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Sunday Worship 14 August | Sacred Spaces: in our shared life

Updated: Mar 18

Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Having reflected on all seven of the sacred spaces identified by George Lings from his experience of monastic communities, I want to take a couple of weeks to look at them all together and ask how we already experience them and how we might develop them. Six of the seven are shared spaces and so I want to start by thinking from a shared perspective, asking where these spaces are already expressed in our church life and how they might be expressed better. Much of what I say this morning will have been considered as we thought about each individual space, but I hope it helps to bring it all together.

We’ll go through the spaces in the same order we first approached them, so we will start with CELL: a place of private prayer. This is the one space that is not shared, being a private place in which we take time alone with God, and so it is perhaps not so obvious where this sits within church life, but I do think there is a place for community in our experience of cell. Mike and I used to worship with a woman who for a time belonged to the only order of Baptist nuns in the country, and she said the thing she most missed about monastic life was the sense of being alone together. It was a precious thing for her to pray by herself but knowing she did so alongside others, and I think there is something really significant we can learn there about creating a culture and atmosphere which encourages prayer. That’s why I often leave space for quiet contemplation in services, and why the bookcase near the piano is set up with books and other materials intended to encourage prayer and rest and reflection. My hope is that there is always a place within this shared space that affords the chance for personal devotion.


Next we come to CHAPEL: a place of public worship, and it’s rather clearer how this is expressed for us as a church. It is the space in which we gather to worship through prayer and song and reading of scripture and reflection on faithful living, and just as for monastic communities it is a large part of what unites us. We may have different understandings of and responses to what takes place in services, but our shared worship means that we are meeting on and starting from common ground. I have often spoken of chapel as the place where the whole family meets, and the truth is that like any family gathering it will be both enriching and infuriating - although I hope more often the former than the latter! And like any family gathering, it should be a place where everyone pitches in, offering their gifts and their ideas. We've had brilliant contributions from Dorothy and Sue and Mike as part of this series, and I was delighted when Fiona suggested teaching a round as part of cafe church, and Marion's prayer before communion was a really holy moment last week, and I hope that encourages more folk to take part in leading worship because everyone has a blessing to bring. I also want to think back to the description of chapel as a place for public worship, because we shouldn't think only about the community that is here now, but about everyone who may walk through the doors. We must always give thought to how accessible we are, how we can shift and grow to make room for others, and how we speak of and hold space for God in our community.


And now on to CHAPTERHOUSE: a place for decision making. For us that is the church meeting, and I think it is a real strength of our tradition that we regularly set aside time to talk about our shared life and to seek the will of God together. In practice church meetings can be difficult to get right, but in principle I love them because they have the potential to be really exciting times of prayer and imagination. One of the questions Lings offers at the end of his chapter on chapterhouse is ‘What makes the meetings called to decide things inspiring and transformative?’ and I love the assumption that meetings will be inspiring and transformative. I wonder what might happen if we started every meeting with that same assumption. It was great to hear from Dorothy about the similarities between cooperatives and Baptist churches, and to be reminded that both give voice to those who may not be heard elsewhere. It is crucial that our meetings are places where everyone feels able to speak and is confident that they have been heard.


The fourth space is the CLOISTER: a place of interaction. I think for us this largely overlaps with the refectory, as it is over cups of tea and plates of food that so many of our encounters happen, but I love the idea that the cloister is a place where unexpected conversation may happen, and so I want to encourage us to be open to unexpected conversations, whether that means talking to those we perhaps don’t talk to every week, or asking a few more questions than normal, or sharing a bit more openly about how our week has been. I also wonder if there is more potential for interactions between the various groups that use this building. We may not bump into each other in the usual run of things, but perhaps we can make more effort to invite the groups to things like the Great Big Green Harvest Festival, and I have long thought about a community noticeboard in the hall so that those who use the space are more aware of each other, and perhaps feel a little more connected.


Next is GARDEN: a place of work. The whole of church life can be a place of labour, and a huge amount is given in time and skill and effort to this fellowship, for which I am endlessly grateful. Sunday mornings, Wellbeing Cafe, Messy Church, one off events...none of it would happen without us working together. But the work we do here is not just for the church but for the kingdom, and so I think it links into work away from the building, most of all our justice work. Through prayer and campaigning we work together for the good of the whole world. We reflected on work at house group this week, and we acknowledged that there are many for whom work is exploitative, and wondered if there were ways in which we could seek to ensure that everyone has access to work that pays fairly and offers meaning. Fairtrade is certainly part of that, but I will be looking out for other campaigns and initiatives, so that our work can benefit others’ work.


The penultimate space is REFECTORY: a place for hospitality. For us the refectory is largely created around the tables at the back of church where we gather each week for tea and coffee, although sometimes we may spill out into the hall or even the garden, as we hope to do for our picnic in a few weeks’ time. I love those occasions because there is something wonderful about the simple act of sitting down to eat and drink together, and I’m glad that many of the ideas we gathered at our church meeting in June involved eating together. As Jesus’ habit of eating with outcasts and Paul’s fury at the way the Corinthians segregated their meals show, table fellowship is meant to unite us across all differences and barriers, and it is a most excellent and enjoyable way of deepening relationships. We also offer hospitality to the wider community through the Wellbeing Cafe and Messy Church, and there is always a particular joy when people who join us as guests become hosts, feeling comfortable enough to help serve. As I suggested when we first reflected on refectory, our next step may be to consider how we as a church might go as guests into other spaces. Perhaps joining the march at Leicester Pride will be a start.


And finally we have SCRIPTORIUM: a place for study. Lings spoke of this in terms of the passing on of knowledge in a way that is not just information but transformation, and I hope that our services do make space for that. I’m not going to pretend that every sermon I deliver is a life changing event, but I do at least hope to encourage reflection and further thought in a way that resonates with this image of scriptorium. But it’s not just down to me as the person who most often has the microphone, and it is good that house group and cafe church offer the opportunity to hear and learn from one another, although the mutual sharing of knowledge does not need to be restricted to those times. One of the questions Lings offers at the end of scriptorium is an appeal for recommendations of theological books and podcasts and so on. It is good to share things that have inspired us, and perhaps we might find a spot on a noticeboard or in the Contact to facilitate that.


I’ve said a lot there and I don’t expect all of it to land with everybody, but I hope there will be one or two things that have stuck, perhaps a new gratitude for a way in which we express these spaces well, or an idea for how we might express these spaces better. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. These seven sacred spaces aren’t the only way to think about our shared life, but I do think they offer a vivid and varied picture of all that church can be, and I hope that recognising how they manifest for us will only enrich our experience of them.


If you would like to reflect more deeply on the sacred spaces we are exploring this summer, you can find reflection questions in the file below.

Stoneygate Baptist Church teaching series Summer 2022
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