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Finding sermons in the stones

30 September 2016

Places of prayer can inspire our worship, in themselves, William Whyte learns

Come Into the Light: Church interiors for the celebration of liturgy
Daniel McCarthy and James Leachman
Canterbury Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10



SCHOLARS of liturgy have a bad name — even among Christians. Everyone must know the old Anglican joke: “What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?” “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

For some people, liturgical experts — with their rules, and examples, and exacting standards — are indeed terrifying. For others, an interest in the liturgy seems arcane or downright prissy, something far removed from the serious business of mission. Either way, whether out of fear of getting it wrong or lack of interest in getting it right, many of us seem disinclined to take liturgists seriously.

This book, which collects together a series of articles first published in The Tablet, may help change some people’s minds. Setting out a Catholic — and sometimes an explicitly Roman Catholic — vision of worship, it probably won’t convince the more self-consciously Protestant. Drawing inspiration from Vatican II, it may also prove indigestible for some ultramontane Anglo-Catholics.

But each of these short chapters, with their helpful examples, interesting reflections, and questions for further discussion, should serve as a provocation for parishes to take their worship, and the buildings within which they worship, more seriously than perhaps they do at present.

There are moments, it must be said, when the fact that this is a collection of occasional pieces does show. There are many repetitions, some redundancy, and occasionally a sense that the text was written in response to specific events. It’s not a book to be read in one sitting. None the less, it is a book that deserves reading. It is full of interest and insights into the purpose of church buildings, and how best they might be used.

For Anglicans, some of these themes will be familiar from the work of Richard Giles (who provides a generous foreword). This is especially true of the authors’ insistence on the need to preside and preach from a president’s chair. Others — such as the emphasis on the placing of the font, on processional movement, on the revival of the ambo — can be traced back to still earlier liturgical reformers.

Much of this, though, has been forgotten or was, perhaps, never really understood at the time. These ideas, and the belief that well-appointed, well-organised sacred space can draw worshippers into a transformative encounter with God, do need addressing, especially now, when so many congregations are reordering their churches.

Come into the Light seeks to show that buildings are more than just containers for worship; that they have an active part to play in communicating spiritual truth, and mediating human perceptions of the Divine. Its publication is thus heartening, for it speaks of a renewed attempt to make more sense of the places in which we worship. That can only be a good thing.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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