graphic website title banner

Church architecture—ritual can reveal how power is viewed

Author unknown

December 9, 2003

The shape and configuration of churches as well as the rituals and ritual items that are used can reveal how power is viewed by the people who use them, according to Walter Huffman, professor of worship and dean of chapel at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.

Worship places such as the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and modern mega churches with stages focus the attention of worshippers on the leader and thus reveal a hierarchical outlook that shows “who is in power,” he told the WordAlone’s recent conference, “Reclaiming Evangelical Worship,” in Anoka, Minn.

The basilica design had been used by royal courts before the church became a “mega church” under the Roman emperor Constantine. The Temple of Solomon was built near his palace and was in effect, Huffman noted, a royal chapel that gave a religious aura to Solomon.

Jesus attacked the Temple symbolically when he said it would be torn down and in three days restored. He was attacking the hierarchical and sacrificial ministry that occurred in the Temple that contradicted his “egalitarian ministry,” Huffman said.

He added that the Lutheran tradition has continued to inhabit hierarchical structures that didn’t match the theology of the reformers. Reform of worship spaces was generally overlooked, Huffman said.

Lutherans need to address the worship spaces they have inherited, he said. They need to break the spell that Gothic spaces have over them. They need to be intentional in thinking about what worship spaces say.

They must “abandon spaces that separate the worshippers,” that distance them from and elevate the ministers, he added and called for “visual collegiality,” which provides proximity for the worshippers and minister. One person shouldn’t be in the center and “all lighted up.” Sanctuaries should never have thrones, he stated.

Leadership needs to be in the light but not exalted, separate but proximate, he asserted. Lutherans need to make changes spatially to change their perceptions of power.

But, he said, leaders not only use places, they also use rituals and ritual garb to impress their subjects of their legitimacy. Religious garb such as miters [bishops’ hats], which serve no religious purpose are especially dangerous.

He noted that rituals can be a source of maintaining one’s equilibrium and that nobody likes change. Changes in ritual practice challenge an individual’s or a church’s identity. And so ritual has a conservative nature, seen in the continuing practice of giving away a bride.

On the other hand, there is a “need to reform ritual as well, when it becomes diseased, as it can,” he said. Both the conservative and reformative aspects are necessary. The key is finding what is kept and what is changed as Luther did.