Making space

The use of ritual in church

Ideally church would seem to be not so much about filling time as creating space. Space for people to be, to breathe and to grow. Is this what prayer truly is - space making? Does prayer create a space in another dimension, in a parallel world? Only parallel means ‘beside’ and to say of prayer, or things of God, that it is alongside, above or even all around, unavoidably uses prepositions. Is prayer really about becoming aware of the all-pervasiveness of God, a God who fills the world, like air? Or is it about the spaciousness of God, the sense of coming in to a great cathedral; amazed at the grandeur yet at the same time released from our small confines.

It seems as if filling space is the way of the world, as if, without realizing it, people must fill, clutter, build, particularly at religious festivals when there’s the addition of cards, presents, paraphernalia and noise. As churches empty their chancels to emphasise space for Advent, so the shops and towns are quickly filling as if they are building a flood wall against high tides of spirituality breaking over them. They’d lose customers.

What goes on in church can seem so many - too many - words, and often wrong; at a superficial level merely information or rules about God. Liturgy though, evolves through repetition over generations, continuously said as people are born, add their voice to it then die away. It involves. This is of greater purpose than being able to explain. In church the altar, the central focus of God can become a reflection of the God within, temporarily externalized through the rituals of the service then reabsorbed. For example, the ancient and often meaningless ritual of matins becomes valuable because it’s a noise for your mind to make while your spirit listens. So ‘Our Father which art in heaven’ is no longer a reminder of God’s remote postal code but an awareness that ‘Heaven’ is within us and can be understood as full consciousness, wholeness, the place of reconciliation.

For the moment these familiar said prayers are the community, the church; they are as pillars, living stones, living architecture. The congregation is only part of the building, like stone and woodwork creaking into place, settling itself. Newcomers may understand liturgy, for now, as the noise in the central heating, the hiss of the urn for after-church coffee, the rain on the roof. The voices are the strength of the stone, the solidity of the walls; the choir is the glory of the fan vaulting and the angels in the rafters. Within this space you are safe. The church is singing into being round you and presently you will find you are coming into being in it. By then you will be familiar with the words and the ritual and can add your voice, your stone to this creating of a space for others.

Ann R Parker
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 15th December 2002