I’m not sure I have spent as much time on anything in my life as I have on the time topics in the title. Once upon a time, the Christian church was one of the great supporters of artistic creation. Today, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that one of the great stumbling blocks facing the future of the institutional church is that it has largely turned away from creativity.
Some, I know, will instantly say that the sooner the institutional church dies, the better the faith (and the world) will be. While I am often a vocal critic of the institution, its politics and inertia inspired blindness, I’m not quite ready to give up on it just yet. We are called together in our life in faith. When two or more are gathered together in one place, there had better be some kind of structure. Otherwise, nothing gets done.
Some will also raise the cry that there’s plenty of creativity in the church, right now. To that I’m afraid I have to say while there are pockets of creativity, I’m not seeing the creative being celebrated in large swathes of my faith. Creativity does not thrive in places where absolute fidelity to tradition, history and “how it’s always been done” is paramount.
I love classic church architecture, far more than most of the modern church design I’ve seen. There is a church not far from where I used to live that I thought was a warehouse for years, till they finally got the sign up on the highway side of the building. Once buildings were built to symbolize the glory of God. Today they could easily be movie theaters or warehouses. There is lots of fine church music that has been around for years. Too often it is treated like a museum piece, to be carefully preserved just the way it has always been. There is some fine modern music as well, but there’s plenty that isn’t. Being old doesn’t make something good, but neither does being new.
The classic example (one of many) can be found in my own tradition. As Episcopalians, we are part of the Anglican tradition. We are largely defined by our Book of Common Prayer. It provides the pattern of our life in faith and worship. And it is real easy for us to treat that book like Holy Writ, never to be changed, never to be interpreted in any way other than the way it was by our predecessors. If we are not careful we will be permanently turned towards the past. And there is now new creativity there.
Creativity is a matter of weaving together what has gone before with what is available now. It’s not easy. Being creative never is. It’s trial and error. It’s an ongoing process. That makes people uncomfortable. But that’s an important part of creativity as well.
Let me give you an example of what I see as a great creative response to worship space. It combines the traditional and the new. If you ever get the chance to visit or worship at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. It draws on the architecture of a fourth-century basilica with some amazing modern touches.
The basic form is classic church architecture but without traditional pews. This allows all kinds of unusual options for worship. Note the raised chancel area in the back of the photo. The curved benches can serve as choir or for a variety of other uses. Note the high-tech lighting that creates an almost starfield effect. I’ve been in some fabulous churches and cathedrals. None have affected me the way this one did.
Here’s a slightly different view, note the rectangular box on the right. That’s a baptismal font. One that the person being baptized can kneel in the water. Next to it, and if memory serves, with the water able to flow from the traditional basin font into the larger font. Again, the intersection of the ancient and the new.
Imagine if we took the same approach to our music, our worship, our liturgy, our teaching, and preaching. Creativity is a gift of God. Might be nice if we shared it with Him occasionally.
Just a thought.