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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Space (01/23/06)

TITLE: The Big Orange Space at St. James
By Sara Chappel


The Big Orange Space at St. James

Being a church musician, I have had, of necessity, an ecumenical worship experience. At one time or another, and often simultaneously, I have been involved with any number of denominations - Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, and United - each with their own unique approach to worship.

Because of this diverse (and sometimes confusing) mishmash of worship traditions swimming around in my liturgy-addled soul, I developed a healthy and immovable disdain for anything deemed "contemporary." Reacting against a personal spiritual climate of too much change, and not enough consistency, I firmly entrenched myself in dark wood, stained glass, and poetic - if inaccurately translated - biblical language. Of course, some modern elements were palatable: the United Church, where I was choir director, was on the ground floor of a block of condominiums and, for a modern building, was a well-designed space; a good deal of the music at the Anglican church where I sang Evensong services had been composed in the twentieth century, and that was fine. I was instantly scornful, however, of modern biblical translations, liturgical dance, guitars in church, and anything that moved much beyond Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.

And then I went to St. James Anglican Church in Dundas, Ontario.
God has a wicked sense of humour.

St. James was, initially, just another job. I left a position at a Presbyterian church filled with old wood, stained glass, cassocked choristers, and an organist that was affectionately described as "Angliterian." I came to a place with orange floors, white walls, no stained glass, and an altar that changed position as regularly as the tides. Horrors!

St. James had been a venerable old church, with dark wood and stained glass of its own. However, the old church had burned to the ground in the late seventies, and the new building was a concerted effort to modernize and make welcoming what had been perceived as old-fashioned and exclusive. Therefore, rather than stained glass, the windows were left clear, both in order to see out into the residential community surrounding the church, and to provide light for the art exhibits that became a regular part of the sanctuary. Orange linoleum became the floor covering of choice. Rather than traditional pews, movable chairs were installed, so that the congregation could face different directions at symbolic times of the year, like Advent.

During one such shift in orientation, the rector devised a floor plan that left an enormous, empty space in front of the altar. Grumbles simmered, since not only had he done away with the communion rail, there was now a seemingly useless expanse of orange floor with no apparent purpose. I must confess, I succumbed to the grumbles myself.

Did I mention God has a sense of humour? God also has a remarkable ability to use the space around us - both metaphorical and physical - to help us learn and grow. He used the big orange space at St. James to help me move beyond my dark-wood-and-stained-glass spirituality to recognise that the Holy Spirit is found in the most unlikely places, even those - especially those - places that don't match our preconceptions of what a holy space should look like.
On that expanse of orange linoleum, a small girl twirled and danced by herself in the sunlight, moved to worship by the sound of music being played in preparation for choir practice. Only then did I understand the potential transformative power of liturgical dance. At a workshop last winter, we were privileged to experience Buddhist meditation, sitting in a circle around a candle in the middle of the space. I discovered that God is present in silence as well as in music. Our junior choir played and jumped and yelled in the space, and I discovered that God is present in cacophony as well. When I stood for the first time to receive communion, I finally understood - and stopped griping about - the modern phrase that humans are to be "co-creators" with God.

Although my personal tastes haven't changed - I still like Tudor choral music, and poetic language, and cassocks, and ritual - God has taught me, through the big orange space, to be open to new ways to experience love and community, charity and faith.

God found me in the big orange space. I found God in the big orange space.

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This article has been read 762 times
Member Comments
Member Date
dub W01/31/06
Yeah, I grew up thinking Duke Chapel was next to God. Imagine when I was assigned a contempary congregation, I feel your steps. I think I moved closer to Christ than ever before in the oddest of places. Oh, give me Kings Choir any day, but like you now I truly understand that God is not a building. Thank you for reminding me. Wonderful essay.
Venice Kichura02/01/06
I enjoyed this---great writing!
Corinne Smelker 02/02/06
And for someone who loves contemporary it was good to get a viewpoint from the 'other side'. You might enjoy an author called, Robert Benson, I have 2 of his books, "Living Prayer" and "Between The Dreaming And The Coming True". He opened my eyes to the beauty of the liturgy and its place in the church.
Alexandra Wilkin02/04/06
I smiled from start to finish - I come from the other direction, but the meeting point is just the same. Refreshing, honest, and lovely read. God bless.