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Sunday Worship 26 June | Sacred Spaces: chapel

Updated: Mar 18

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 150 (NIV)
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.

As we continue our series on sacred spaces, this week our focus is on ‘Chapel: a place of public worship’. George Lings uses the language of chapel because that is what the place of public worship in a monastery is called, but we might more usually speak of the place where we gather to worship as ‘church’. Or perhaps we might talk of ‘sanctuary’ if we are wanting to be more precise about this part of our larger building.


I originally studied English at university, and I have long been fascinated by the particularities and peculiarities of language. In other traditions, the sanctuary is the space around the altar, and only those with specific permission may enter it. Having been to other church buildings and seen polite little notices asking people not to go any further, or come up against altar rails with the gate firmly pulled shut, it is hugely significant to me that we call the whole of this space the sanctuary, that there are no signs or rails and no one has to seek specific permission. When Jesus died the temple curtain was torn in two so there was no longer any barrier to the Holy of Holies, so while I respect other theologies and other understandings of what it means for something or somewhere to be sacred, it seems right to me that the sanctuary is a place that is open to everyone.


The word chapel is used differently in different contexts too. In some free church traditions, chapel is synonymous with church, and in fact many Baptist churches are still called chapels. More often though, a chapel denotes a place of worship which is part of a wider complex, perhaps a distinct space in a school or prison or hospital, or a small space within a larger ecclesial building. The larger cathedrals have lots of chapels shooting off the sides or tucked away in corners, often offering different focuses for prayer and worship. Coventry Cathedral, for example, has a Chapel of Unity which is designed to encourage ecumenical and global prayer, a Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane which feels a little like a cave and invites private introspection, and a Chapel of Christ the Servant which has an almost 360 degree view out of its large windows and so connects the life of the cathedral to the life of the city. It is quite striking how different the atmosphere is in each chapel, and it’s a powerful reminder of the way in which our prayer and worship can be shaped by our surroundings.


As Lings puts it, “spaces, their locations and shapes, all matter”. The way we use spaces matters too. I may have shared this before, but this space is one of the things that first drew me to Stoneygate Baptist Church. From the moment I walked through the doors it felt familiar and so I felt at ease. I think that was in part because it reminded me of the church I grew up in. That feels like a ridiculous thing to say given that we met in a school hall which looked absolutely nothing like this, but the tables set out at the back and the kitchen and play areas in the corners told me that this was a space where all of life could happen, something that was also true of my childhood church. Having spent some of the intervening years in a church where the children spent hardly any time in the sanctuary and tea and coffee was served from a trolley with everyone squeezed into the aisle or uncomfortably twisting around in their seats, this generous and shared use of space felt like a homecoming and a relief.


The generous and shared nature of the way we use this space means it is not just our Chapel, our place of worship. Most obviously it is also our Refectory, our place of hospitality. I can understand that for some people there will be an impulse to keep a greater separation between the different spaces, to maintain Chapel as a place that is purely for worship, with everything in it intended to direct our attention towards God, but for me there is something significant about the overlap. Lings talks about a church he was part of which began by serving drinks, so that worship flowed out of as well as into hospitality, and it got me wondering if it would change our worship if we likewise made more of the opportunity to begin as well as end with hospitality. What would happen if we arrived a little earlier and took a seat at a table rather than in a row, so that we were called to prayer out of our conversations or even games?



So far I’ve mostly talked about Chapel as the physical space in which we worship, but I want to invite us to think now about the worship itself. In some church cultures worship is used as shorthand for singing. It is of course much broader than that, bringing together all of the activity that focuses our attention and our senses on God, but let’s take music as a starting point. I have something of a troubled relationship with sung worship, which will of course shape my understanding and approach.


When I was ten I started playing in the church worship band and so for six years I sang very little, then when I was unceremoniously dumped because I couldn’t make the new weekly rehearsal, I found I couldn’t sing at all and sung worship became a source of great distress. When we moved on from that church I found myself in contexts where the worship was rehearsed to perfection and I felt like I was being invited to sing along to a professional performance, which made me so uneasy that I simply stopped going to church for three months. And then at college I found myself in a much more charismatic community, and I reacted against the enthusiasm and ease of expression shown by my peers by becoming more reserved and inwardly grumbling about bad theology in song lyrics.


