Sacred Spaces in a Secular World: A Christian Perspective


by the Rev’d Jean-Daniel Williams, M.Div.,
Anglican-United Christian Chaplain at McGill University

As prepared for delivery at a symposium at McGill University, Montréal, Québec.

I was gently asked if I could discuss “sacred space” on behalf of Christianity — a task I recognise was no less ridiculous for my colleagues here speaking from other traditions.

At best I am speaking from a Christian perspective. I cannot speak for Christianity. I am too limited in experience and education to speak beyond what I have l seen and lived and read. I grew up Mormon, my undergraduate degree in religion was in a very Unitarian-Universalist setting, I was ordained a Baptist pastor while attending a predominately Episcopalian seminary, and now serve as an Anglican and United chaplain at McGill while earning my PhD in practical theology at mostly Catholic Université de Montréal. Yet, I remain American-Québécois Canadian and white and male and have only lived in a very specific thirty-three year window of history. I hope to offer an overview and sampling, and one that is fair, but I share all of this to say my experience is broad enough that I know anything I say will have innumerable nuances and caveats, but also broad enough that I am under no delusion that anything I say will be the Christian view.

That said, the real challenge with today’s task, discussing sacred spaces in a secular world, begins with the title of our discussion today. How do we find or create sacred spaces in a secular world?

Well, first, I would ask, is there truly such a thing as a secular world?

What is secularism, of course, is no new question in Québec. In the midst of the Charter of Values debate, I experienced a beautiful interfaith moment on the Métro. I, wearing a clergy collar and cross necklace, sat beside a Hasidic Jewish family. And then a man in taqiyah reading a Qur’an sat beside me. When the doors of the car opened at Station Jean-Talon, a man looked us, and blurted, “Ô mon Dieu, c’est le train de Dieu.” The challenge with defining secular, whether in politics or religion itself, is the idea that there is a line between religious and non-religious. A defining moment like a measurable amount of ostentatiousness in the size of my cross necklace or an exact spot in a sacred building’s threshold.

I can take off this collar, but I cannot take off my ordination. I can take off a cross necklace, but I cannot take off my baptism. There is no change of clothes or doorframe through which I can walk that takes me away from my religion, from being religious. And there is nowhere I can go where my God is not there with me also. If there is a secular world, I have no idea where to find it because everywhere I go, my God is there also, and it is a sacred space to me.

Another way to ask if there really is a secular world is to ask, do we believe God is omnipresent, that God everywhere, or not?

Admittedly Christian practice has wrestled with this paradox of a belief in the omnipresence of God with the fact it does not always feel like God is present. In many denominations, worship begins with an invocation, a prayer often using words like, “Come Holy Spirit,” as an invitation to God to be with us. But God is already with us; so perhaps “Come Holy Spirit” should be seen a short hand for, “God, free me, free us, free this space of those things that are distracting us from fully recognising that you are already here.” Jesus himself, at least as we have his words in the Gospel of Matthew, said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Wasn’t God already present? How can God be extra present? It is the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper or Communion, this becomes most complicated. Many Christians to some extent—and this can get endlessly complicated and varied, but stay with me—believe that somehow in the ritual of Holy Communion, simple bread and wine become for us the body and blood or real presence of God.

The idea that there sacred spaces in this secular world resonates with my lived experience, but it is nonetheless exactly backwards from the ideal Christian vision of creation and transformation, which would instead see this world as God’s, temporarily distracted and distracting, from its true holy purpose. The pollution with which we cover the world around us—spiritual in the form of grotesque injustice or inequality or the very physical pollution of our environmental irresponsibility—do not make the sacred world secular; they do make it look godless though. Yet, beneath those layers of our pollution, a holy creation cries out.

So there is no truly secular world, but there are still sacred spaces—in time and in place. Accepting this paradox, let me offer an operating definition: a sacred place is not where God is more present, but may be a place where we are more likely to notice God. A sacred place is not sacred innately, but is made sacred through being a place where holy people have done or do continue to do holy things.

Of course, with any academic generalisation, there is caveat of acknowledging the many glaring exceptions: theologically satisfying intellectual consistency feels good, but is not a reliable interpretative lens for Christian history or practice. While theologians ponder ideals, Christians are busy living in the world, a world of cultural backgrounds and actual experiences.

Christianity as a religion shares a common heritage with Judaism. The earliest Christians did not think of themselves as a new or separate category. And in Judaism the idea of the holy temple loomed large. The earliest Christians continued to worship and pray there, but eventually were more and more frequently expelled. And when the temple was destroyed in CE 72, Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries had to face theological and practical questions about what to do, about where and how to find God. One of the factors that would make the distinction between Judaism and Christianity become clearer were the ways each would face this problem; but it was a shared theological problem.

We read an early Christian attempt to reconcile this reality in Acts 7:48, with parallel reasoning in the Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 9. “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” In his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul would go so far as to say that we, the followers of Christ, are ourselves temples. (Another blow to the idea that a Christian can ever find a secular world, if our own selves are portable temples!)

