Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space

Comments on:

Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship (Oxford University Press, 2008).


A great strength of this book is that it pays equal attention to architecture and liturgy throughout. It’s all too common to read either architectural history that concentrates entirely on the buildings as forms, without paying much attention to what happens inside them, or studies of liturgy and worship that treat the buildings as merely background, or containers, for worship.


A couple of the basic methodological choices are helpful as far as they go, but arguably also have limitations. First is the concern with “power.” Ever since Foucault (or maybe Hobbes & Machiavelli?), students are well-trained in understanding the operations of power, which typically means “force applied according to a will.”

The problem with “power” as a central concept is that it seems to leave no room for a realist understanding of the good of things, or of their nature. A judge dispensing justice, and a bandit robbing travelers, are both exercising “power.” A good parent, and an abusive parent, are both exercising “power.” Isn’t there a difference between the kind of “power” that oppresses its object, and the kind of “power” that allows its object to flourish and thrive?

“Power” in itself can offer no criterion for evaluating its own use, leading to the typical “vulgar undergraduate” analysis that whoever has power is probably the bad guy, and whoever doesn’t have power is probably the good guy, by virtue of being oppressed.

Related to this, it is hard to think of “power” except as a contest or struggle, and thus essentially zero-sum competition. If A wins, then B loses. Military battles, and electoral contests, would be prime examples. If A gains more power, then B loses power. To the Darwin-Marx-Foucault-Nietzsche way of thinking, most or all human relationships are basically organized this way, and thinking in other terms is probably just a ‘mask’ for the ‘real’ power relationships.

To be sure, Kilde’s sensitive account is not purely written according to the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’; my point is rather that the choice of ‘power’ as a key term leaves too little room for other kinds of relationship. It can’t just be the case, for example, that as the middle-class congregation gains power, the clergy loses power. Aren’t they all cooperating in some important sense?


It is easy to imagine modern readers booing and hissing, at all the accommodations that pre-modern churches made to rank and hierarchy: the emperor at the top, the nobility, the clergy, etc. Isn’t the biblical message an egalitarian one, opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble; raising the poor from the dust and the beggar from the dunghill, etc.?  Are earthly hierarchies really supposed to be reproduced in worship? It was interesting to note that according to Kilde, the Byzantine church buildings (p. 56) made less accommodation to the ‘earthly power’ of the emperor than did the Western churches. For further discussion… 


Another choice we might question is, in Kilde’s introduction, the contrast between the ‘believers” and the ‘scholars” account of sacred power, which is framed in terms of the ‘methodological naturalism’ which will be highly familiar to anyone who has taken a class in Biblical studies. (E.g. “The resurrection of Jesus? That’s something that ‘scholars’ can’t say anything about.”)

According to this contrast, while believers might describe their activities as responding to divine power, the (methodologically naturalist) scholar can only describe the believers’ activities as creating or generating that power. According to methodological naturalism, the scholar simply can’t say anything one way or the other, about whether divine power ‘really’ exists. All the scholar can do is point to what the believers are doing.

Certainly this is accurate as an account of the ‘rules of the game’ in the academy. But is it really correct or necessary to think this way? Imagine, if it is possible to do so, a believing Christian who is also a scholar. Is it not possible to integrate the scholarly account of believers’ activities in constructing a ‘sacred space,’ with an attempt to understand the reality of divine power?

Or, to think pluralistically–imagine a believing Christian scholar, and a devout Hindu scholar, writing accounts of each other’s religious practices. Neither one of these is ‘really’ a naturalist, in the sense of accepting a materialist account of reality. Both accept the reality of something beyond the purely material. So, why should they have to pretend, in their writing as ‘scholars,’ that the ‘divine power’ or ‘sacred space’ is entirely something created by the believing community?


This book is very impressive in covering everything from Dura-Europos to Ronchamp in not too many pages. The sheer variety of forms could, I think, be somewhat humbling to those in inter-denominational disputes, who might be inclined to say that ‘our way of worship is the right way to worship.’ That would certainly be the message of most liberal scholars, and seemingly includes this book as well. Who can say, really, that there is one ‘true church’ or one ‘true’ way to worship? I believe that Kilde also takes this line: that the diversity of Christian traditions proves there can’t be one “true church.”

And yet, that spirit of our age can make it too easy to overlook the true unity that exists among Christians, despite all the obvious divisions among them. For example, no one could mistake (almost) any of these buildings for a mosque, a synagogue, etc. But, stated more positively, there really are central elements of Christian worship held in common, despite all differences: Reading the scriptures; the bread and wine; baptism; and the burial of the dead. It’s true to say that wherever one finds Christians, one will find worship (and architecture) to accommodate these things. To be sure, we could point to many examples (in the book and outside it) that seem to deal inadequately with these or with other priorities. But that shouldn’t lead one to ignore the unity that actually exists!

