Spatial Awareness

One of the little spin off controversies during lockdown has been around the question of where to live-stream church services from. Initially some churches broadcast from their buildings. The aim was to give a sense of continuity for unsettled congregations. In some cases, it also made sense because prior to the full, tighter lockdown it was possible for larger churches to use the onsite resources to provide music and a better quality production than we can manage sat in front of our laptops on Facebook live.

My preference from the start, despite those factors was to go straight for the option of filming from home. Many others went with that option too.  In my case, it was partly enforced. I was in self-isolation due to having COVID-19 type symptoms. However, I also felt that we had to be clear that there had been a change, continuity would be through people and the message of God’s Word, not through buildings. I also felt that in our case, it would be odd for me to be talking down the lens from a lectern when I could sit and chat and also that the atmosphere of an empty church hall would change the dynamics some what (even the acoustics would change without 50 people in the room).

The controversy has come because the Church of England introduced rules stating that vicars could not even enter their buildings to film removing that option from them.  This led to an outcry from some who saw it as essential to be able to lead services from their buildings. Offense was caused to some when live streaming from home was dismissed as “kitchen table eucharists.” It was further suggested that the reason that some of us did not get the importance of live streaming from our buildings was that we lacked a theology of space.

I want to come to that issue of “theology of  space” because I think it links to a wider, more long term issue.  In the Bible, there are places that are clearly identified as “holy.”  Specifically, the Temple is holy but also the places where people encounter God so that Moses is told to take off his sandals because he is on holy ground when he encounters God at the burning bush. I guess we could consider the Garden of Eden as another “holy place.”

Some have translated this into the concept of sacred spaces today. In some traditions, buildings are consecrated for religious service as are grave yards (it was a big deal in the past if you were not allowed to be buried in the consecrated grave yard at the church building). There is also talk of “thin spaces” where we are some-how mystically transports us closer to heaven.

So what are we to make of this idea of a “theology of place.” Well, when people suddenly declare that others lack “a theology of…” that the grand sounding words are cover for three things

  • They are emotionally attached to something, they like it but feel uncomfortable saying that it is just their preference. They need to justify it.
  • They don’t like what others do but again need to frame that in theological language otherwise it just sounds a little petty.
  • They want to sound learned but in fact don’t have a thought out Biblically rooted theology themselves.

So on the one hand, I’m wary of this rush to find theologies of things. On the other hand, my theology must enable me to understand and respond to all aspects of life in a godly, gospel centred way. So in that sense, yes we can talk about a theology of space. At this point we realise that this means actually we all do have such a theology, the question is whether it is right or wrong, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.

So, what is involved in such a theology?

I would start by thinking in terms of the three big Biblical Theology themes we trace through the Bible, that God’s people are called to live in his land (place) under his rule and blessing.

The significance of place in the Old Testament focuses first and foremost on the land of Israel. This was where God’s people were to live under his blessing. To be exiled from the land was to be under curse, away from his blessing and therefore spiritually dead. It is worth noting alongside this that Scripture is clear that there is nowhere that we can run from God’s presence and that his compassion, love and mercy reach far and wide.  It is not that somehow the people could leave God’s blessing and presence by travelling, it was the specific act of exile as judgement (individually or on a nation) that brought about the removal of blessing.

In the land, altars were set up and specifically there was the centralised worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was a house for God’s name, a symbolic indicator of his presence with his people but also the place where God chose to physically display his manifest presence (the Shekinah).  Link this with Moses’ encounter at the burning bush. It is not that those places were holy and therefore God was present in a special way there. Rather, the places where God manifested his presence were classified as holy because of the way in which he was present there.

Fast forward to the New Testament and what are the key messages? Well, think about how Jesus promises that the meek will inherit the earth, talks about the coming of God’s kingdom and explains to the woman at the well that God’s people won’t worship in a specific place but in spirit and in truth.

Sacred space is not now at fixed points but wherever God’s people are. How is that possible? Well, Jesus takes on the imagery of the Temple to describe himself.

  • He is the sacrificial lamb -you don’t need to go to Jerusalem
  • In John 7 he employs the imagery of the Temple from Ezekiel 37 – out of him will flow streams of living water.
  • He speaks of himself when he says that the Temple will be destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days.

Then we are told by Paul that as well as the Holy Spirit indwelling us, we are in Christ. Jesus himself becomes the place where God’s presence and blessing are known.

There is of course a future home, when Christ returns.  Notice that in that context, the end of Revelation portrays the Church as the New Jerusalem.

So, if we are going to talk about a Theology of Space then we need to see that everything the Old Testament said about places and “the place” was providing a type looking forward to God’s presence with his people (the Church) everywhere. Sacred space is wherever God’s people are living out their lives in obedient worship to him.

It means that our kitchens and our workplaces are no less holy, no less special, no more distant from God than our church buildings, mountain tops in Scotland or Islands off the North East coast.

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