Post Christian Sacred Spaces, by Renee Lehnen

Perched on an oaken pew, I listen to jazz, riff after gloriously improvised riff.  Early evening sunshine streams through stained glass casting kaleidoscope colours on the piano.  Outside, sparrows rest on weathered granite gravestones.  Inside, people fan themselves with the Order of Service and tap their feet to secular standards.  This time and place is… sacred.  I want to make a joyful noise!

I am attending Jazz Vespers at St. James Anglican Church in Stratford, Ontario.  It is said by old wags that to Anglicans, Sin is using the wrong fork.  As with their coreligionists in the Church of England and the US Episcopal Church, the gray haired congregation of St James would be perfectly content if we were singing Abide with Me, the jellied salads made by the ladies “for after” kept their form, and legions of children sat in Sunday school, obediently well scrubbed.  However, the congregation is dwindling death by faithful death.  The feeling of loss is palpable in the plastered sanctuary walls.  In contrast there is a beat of hope in the music.Kapernaumskirken_Copenhagen_pews

I have no affiliation to St. James.  I’m here because I love jazz. I welcome North America’s collective evolution toward post-Christianity.  But along with the very elderly church elders, I mourn every time I see an old church demolished or sold off as a B&B or vacation home, pews reinstalled in a pub, fixtures auctioned off to the highest bidder.  I think of the hard working bricklayers and carpenters who built St. James in a pre Health and Safety, work-booted era.  When they dropped bricks on their toes, or hit their thumbs with hammers, they were injured for posterity.

As I am swept up in Oscar Peterson, I realize, other people feel this way.  In common with the St. James congregation, free-thinkers and Pagans, meditators and philosophers, other non-Christians of all sorts, feel kind of bad when old churches fall on hard times.  Thus we have Jazz Vespers instead of Sunday Evening Hymn Sing.  The pianist is playing soul-grabbing, secular songs because the people of St. James want more people to gather in this sacred space, and the people have come.  There is little mention of Jesus.

A very few churches have navigated through turbulent waters to post-Christianity.  Universalist Unitarians remain trailblazers, torches in hands.  The congregation of West Hill United Church in Toronto is thriving under the leadership of its atheist minister, Gretta Vosper.  A few purse-gretta-vosperlipped United Church stalwarts complain that the flamboyantly out-of-the-closet atheist should resign from Christian ministry but the rock of St. Peter still lies solidly under her feet.  Turns out people want to gather in community for sacred ritual and potlucks With or Without God (incidentally the title of Vosper’s how-to manual on creating godless churches).  And then there is yoga.

My mind wanders with the music.  I know I’m being a tacky guest.  It’s as if I am mentally turning a china plate to see the maker’s crest at a fancy supper.  But I think to myself… What would Led Zeppelin’s Your Time is Gonna Come sound like on the St. James pipe organ?  Is there enough space on the lawn for a community garden?  Could philosophy nights or workshops on living the examined life replace scripture study?  I wonder if there is a gym in the basement. Could we wrench out a couple of these tortuous pews to make space for meditation cushions or yoga?  The pews would be effective customer movers in a fast food restaurant or cafe…

How under heaven has the Christian era has lasted approximately twenty centuries?  The Christian manual for living (the Bible) offers questionable lifestyle advice.  The leadership delivers doctrine in long-winded, high-handed lectures (sermons).  Some of the rituals are exclusive and preposterous (Catholic communion).  What has kept the sheep in the flocks for so long?  My theory is that people want to gather with other people in beautiful buildings.

So fellow Naturalistic Pagans, I ask: Could you see yourselves gathering in an old, repurposed church?  Does anyone have any experience in trying such an experiment? I’m all ears.

Renee Lehnen

ReneeLRenee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”


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4 Comments on “Post Christian Sacred Spaces, by Renee Lehnen

  1. The architecture of churches often reflects their theology. Soaring gothic cathedrals of Catholics and high-churchers stretching toward heaven. Box pews in old New England Protestant worship houses with raised platforms at the front from which the minister can throw the Book at a captive audience.

