By Calvin Lane
Just to the south of Hyde Park in London lies the upscale neighborhood of Knightsbridge. There you can visit a Rolex boutique before popping into Harrod’s, the self-proclaimed world’s leading luxury department store. In 2007, Knightsbridge boasted the world’s most expensive apartment, going for £100 million. It is a comfortable place for those who can afford it.
Knightsbridge also features a curious building, one designed by the Victorian architect George Basevi in 1838. For roughly a century and a half this gothic revival building was home to St. Saviour’s Church, but around the turn of the century the congregation dwindled, and the maintenance was proving impossible. The Diocese of London closed the church, deconsecrated the building, and sold it.
This post is not meant to debate the wisdom of that decision. Moreover, this is not the only instance of a deconsecrated church building being sold and used for other purposes. Freemason Abbey is a restaurant in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, but was originally the home of Second Presbyterian Church. The single time I visited the restaurant, perhaps ironically, was with another priest. What is more interesting, however, is what happened to that building in Knightsbridge and the resonance of the ongoing story in this “time of the virus,” a season in which most of us cannot gather together in our worship spaces.
Around 2001, the building known as St. Saviour’s was converted into a luxury home and it has since had multiple occupants. Media outlets have featured several stories on the church-turned-home largely because the incongruity is so eye-catching, almost grotesque. With its gothic tracery windows still intact, the home offers spa-like decadence. There are spaces for fine dining and lounging. It offers seven bedrooms, an indoor pool, and a glass elevator. And in the middle of London, where space is at a premium, the owner may park not one but three cars. Here a body may indulge and enjoy pampering. This story, however, is not news. Some 20 years ago Anne Atkins, in The Telegraph, described the house as a “ghastly temple to Mammon.” More than a few critics have voiced unease with the space because it so obviously looks like a church.
Worship spaces serve a variety of purposes. The most important of these is the gathering of individuals – bodies, most of whom have been washed in the waters of baptism – for the express purpose of making Eucharist, the body of Christ, which in turn reassembles and reconstitutes the body of Christ, the church. These worship spaces are often, also, home to aumbries and tabernacles which reserve the Eucharist – the body of Christ. But even the most pious of Catholics must admit that adoration of the sacrament is an outgrowth of the eucharistic assembly. In other words, private time with Jesus at the tabernacle is only possible because those potentially disagreeable brothers and sisters gathered for the feast. In short: bodies, bodies, bodies.
But there’s still more to say about bodies. At the center of Christianity stands not simply a moral code (although moral theology has its place), but rather a person. From the Incarnation, to Christ’s bodily death, his bodily resurrection, his bodily ascension, and the promise of his bodily return in glory, Christians are faced with a body. And likewise, the bodies of those individuals who gather together to worship that risen body may themselves be hungry, both physically and spiritually. They may be neglected bodies, poor bodies, abused bodies, addicted bodies. They likely stand in great need of real, meaningful contact with other bodies, the sharing of peace with neighbors. And, then, at the last, some of these bodies at death are interred inside the same worship spaces where for years they had gathered with other bodies, forming the body and being fed with the body. When we recite the Nicene Creed in worship and reach the line, “we look for the resurrection of the dead,” some of us are in worship spaces where we can let our eyes drift toward the columbarium or just out the window to the church yard.
Because there is so much physicality involved in Christian practice, we consecrate – set aside through prayer and blessing – spaces for these unique activities. This approach to sacred space is grounded in God’s robust affirmation of creation as good, God’s joining with creation in the Incarnation, and God’s raising it again at the Resurrection. The material universe is not irretrievably separated from holiness but rather ripe for renewal, groaning as Paul puts it, for new creation (Romans 8:22-24). Christians are interested in the reweaving of a sacramental tapestry, the joining of heaven and earth, to borrow from Hans Boersma.
And yet, in these strange days, we cannot gather for that central Christian act, that intersection of heaven and earth: the making of Eucharist. This real absence in our lives leaves us with such a hunger that some have taken to the bizarre approach (one utterly devoid of theological reflection) of holding bread and wine up to TV screens for home consecration. This completely misses how gathering is central to the act of Eucharist, and how even sick communions in the hospital / at the deathbed are extensions of the common table of God. Our yearning is not simply for God but to be together as God’s people doing what God’s people do: raising up common penitence, intercession, praise, and making Eucharist. Once more: bodies, bodies, bodies.
Now, see again that house in Knightsbridge, a building which still quietly communicates, in its very bones, “I am a place for the poor; I am a place for Christ’s people to gather with one another; I am a place for Eucharist; I am a place for the making of new women and new men; I am a place for you to look for the resurrection of the dead.” Again: bodies, bodies, bodies.
But St. Saviour’s is different now. It now excludes some bodies while lavishing luxury on other bodies. And ultimately its purpose isn’t aimed at the body of Christ, transformation and resurrection, but rather… amusement. To repeat, this post isn’t meant to criticize the decision of the diocese to sell or even those who altered the building. Rather, I hope we can simply ponder a bit in this “time of the virus” the nature of our worship spaces and what our hungering to be in them is all about. It is about bodies and the body.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, OH and affiliate professor at Nashotah House. He is the author of The Laudians and the Elizabethan Church and Spirituality and Reform: Christianity in the West, c1000-c1800. He also teaches for Wright State University and United Theological Seminary.