with gratitude.

PAST GENERATIONS INVESTED IN AESTHETICS (IN BEAUTY AND CRAFTS AND THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION ON THE ARTS) SO WHY SHOULDN’T WE?    That celtic cross window, and the silver communion-ware from St. Gabriel’s Church, and the wooden/leather chairs also from St. Gabriel’s, all testify to generations that saw the importance of craft and of the arts and the importance of beauty and a worship space that reflected the goodness of life with God in Christ. Again, they didn’t always get it right, but often they did – and we should follow in their steps in valuing these gifts that God gives to his people. Not simply be treasuring what has been passed on to us but treasuring those who have such gifts to offer today.

There is much more to say about the weight of history and congregational aesthetics, and I want to push our thinking in a couple of subsequent blog posts. But for now it is enough to have said that the question of aesthetics is one we must answer, and one we are trying to answer at Kensington. In the first place that means being faithful with what has been passed on to it – bearing the weight of history if you will. And that means making the careful, prayerful, and theologically honest decisions that life in Christ requires of us. It’s not an easy task, and we will not always get it right, but we are seeking to be faithful.

———> second post in this series is here

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One thought on “congregational aesthetics: the weight of history (1/3)

  1. Thanks for writing! I believe the quality of congregational life is so closely tied to the space of worship because physical spaces influence how we behave and relate. For example, my church service is located in a community center theater, and with very little space between each row of seats, it’s hard to “let go” during musical worship.

    Anyway, I’m glad to have found another blog that talks about art and the church! Mine is http://crossandcanvas.tumblr.com

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