A blank canvas does not carry much meaning as a work of art until the artist begins to use lines to create shapes and figures, separating each section of the painting from the others. A place, much like a work of art, is endowed with definition—and therefore, with meaning— by its history and purpose.
Walter Brueggemann, retired Old Testament scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary attributes to human nature the tendency to sanctify a certain space as a sacred place. “Place is a space which has historical meaning,” he says,“where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued.”
That place is a space with accumulated meaning is no less true about a family living room than it is about a church sanctuary. Each has its own history and has been set apart for a particular purpose. It is precisely the act of setting spaces apart that allow them to be sacred. Frederic Debuyst, Belgian architect, author and monk, defines the Christian church building as “a Paschal meeting room, a place where the assembled community experiments and exercises the full impact of the Paschal Mystery. This reference to the central event of our faith, in its always renewed Eucharistic expression . . . is and remains the specific note which distinguishes the Christian church from any other religious or secular building.”
For this reason, the pastors of Aldersgate Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and of Heartsong Church of Cordova, Tennessee, should have said no when approached by Islamic groups wanting use their churches for prayer. This is not because I do not respect their need for a place to worship. I do. I understand the importance of sacred religious places, and a church sanctuary is not a multi-purpose room, but a room dedicated to the worship of the Triune God. A sacred space is, by definition, set apart for a particular use. For Anglicans (like myself), as well as for Lutherans and Catholics, a church sanctuary is even more than a room reserved for corporate worship. It is, as Debuyst noted, the Pascal meeting room. It is the space where the Eucharist is celebrated—where the Real Presence of Christ is in the bread and wine, the remains of which may be kept in the tabernacle at the front of the church long after the Sunday service is over. This only serves to underscore what all Christian sanctuaries have in common: they are the space used for the worship of the Triune God.
But why does it matter if the space is used by another group who also wants to participate in their own religious acts of worship? I am sympathetic, and I understand that, to the extent that religious worship would be taking place, the sacredness of the space would be maintained. However, as blank canvas has no meaning without definition, so space cannot remain sacred for long, once lines are removed. Philip Bess, director of graduate studies and professor of architecture at Notre Dame, summarizes this line of thinking well: “A sense of the sacred therefore necessarily seems to include a sense of prohibition as a precondition.”
John Bergsma, associate professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, makes a similar assertion, that sacred places should be distinguished. Removing the distinction of sacred spaces does not lead to the sanctification of all space, but to its profanation—now no place is sacred because there are no limits.
And this position that conveys dignity to all other groups as well. Allowing another group to use Christian worship space for their purposes would not only violate our space, but would also be demeaning to them and their own understanding of sacred space. That action would convey that others are, in fact, so unimportant, that we would allow them to violate our sacred traditions; they are not relevant enough to threaten our customs.
My position is not so much about who to keep out, as it is about what to keep in. It is not that I care too little about others. It is precisely because Christians and Muslims alike believe that devout worship matters, that I would insist on remembering the sacredness of space.