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Book review: Shaping the Assembly: How our buildings form us in worship, edited by Thomas O’Loughlin

03 November 2023

John Inge ponders the changes and chancels of this worshipping life

WHEN asked whether he was interested in liturgy, it is said that my namesake W. R. Inge, “the gloomy Dean”, replied: “No, and neither do I collect postage stamps.” Though they might not be to everyone’s taste, as someone who is fascinated by liturgy, buildings, and place in general, I found this collection of essays compelling and absorbing.

As the title suggests, they address a vital question: how do our buildings form us in worship? As Winston Churchill famously remarked, we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Nowhere is this truer than in buildings made for worship, though we might not even recognise that it is happening.

The book began on the edges of a 2019 liturgical conference in Durham, when participants observed that writing on church architecture tends to pay no attention to liturgy and vice versa. These 19 essays by architects, liturgists, experts on space and movement, theologians, and pastors, from a variety of denominations and all of whom have interests beyond their speciality, attempt to bring them together. It is a very worthwhile project.

A century or so since the first stirrings of the Liturgical Movement is perhaps a good time to reflect on the massive changes in liturgy and the use of church buildings which it has wrought. At its best, it has facilitated “the gradual discovery of liturgy as an enabling and transforming power in people’s loves, rather than a ritual to attend and observe”.

It has, though, meant that all our older churches, which were built for eastward-facing celebration of the eucharist, are now generally ordered for the presiding priest to face west. What effect has this had? I particularly appreciated Paul Bradshaw’s characteristically insightful reflections on the question. It is worth remembering, as he points out, that the Last Supper and early eucharistic worship would not have been celebrated at a table, but sitting on the ground.

Worked examples aid reflection, and this is particularly true of George Guiver’s piece on the Community Church at Mirfield and Bridget Nichols’s on her experience as a bishop’s chaplain. Tom Elich gives some varied examples of new Australian churches, and Laura Helston has interesting things to say on the relationship between dance and theology.

I should have appreciated more engagement with the effect of place on human experience in general, but that is a personal hobby horse. The essays are varied, but all of interest. In his foreword, the editor quotes his favourite “one-liner” on the importance of liturgical special awareness: “‘Space . . . the final frontier…’ Sacred Space: the ultimate frontier.” Amen.

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.


Shaping the Assembly: How our buildings form us in worship
Thomas O’Loughlin, editor
Messenger Publications £23
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

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