New Liturgy for New Space: St. James' Episcopal Church, Leith, Scotland, Palm Sunday 2003

Article excerpt

The arrangement of liturgical space influences the conduct and experience of worship in a great many ways. A style of preaching that is effective in a cathedral may not be appropriate in a country church. Music that sounds warm and rich in one room may seem thin and dull in another. What a congregation sees, how well it listens, how friendly or awed or expectant it feels, how it passes the peace, how readily it responds to humor, how long it can sit still, all these depend in part on architecture, furniture, lighting, and decoration. In most churches, liturgical space remains largely the same for years or decades on end, and leaders and congregations may not notice how deeply it is shaping their worship. But occasionally a church burns down, or requires major repairs, or becomes too small for growing numbers, or becomes too large for declining numbers, and as a result, issues of space are forced to the agenda, often with far-reaching implications for liturgy.

One of the oldest churches in the Episcopal Church of Scotland faced such a crisis a generation ago. It decided on a radical change in space, and then found itself moving towards a radical change in liturgy. A visitor to this church in 2003 learned from its example that the relation between space and liturgy was more complicated than he had assumed. He had often visited beautiful church buildings with dying congregations and unconvinced worship. But here he was perhaps unjustifiably surprised to find the opposite, a remarkably drab room in which was gathered a happy, clear-sighted, and growing congregation, celebrating Christ in a sacred liturgy that was both recognizably Anglican and highly creative.

Leith, which was amalgamated into Edinburgh in 1920, is a historic port town on the Firth of Forth, about two miles north of Edinburgh Castle. It was the principal way into and out of Scotland until 1707, when the Act of Union simplified overland traffic with England. From then until the advent of the railways in the nineteenth century Leith reaped prosperity from British imperialism and Scottish industrialization.

Leith is divided into north and south by the river called the Water of Leith. The docklands of north Leith were notoriously seedy until the 1980s, when the area began to be reclaimed with civil service office buildings, a large shopping center, upscale restaurants, and the royal yacht Britannia, now permanently docked as a tourist attraction. South Leith, by contrast, was residential, with parks, squares, and villas. Its most famous parkland is Leith Links, where, according to locals, the rules of golf were first established in 1744, ten years earlier than at St. Andrew's. After the Napoleonic wars the Links were surrounded by comfortable housing in Georgian style for the well-to-do.

The highlights of the ecclesiastical history of South Leith are summarized visually in one short block of its high street, which is called Constitution Street (named in protest against Roman Catholic Emancipation). Here stand South Leith Parish Kirk (Church of Scotland), St. Mary's Roman Catholic, and St. James' Episcopal. The last was built in 1862-65 by Sir Gilbert Scott, the indefatigable champion of the Gothic, the architect of St. Paneras Station and hundreds of other British churches and public buildings. It was modelled on Dunblane Cathedral in the style of the Scottish Gothic revival, and it received a fine 160-foot steeple with a chime of bells. But now it bears the sign "T.D. Jenkinson, Joinery Manufacturers," and is sadly dilapidated. The congregation sold the building around 1970, unable to afford the costs of heating and repairs. It then began meeting for worship in the old church hall, which was closed off from the church grounds and must be accessed from the next street east.

It was a hard time for a church with a proud tradition. St. James' claims to date from 1694, and in Scotland no Episcopal church can be much older. InJuIy 1689 the Scottish Episcopal Church was legally disestablished, and in April 1690 the Episcopal clergy were ordered removed from their churches, manses, and glebes, so that they could be replaced by Presbyterians. …