A while ago, I wrote a paper about James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace and how we might interpret it – and other artworks and forms of architecture – using a Wittgensteinian-style analysis of how people use the spaces. Following Wittgenstein’s way of speaking about language, I called this a grammatical investigation. Among other things, I said that the spatial grammar of the Deer Shelter Skyspace, with its four benches around the sides, was related to the grammar of many Quaker meetings, in which we tend to sit in a circle, oval, or – if using benches – a square or rectangle.
I was reminded of this by two things recently. Firstly, I was at a conference where lots of progressive, liberal church people were hanging out, and one of the cultural touchstones of such spaces is a joke about how hard it is to get people to swap pews for chairs. I’m sure that some of this plays out differently in different contexts, so I don’t want to explore it in detail here – although I will note that changing the furniture in a Quaker meeting house can be a vexing question – but the topic did make me think about the visual impression given by different church arrangements. Even if you arrange chairs in a series of lines so that their use is much the same as pews, everyone facing the front, the connotations of pews are different – if we were talking about language, this would be like choosing an archaic rather than a modern term for the same thing. The feeling of entering a church with pews is consequently different (and more so if you are reasonably fluent in the language of church furniture – individually hand carved wood, Victorian replacements, actual box pews, gated pews, open benches, etc., all convey history and style to the trained eye).
I’m sure people have many reasons for wanting to keep their pews, and this will not explain all of them (resistance to change in general, for example), but it’s something to bear in mind. Especially in a time when very traditional church worship – such as the sung services offered at cathedrals – are attracting increased attendance, even ordinary parish churches might have strong reasons for maintaining this image. (Or they might not. Actually attending a service can be very different to visiting a church at other times; a church with which I am acquainted has some pews at the front and then chairs. Everyone – apart from the choir, who are miles away on benches near the altar – clusters at the back, leaving the pews for the hapless few who arrive for a parade service as part of the uniformed organisations. Gated pews are good for controlling Brownies. Being sectioned off from the rest of the congregation isn’t good for joining in with the service. Digression over.)
The other thing which made me return to this idea of the grammar of space was a realisation about my own patterns of imagining. The rest of this paragraph sounds completely dotty, even in my head, so be warned, but I think it’s relevant. I was thinking about how and specifically where I imagine Jesus. Suppose I’m thinking about a question like ‘what would Jesus say/do about climate change?’ In the past, the Jesus I have imagined asking this question to has always been directly in front of me – confrontational, like an interview, but also like a church, where there’s often a powerful image at the front, on or over the altar. I’d never noticed this as such until one day during worship I found myself imagining/experiencing Jesus sitting next to me instead. In a circle, I’m sort of next to everyone – I might be opposite Barbara, but I’m next to Bob who is next to Jane who is next to whoever, all the way around to Barbara. More intriguingly, a Jesus imagined sitting next to me gives different (and still, I assume for this purpose, imaginary) answers to a Jesus imagined standing in front. I think that both can be given Gospel foundations, but I find the existence of that difference fascinating.
The implication I am inclined to draw from this is that the grammar of space can affect our social and spiritual relationships. (You could make the point about the social quite easily without reference to imaginary Jesus; I bring that story in because I am also interested in the effect of spatial relations on spiritual experience.) Even if you don’t have furniture as such – like Pagan groups who meet outside, for example – choices like where to stand (most Pagans stand in circles, in my experience, apart from the OTO, who are willing to cart furniture up mountains and over moors), and whether to stand or to sit, and where leaders should speak from, can all make a huge amount of difference. A God who appears in the centre of a circle feels different from one who is at the front feels different again from one who is alongside you. Where do your G/god/s arrive?