Interesting to note that the 19th-century Gothic Revival in the U.S. (p. 166) communicated a kind of interdenominational unity among Protestants. 


Thinking about the form of worship according to the Anglican/Episcopal Book of Common Prayer–there are two parts, the first part devoted to the Word, and the second part devoted to the Eucharist. Both are important, and both are emphasized.

That leads me to wonder about the conflict Kilde identifies in Protestant architecture, between the pulpit and the altar as competing foci of attention (pp. 113-117). To be sure, if one assumes that every space must have only one focus, then it follows that having two foci will be a matter of conflict and competition. But I wonder if this alleged issue isn’t a byproduct of the (zero-sum, conflictual) idea of “power” that organizes the book’s account, discussed above.

Is it really a problem to have both a pulpit and an altar? Is there anything really wrong with having both? Wouldn’t that in fact be ideally suited for a form of worship that incorporates both Word and Sacrament, as in the BCP?


I also had mixed feelings about the development of the ‘auditorium church’ (pp. 157-159) and the absolute centrality of preaching in modern Protestant churches.  Preaching is good. Being able to hear the preacher is good. But is it possible to overemphasize this part of worship, at the expense of everything else?

Looking back to the earlier ancestors of the ‘auditorium churches’ — the absolutely preaching-centered, un-decorated ‘meeting houses’ of the Puritans, Quakers, etc. (see a few examples from the early colonial U.S. here) — there is a dignity and solemnity to these forms. You know you are in a serious place; it’s not just a hotel ballroom or office park campus. It does convey moral seriousness.


Aside from the core elements of worship mentioned above (bread and wine, scripture), in architectural terms, it is striking to see the constant importance of light throughout the book, from Hagia Sophia to Saarinen. Light has always been seen as central to how the divine mysteries are expressed in physical form. There is an argument that while Roman buildings were mainly concerned with their structure and substance, Byzantine churches used basically Roman building forms to create amazing light effects, for this very reason.

In thinking about the different uses of light, one wonders: how much of a difference does it make, if one believes that light is really an emanation of the divine, or if people just invent an idea of the divine, based on their experience of (merely) physical light?

If we quote a couple of the premodern observers of church building, it is perhaps not hard to see how their way of thinking inspired architecture (Byzantine, Gothic, etc.) that is quite different from its modern counterpart:

  • Rising above this into the immeasurable air is a helmet rounded on all sides like a sphere and, radiant as the heavens, it bestrides the roof of the church. At its very summit art has depicted a cross, protector of the city. It is a wonder to see how [the dome], wide below, gradually grows less at the top as it rises. It does not, however, form a sharp pinnacle, but is like the firmament which rests on air… The roof is compacted of gilded tesserae from which a glittering stream of golden rays pours abundantly and strikes men’s eyes with irresistible force. It is as if one were gazing at the midday sun in spring, when he gilds each mountain top. Paul the Silentiary on visiting Hagia Sophia in 563
  • But, what would any one say of the very ray of the sun? For the light is from the Good, and an image of the Goodness, wherefore also the Good is celebrated under the name of Light; as in a portrait the original is manifested.

    For, as the goodness of the Deity, beyond all, permeates from the highest and most honored substances even to the lowest, and yet is above all, neither the foremost outstripping its superiority, nor the things below eluding its grasp, but it both enlightens all that are capable, and forms and enlivens, and grasps, and perfects, and is measure of things existing, and age, and number, and order, and grasp, and cause, and end; so, too, the brilliant likeness of the Divine Goodness, this our great sun, wholly bright and ever luminous, as a most distant echo of the Good, both enlightens whatever is capable of participating in it, and possesses the light in the highest degree of purity, unfolding to the visible universe, above and beneath, the splendors of its own rays, and if anything does not participate in them, this is not owing to the inertness or deficiency of its distribution of light, but is owing to the inaptitude for light-reception of the things which do not unfold themselves for the participation of light.

    No doubt the ray passing over many things in such condition, enlightens the things after them, and there is no visible thing which it does not reach, with the surpassing greatness of its own splendor.

    Further also, it contributes to the generation of sensible bodies, and moves them to life, and nourishes, and increases, and perfects, and purifies and renews; and the light is both measure and number of hours, days, and all our time.

    For it is the light itself, even though it was then without form, which the divine Moses declared to have fixed that first Triad of our days.

