by Bruce Benedict
Our church celebrates the Lord’s Supper every Sunday when we gather. For 95% of our congregation this is the first church they have ever been part of that practices weekly communion. It’s even stranger that they are regularly engaging with this sacramental act in a Presbyterian church.
The church I work for, Christ the King Presbyterian Church (Raleigh, NC), has spent the past twelve months exploring new practices and renewing old ones in our communion celebration, as part of a Worship Renewal Grant program sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (with funding provided by the Lilly Endowment).
Through the lens of Luke 24 we have been reading through Old Testament texts that speak of God eating with his people so we can remember (anamnesis) Jesus better as both individuals and a community when we eucharist together.
We have been pursuing a greater intentionality in our music, singing songs of both deep introspection (1 Cor 11) and wild celebration (Rev 19) during the Lamb’s Feast.
And we have spent time learning from wise pastors and professors who have slowly walked us into the deeper biblical truths present in Jesus’ new meal of fellowship (Jay Sklar – Lord’s Supper as meal of fellowship, Lev. 3:1-5) and foreshadowing of future feasting (Reggie Kidd – The Marriage Supper of the Lamb – Rev 19).
But perhaps one of the most ground-breaking activities we undertook as part of our worship renewal grant was to hold a charrette. A cha-what?!
For most architects this is common parlance for any collaborative session in which a group of architects work intensively on creating/drafting a solution to a problem (the term originated with French architectural students in the 19th century). The goal of a charrette is to create an actionable design in a limited amount of time with presently available resources.
Our church is blessed to have a large group of architects, designers, and engineers. Many either work for or were schooled by the programs at nearby North Carolina State University. This is a group of artists that I love in our church, but I’ve been somewhat flummoxed with how to connect their artistic and professional skills with the liturgical arts needs of the Church. My experience has mostly been confined to working with musicians and visual fine artists (painters, sculptors, collagists).
After Christmas 2011, I talked two of the architects (who are also in church leadership) into having lunch – on me of course! I asked them to help me dream about how we might use their architectural gifts to elevate our communal experience of the Lord’s Supper. Specifically this meant remedying our present situation regarding our communion table – a cheap folding table we adorn with a nice tablecloth. As a young church that sets up our worship space each week, the folding table is a practical and functional solution that works within our weekly stress to corral volunteers to set up/tear down on Sundays.
But I thought there might be a creative alternative that would serve both the liturgical goals of communion, and continue to fit our logistical requirements.
One of the exciting and essential aspects of the charrette is the communal nature of the event. A large group gathers and a leader presents a problem, and the resources available to solve it. For us it involved eight architects, a landscape architect, two fabric designers, three engineers and a small stipend from our grant.
We gathered together on a Saturday early in February 2012. I spent an hour giving an overview of the historical architectural manifestations of the Lord’s Table – from 1st century lounge, to medieval high alter, to Scottish long-table, to the present puritan family table. Then I offered some brief meditations on issues to consider in the design:
People don’t actually sit at this table.
- Should it be built higher for a standing leader, and easier to see from congregation?
- The top only has to be large enough to hold communion materials.
- Visual significance should be on the front not the top.
- It will never have chairs as part of its architectural and visual identity.
Many people will approach the table all at once.
- Should it be treated more like a buffett? Wedding imagery might be possible.
- Should the design reflect our three sided seating arrangement?
The Table could express biblical imagery.
- Do we need to portray a cross, nails, Trinitarian, covenant, communion, vertical vs. horizontal, etc.?
We need a table in process.
- Communion tables are often very polished, finished products. We want our table to be a work in progress to reflect our community on pilgrimage.
We set up our worship space each Sunday.
- We need a table that is both light and easily moved.
After my introduction, the team broke into five groups of three people, armed with pencils and plenty of paper. They spent two hours talking, drawing, and thinking about our people, and our space.
Then we ate lunch and pinned all the drawings on the wall for all to see the initial ideas/concepts. It was a wild mix of inventions from Trinitarian tri-partite tables to complex modular cruciform constructions. The crop would need to be thinned! After lunch and a brief summary from our lead architect and myself the groups spent two more hours refining their concepts and coming up with a complete design within their group.
With only an hour left to spare all of the groups gathered back together and pinned their final designs on the wall. This was the time to put on the charm. Each group needed to sell their concept, design, and practicality to me and to the lead architect – also one of our ruling elders!
We spent an hour pouring over five different designs (see photos) and then the team headed out the door to enjoy the rest of their Saturdays. The remaining hard work would be done by me and two other architects who were in charge of picking a few of our favorites to present to our church leadership.
The charrette worked so well for this group of busy professionals because:
- They were familiar with the process and goals,
- They knew that their time and participation had a clear start and end, and
- They knew that they would not have to be the final word on what table to build.
Over the next three months I met with the point architect (Beth Mitchell) who would help me refine the designs. We needed something that was simple, easily buildable with local materials and congruent with our current space and budget. We also knew that we didn’t need to build a perfectly finished table. The table could have room to grow and shift as our community grew and expanded.
We settled on a beautifully simple design. A simple steel frame would be crafted by a local blacksmith, cedar (a mix of finished and raw) could be purchased locally and would offer a faint incense for our celebrations, and would be constructed in the living room of an architect couple in our church. [see the finished design below]
As of July 20 the table was finished and our fabric designer (Amy Quinn) is working on an initial drape for the table – with designs for the major church seasons in the works. We will present the table to our congregation in August (2012) as an ebenezer of God’s work in our congregation over the past year. And a source of celebration for the years to come!
You can read an early version of this article, and see photos of the process, on Bruce’s Cardiphonia blog.
Bruce Benedict serves as the Worship and Community Life Director at Christ the King Presbyterian church in Raleigh, NC. Prior to crash landing in Raleigh, Bruce helped start a new church in London, CamdenTown Church (IPC), and indulged his love of champagne as a wine advisor with Oddbins, Ltd. He is the founder of the popular Cardiphonia blog, but is best known for his work setting the Westminster Shorter Catechism to music. Bruce holds degrees from James Madison University (BA, Philosophy & Religion) and Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div). His wife PJ is a local actor and director.