All of this means that while I do sometimes have a profound response to sung worship, it’s not always a positive one. I’m not entirely sure why I’m admitting to all of this, except that it may resonate with someone else, and I want you to hear that you are not alone and it is okay. You are not doing Chapel wrong if the singing leaves you cold, although I still think it is an important part of shared worship, and there is good reason to stick with it. Not least, it invites us to become active participants, gives expression to our faith, and unites us in a shared response. You may feel a bit silly waving your arms around to Our God is a Great Big God, but I cannot tell you how much joy it brings me to see you joining in with a song Eddie is always so excited to sing with his church family. And there have been times when I have struggled to sing, but I have felt carried by the voices around me. I also remember a piece of wisdom I received as a teenager, which reminded me that God is always worthy of our praise, whether we feel like offering it or not, which is why you may detect a theme of praise through this morning’s readings and songs.



Interestingly, singing gets barely a mention in Lings’ chapter on Chapel. As he is drawing primarily on the monastic tradition, the focus is on liturgical prayer (used here to mean set words which are used in a regular pattern, often taken from a service book and shared across a tradition) which has not traditionally been a significant part of Baptist worship. I’m told that some early Baptist services didn’t even include the reading of scripture, out of a belief that everything shared should be spontaneous. Having grown up in an Anglican church, I am perhaps more comfortable with structured and repeated prayers than the average Baptist minister, and I do believe there is value in them. Saying the same words each day or each week can help us to learn prayers by heart so that we can carry them with us, and when the same words are spoken and written they are accessible to both those who cannot read them and those who cannot hear them. Terry Waite wrote about how the prayers he had learnt in church sustained him during the time he was held hostage, and Eddie began to repeat parts of the Lord’s Prayer long before he could recognise the words on screen.


Lings suggests that “liturgical prayer works like a door”. The point is not to admire the poetry of the text or be bored by its length, but to “pass through the words to the meaning and the person of God behind the meaning”. I think what he is trying to say is that liturgy is not an end but a means. Simply saying the Lord’s Prayer is not enough, we must commit to seeking God’s kingdom and forgiving those who sin against us each time we pray it. Lings also notes that in monastic communities, the structure demanded by the daily office means that members of the community are called to prayer whether they like it or not, and are called together whether they like one another or not. It is a reminder that the presence of God is to be found and the needs of the other are to be met regardless of how we feel about them, and that is true of our gathered worship whether we use a full and formal liturgy or not.


Lest we become too focused on the particularities of the Chapel, let us not forget that it is just one of the seven sacred spaces we are considering, and it needs to be held in balance. Just as we need Cell because we need time alone with God, so we need Chapel because we need time with God in community. Worshipping with others brings connection and encouragement and wisdom we cannot find apart, and those things bring meaning and purpose to the rest of the sacred spaces, and indeed all other spaces that we occupy. As a present-day abbess puts it, “we must regularly seek to find God in one time and space that enables us to recognise God more easily in every other one”. Our worship here should not condense God into a neat hour on a Sunday morning, but reveal the presence of God in every other hour of our lives.


I feel like I have mostly waffled about my thoughts on church buildings and congregational singing and liturgical prayer, but I hope that sharing my own reflections might prompt reflections of your own. If those reflections lead to thoughts about how we might adapt or develop our shared worship, please do share them. One thing I haven’t spoken about this morning but which is in my mind is the extent to which Chapel needs to be a physical space. We had to discover new ways to draw together in worship while we couldn’t meet in the building, and I’m not sure we have yet learnt everything we might about how we can continue to include those who can’t be in the same time and space, so I would love to know if you have any thoughts on that. I realise I haven’t touched on the readings we heard either, but I hope they speak for themselves about the joys of gathered community and the call to praise God. I will draw to a close now, and invite you to join in some liturgical prayer from the Northumbria Community.


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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