    My own UU congregation is very emotionally tied to its late-19th century chapel with it’s uncomfortable original wooden pews. Recently, one of our more adventurous congregants led a service and moved the pews. It set people off. They had all kinds of explanations, including that the pews were too old to be moved. But I think the reality was a deep-seated unconscious fear of change.
    Changing physical space signals a call for deeper change. I’d like to see my UU congregation abandon that space — for a number of reasons. Near the top of the list is that I think it has us tied to antiquated ways of doing church.

    If Naturalistic Pagans were to gather, we would have to use existing spaces out of necessity, at least at first. If we gathered in repurposed churches, I think we would need to consciously resist the psychological gravitational pull of the architecture. Ideally, though, we could create new structures that better reflect our theology.

    Just off the top of my head, how about a circular building instead of a square one for example? And what about a living tree growing in the center, toward a large skylight in a domed roof, through which the stars can be viewed at night. And no f#$%ing pews! Sitting spaces will be provided by those with mobility challenges, but worship is done either sitting on the ground or on meditation pillows or on our feet, moving around.

  2. The article on box pews is interesting. They are common in old Anglican churches here as well, though I think they were built that way more to demarcate family territory and status, and less so against drafts (even in this land of cold winters). The other Protestant denominations generally used bench pews, no doors.
    In your description of circular churches, I am reminded of a Ukrainian Orthodox church that I went to for a funeral a few years ago. The people standing in attendance still faced the priest at one side, but the space seemed more flexible with its circular design and open space, no pews.
    Our UU congregation is new enough and small enough that we arrange the chairs in a circle. We meet in an old re-purposed brick school (kind of a community hub for families) with grand maples lining the boundaries of the grounds. It has its own spiritual tug. Some people have expressed trepidation at meeting in an old church as they have made a break from Christianity and still carry some baggage.
    If old churches were to be renovated for Pagans, Free-Thinkers, etc. more than the pews would have to be re-arranged. The pulpit, perhaps, is a dysfunctional set-up for addressing people who are sharing one’s spiritual journey in a congregation or other group. And all that beautiful stained glass… haunting and compelling, but so much of the imagery isn’t really compatible with post-Christian spirituality. Still, I’d love to hear of old churches that are now used for non-Christian sacred spaces. Was the church renovated? If so, how?

  3. Yes, good points, John (and Renee). My UU church was built in 1954, and is open and flexible with chairs (not pews) – though a bit sterile. I agree that the architecture reflects the purpose (&”theology” – need a better word) of the place. We’ve often arranged it in a circle (especially when we in CUUPS get to run a service), and I like the circular setup for the reasons you point out. During those times, we still often have a person speaking, and so we set it up with the speaker on the circle, and no chairs behind or very close to the speaker – it still works well. We had it set up that way for the Samhain ritual here (, though it is kinda hard to see. Check out this UU church, which looks to me to be a step in the right direction for modern sacred spaces – North Shore Unitarian Church (google). I can’t wait to see Naturalistic Pagan sacred spaces appear! For about 20 years I’ve been kicking around the dream of making a Pagan place – getting people together to buy a little land (preferably with a slight hill), and making a stone circle on the hilltop to be used by any Pagans within driving distance. Or more grand – a hilltop with a circular ritual place, with the stones extending down into the ground and into a circular, indoor ritual space, allowing rituals during inclement weather, and outdoor rituals above on the earthen “roof”, all within the same circle of stones! You might remember discussing this at Pantheacon with Mark Green present – I pointed out the larger Pagan community in California there, and the many hilltops around us then, and he mentioned that those are all very expensive. Darn. Just due to numbers, I’d expect these to initially be communities of all types of Pagans to be able to have enough support to exist. But maybe I’m wrong about that – maybe explicitly more narrow groups (such as an Asatru group, a Wiccan group, a Naturalistic group, etc) would give the energy and focus needed to allow them to happen? I have seen some Pagan groups getting things like this moving, such as this one:

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