    And, just as Goodness turns all things to Itself, and is chief collector of things scattered, as One-springing and One-making Deity, and all things aspire to It, as Source and Bond and End, and it is the Good, as the Oracles say, from Which all things subsisted, and are being brought into being by an all-perfect Cause; and in Which all things consisted, as guarded and governed in an all-controlling route; and to Which all things are turned, as to their own proper end; and to Which all aspire —-the intellectual and rational indeed, through knowledge, and the sensible through the senses, and those bereft of sensible perception by the innate movement of the aspiration after life, and those without life, and merely being, by their aptitude for mere substantial participation; after the same method of its illustrious original, the light also collects and turns to itself all things existing—-things with sight –things with motion—-things enlightened—-things heated—-things wholly held together by its brilliant splendours—-whence also, Helios, because it makes all things altogether, and collects things scattered.

    And all creatures, endowed with sensible perceptions, aspire to it, as aspiring either to see, or to be moved and enlightened, and heated, and to be wholly held together by the light. By no means do I affirm, after the statement of antiquity, that as being God and Creator of the universe, the sun, by itself, governs the luminous world, but that the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the foundation of the world, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Deity.
    Pseudo-Dionysius, On the Divine Names (5th-6th century)

Even the modern churches (Ronchamp, Saarinen, Raincy — pp. 176-185), so difficult in other ways, at least seem to make some use of this power of light:



Reading this book as a modern American of Protestant heritage, I found the account of the separations between clergy and laity in early medieval churches–given physical form by the rood screens and curtains–to be quite troubling (pp. 75-78). Surely, I thought, that can’t be what Jesus and the apostles had in mind for corporate worship? Shouldn’t the people be participating somehow?

More generally, I found the account of ‘hierarchical’ sacred space, analogously to Solomon’s Temple, to be difficult to square with the account given in the Epistle to the Hebrews: that Christ has made a perfect sacrifice once and for all, after which there is no longer any need for the priests and the sacrifices of the Temple. Surely it can’t be right simply to reinstate this kind of exclusionary hierarchy under a new form? I remain troubled by the medieval practices, but let me try to frame them in the most positive terms, as follows:

Reading about the medieval church, I have a new appreciation for the sense of holiness that they would inspire in the congregation. They are right to emphasize the awe and wonder, the mysterium tremendum, of the presence of God, which is not to be approached casually or absent-mindedly. I have to admit that the medieval practices seem to a better job on this front, than, for example, Rick Warren preaching in Hawaiian shirts, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s plan of having congregants enter by walking directly past the sanctuary in the Unity Temple. Worship should be a big deal; one should approach worship in awe and wonder, and the medieval church certainly did that well. I think particularly of the way that one could see glimpses of the Eucharist through the screen–the visual experience of gaining access to a great mystery.


Furthermore, despite all the modern/Protestant squeamishness about relics, saints’ relics, pilgrimages for relics, etc., I do wonder if medieval churchgoers didn’t have a better attitude toward death, and the dead, than do modern churchgoers who are all too ready to hand over the bodies of the deceased to the ‘cremation-funeral-industrial complex.’  Is it really that strange, humanly speaking, to want to hold on to some part of a loved one’s body after their death? Is it really a good thing for burials to take place in distant plots of land, far removed from the center of the city, and from the church where one worships?  Isn’t it good to have a ‘churchyard’ with the dead buried, nearby to the place of worship? Isn’t it nice to gather yearly and celebrate in honor of a deceased person, whom one wishes to remember?

For all these reasons, the funerary architecture discussed in the book–which is, after all, some of the very earliest Christian architecture ever to be constructed–is worthy of further thinking, and shouldn’t simply be dismissed as belonging to an ‘earlier era.’


Also in the medieval/Gothic context, the effort to make the biblical narratives accessible on a human scale, for unlettered worshippers, was very moving (pp. 84-85). It’s too bad that fell out of fashion…

I also wonder whether Luther’s Protestant distinction between “didactic” images and the “veneration” of images is really sustainable. Is there not a continuum between a purely conceptual ‘didactic’ use of images, and a more affective ‘veneration’?  If you are seriously reading, meditating and contemplating, for instance, the Crucifixion of Christ, is that so different from venerating an image of the same?  For further discussion…


Speaking of Protestantism… Despite all the virtues of the Protestant tradition, I did feel that the first Protestant building style was a bit of a downer. (To say nothing of all the iconoclasm). The Protestant response to abuses and corruptions does often seem to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Regarding the topic at hand, that means:

Yes, the Word is essential. Yes, hearing the Word and responding to the Word is essential. But does that really necessitate downgrading or eliminating all other aspects of worship?