Also, as Christianity spread through Europe, assimilation of Pagan ideas was common. It is no secret that Pagan time was integrated into Christian narrative with pre-existing rituals and Christian stories being integrated into what we now know as Christian holy days. Just as with time, Christians often integrated pagan spaces. In Celtic Ireland, for example, there was a belief in thin places, places heaven and earth somehow felt closer. Such places often became sites of church construction. Whether or not a church is built such thin places there, all theological arguments aside, what human wandering in the majesty of nature has not experienced the sensation of a thin place. And while the phrasing “thin place” is culturally specific, the idea seems more broadly human. Certainly we see nature as a holy site, especially mountain tops, throughout the Biblical narrative. We can put the experience of a thin place into Christian language or not, but it is real human experience.

Pilgrimage sites have a long and storied role in Christian practice from the earliest days. But the upper room was first just a room. The shores of the Sea of Galilee where just ordinary fishing villages. What happened there made them sacred to Christians. The belief that someone holy did something holy in a specific place has long been central in Christian practice, longing to go to those places, knowing that if God once had broken through the seeming ordinariness, seeming secularity there, perhaps the veil between here and eternity has been pierced at this place. Obviously, Bible sites, but the world is covered in places where purportedly Mary has appeared, angels have visited, the sick have been healed. While Protestantism officially generally approaches pilgrimage sites with more theological cynicism than Catholicism, I think in practice pilgrimage sites are alive and well in all branches of Christianity. Most especially in Israel and Palestine. To walk where Jesus walked is immeasurable spiritually appealing. But it goes beyond there. I used to give history tours in my hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts, where a group of religious refugees and entrepreneurs settled in 1620. I cannot tell you how often I saw devoutly Christian, very low-church Protestant, American visitors, who contrary to good Reformed, Puritan-inherited theology, would weep to stand where their Pilgrim ancestors first landed.

Beyond pilgrimage sites, we find sacred space in our local churches, whether we call them meetinghouses or chapels or churches or basilicas or cathedrals. They are where we live the experience of being the two or three, or more, but sometimes in modern Québec, really two or three, gathered together in Jesus’ name.

What do a sparse Amish farmhouse in Malone, New York, that is home to “church” but once a year or so, and St Joseph’s Oratory, the soaring dome on city’s slopes, Canada’s largest church in physical size, or Église Nouvelle Vie in Longueuil, Québec’s largest church by regular attendance, truly have in common? What distinguishes them may be far more obvious. One is devoid of electricity, has no imagery or art, and congregants sit on handmade wooden benches that themselves likely fashioned. The worshippers sing a cappella. One is stone and cavernous and ornate and shakes with its organ. One is in an industrial park and is the architectural baby of a business convention and a rock concert. All are Christian holy sites within an hour drive of this spot. (They are also all are, I will admit, spaces I have wept with religious experience.) They all remain places Christians gather, study the Bible, strive to follow Jesus, and participate in Holy Communion.

Finally, I would offer the home as a sacred space. It is where we often can find quiet peace; or for those of us with children, there is holiness in the noise and chaos. When I say goodnight prayers with my two daughters, I am very much living out “two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name.”

The questions of aesthetics to do not determine whether or not a space is sacred to Christians. The debate between subdued simplicity and ornate grandeur is real, but mostly a question of how to respond to a space’s holiness, not how to create it. We may build an alabaster altar in a vaulted cathedral as a response, as an act of praise, to how holy the Eucharist, or Communion or Lord’s Supper, we plan to celebrate there is, but a Eucharist performed at the bedside on a hospital end table is no more or less holy for its setting. Saints, holy people, the canonised who lived before us and the quieter dedicated ones who live among us, gather there to do holy acts of worship, and thus they become holy spaces.

A final note about the nature of sacred spaces: Christianity ought to be a lived and open faith. Sanctity is not found in secrecy or exclusion. In John 18:20, Jesus said, “I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.” Perhaps, I admit, this verse is John’s polemic against gnosticism, and not necessarily Jesus’ own historical words, but early traditional Christianity dismisses secrecy. The answer to the question of whether or not non-adherents can take Communion or be married in the church remains varied across denominations, for example, but even in those where only the faithful may participate in the ritual, the ritual is open and visible. The idea that a rite or marriage would be holier for being hidden or exclusive denies the invitational nature of Jesus’ ministry.

I admit in making this claim I may be shifting from my academic to preacher role: ultimately, Christians are not called by God to dot the earth with isolated sacred spaces in a secular world. Doing so may be a worthwhile temporary step, but it is not the eternal mission. We are called to through acts of holy living—prayer, sacraments, alleviating poverty, caring for the sick, advocating for equity, stewardship of creation, and being instruments of peace—to wilfully deny the secularism apparent in the world and treat this world—everything and everyone on it—as sacred, as precious in the eyes of the omnipotent God who is parent of us all and creator of all we see.