By Alan Hayes
Published: June 2007
Although my Sunday morning itinerating usually takes me to churches in the diocese of Niagara, twice in April I ventured further afield. One week I worshipped at "the greenest church in Canada" and the next week at "the most influential church in America." My experiences there inspired me, and I'm sure that we Anglicans could adapt some of their ideas.
St. Gabe's, Toronto
First let me tell you about the green church, which on May 1 won this year's Green Toronto award for design. It's called St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Passionist Church, and it's on Sheppard Avenue east of Bayview. The Passionists are a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church, and they own and run this parish church.
The old St. Gabriel's was a boxy, poorly insulated, post-war church, and heating was its number one expense. So finally parish leaders tore it down and built a new church, using the proceeds from selling part of their land.
The new St. Gabriel's, which opened last fall, is interesting partly for its environmental science. It's built so that it's comfortable inside in the summer without air-conditioning and in the winter without furnace heat. Its secret is its orientation to the sun, its building materials, its overhead design, and a natural air circulation that depends on convection generated by differential temperatures in the room. A garden of indigenous vegetation, to the south of the building, is irrigated entirely from rain water stored in cisterns. Most parking is underground, in order to minimize the artificial footprint at ground level. There's preferential parking for car pools and hybrid vehicles.
But I was more interested in the theology than the science. The design of St. Gabriel's was inspired by a Passionist eco-theologian named Thomas Berry. One of his followers, Stephen Dunn, has retired from teaching at the Toronto School of Theology and serves at St. Gabriel's.
Creation and scripture
Berry teaches that the natural creation is as much a source of revelation of God's providential and redeeming love as Scripture. So the church is designed to connect Scripture and creation. It does this by integrating a straight-line liturgical axis extending from the tabernacle at the front of the church, through the altar, the ambo, the baptismal font, and the southern glassed wall, into the garden that I just mentioned. If you've followed this, you'll realize that the church faces north, not the traditional east. At St. Gabriel's, creation trumps tradition.
The congregation sits collegiate-style facing each other along this axis. To keep the focus on the liturgical axis with its reminders of creation, word, and sacrament, all artificial visual distractions are minimized. There are no plaques, banners, paintings, stained glass windows, monuments, chapels, or memorabilia on the walls. There's only coloured sunlight streaming down from hidden skylights.
Oh, yes. Our guide acknowledged apologetically that they couldn't avoid putting stations of the cross on one wall. He evidently wasn't happy about it.
You'll find more at www.stgabesparish.ca.
The worship I attended would have made a perfect Anglican service, although not many Anglican services attract 600 people of all ages and colours. I admired the confident, friendly, and reverent liturgical leadership, the fine choir, the eager congregational singing, and an elegant, wise, and moving sermon.
The following Sunday I attended Saddleback Community Church in southern Orange County, California, along with 20,000 other people. Its pastor, Rick Warren, wrote The Purpose Driven Life , which has been translated into over 50 languages, and was the best-selling book in the world in 2003, 2004, and 2005. He has helped train 350,000 pastors. He's also known for antagonizing conservative Christians. He's an AIDS and environmental activist and a buddy of Barack Obama, and he soft-pedals propositional doctrine and avoids moralizing. He takes no salary from his church, and reverse-tithes by giving away 90% of his income....
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