Most especially, looking at buildings and liturgy gives a sense of the importance of all the other physical, bodily, corporeal aspects of worship. If God created human bodies, didn’t he intend for them to be used in worship? Shouldn’t there be room for more than only sitting, listening, thinking, and praying aloud or silently, however essential those are?

Physical, bodily actions–kneeling, processing, singing… lighting candles, making the sign of the cross… aren’t these good things to do with the human body? Protestants are right to worry about the case in which these are ’empty rituals,’ unaccompanied by actual faith. But of course it does not follow from that, that rituals can only be ’empty.’

On that note, the way that (especially premodern) church buildings were designed to accommodate processions (along with all the other liturgical practices) was quite striking–the idea that human life is a journey toward God, and that worship repeats that journey in microcosm (basilica plan, p. 49). Across all the many variations, the sense of a journey with beginning, middle and end gives the buildings a definite structure and program.

That might be one of the biggest concerns with the so-called megachurch model, that allegedly emphasizes spectacle, entertainment and consumerism (pp. 191-193)–does it ask the congregant to do something, or just to ‘sit back and enjoy the show’?


On the other hand, speaking of Protestants and iconoclasm… Christians have perhaps always disagreed about just what parts of secular/pagan culture can possibly be ‘baptized’ and redeemed for good purpose (should we eat meat sacrificed to idols?)  C. S. Lewis, for example, was very happy to find the wisdom in pagan learning…  But I did agree with Kilde’s account (echoing David Lyle Jeffrey earlier) that the Renaissance was perhaps a little bit too enthusiastic about bringing in every aspect of pagan and classical culture into church, for the greater glory of man, so to speak.

Surely the Renaissance went a bit too far in extolling the wonders of humankind, in praising the greatness of human rationality, creativity, genius, etc.–to the extent that one could visit a Renaissance-Baroque church in order to be impressed with the creative genius of the artists and architects who made it (p. 108).  Reading about the very first(?) paying architectural tourists, visiting St. Paul’s for a small fee after its completion to see the building itself (p. 139) — it was sad to think that this prefigured the future of so many churches in Europe: basically empty except for tourists. Very unfortunate!

And, It was a little bit strange to read that Hermes Trismegistus, “purported author of the Hermetic Corpus, a series of sacred texts that are the basis of Hermeticism…. associated with the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth,” was placed in the floor of Siena cathedral to indicate the quest for wisdom:

Hermes Trismegistus in the floor of Siena Cathedral, 1480s.

Granted that Wisdom as personified in Proverbs etc. can be identified with the Logos and Christ, but … what’s next, Asherah poles and high places to Baal?

Back on the first hand, is it also possible to be too antipathetic to ‘pagan’ elements, and thereby miss good things? I’m thinking of the resistance to outdoor preaching, and to centrally planned spaces, as too ‘pagan.’  Was that resistance correct?  Much like the question of eating sacrificed meat, the answer is, “it depends” (1 Cor. 8, 10).


Also interesting to read about the role of the printing press in centralizing and standardizing Roman worship (since Gutenberg is so often identified with Protestantism). A reminder that the Counter-Reformation / Catholic Reformation was arguably as radical as the Protestant Reformation.

In architectural terms: Despite the Protestant/Catholic divisions, St. Paul’s (pp. 136-137) and Il Gesu (p. 106) are a lot more similar to each other — unified space, participatory experience–than either is to the medieval church plans with their strict separation between clergy and laity.


Christopher Wren, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 1675-1711.
Giacomo da Vignola, Il Gesu, Rome, 1568.



The book only touched on this in passing, but the way that church buildings also help define their surrounding areas, might be especially important in the context of the massive, highway-driven sprawl in the U.S. and a place like the Metroplex. The towers and steeples of these churches, with their bells, were the tallest structures in any given town… Should churches still try to do that, and build extremely tall towers?  Should churches try to find space near the “town square” (Northpark Mall?) in order to assert their public presence?


It is also interesting to contrast Kilde’s ‘modernist’ (i.e. pluralist, ‘naturalist’) account with some more traditional accounts. By coincidence, I recently listened to several recorded lectures from the Thomistic Institute, defending a more traditional or ‘realist’ account of sacred architecture–that a church building really can and should reflect the Heavenly City, as the builders of the Gothic Cathedrals believed. (Hughes, Schloeder, and Bess were speaking after the fire at Notre Dame de Paris, and focused their remarks on that topic.) I would highly recommend the talks:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s