by Graham Edwards.
The last year has been a strange one, to say the least. It has often been a frustrating and confusing time, but it has also been a fruitful time for reflection. Much of my reflection in this period has centred around understandings of space and place.
Space and place are not the same, yet they are connected because it is impossible to speak of place without first speaking of space. I understand space as a physical location in which people interact in community, it is, as Tim Cresswell (2015, p. 16) explains, “a realm without meaning … which produces the basic coordinates for human life”. Place is not necessarily physical or visible but “become[s] vividly real … by dramatizing the aspirations, needs, and functional rhythms of personal and group life” (Tuan, 1977, p. 178). When an individual’s ‘space’ becomes a way of enabling interpretation and reflection, it allows their “seeing and knowing [of] the world” (Cresswell, 2015, p. 18) and becomes ‘place’. Reflecting a similar understanding, John Inge notes, “human experience is shaped by place” (2003, p. ix), and for those of us who have faith, that faith experience is shaped by place. The spaces we inhabit as Christian people – churches, chapels and so on, can often become a kind of sacred ‘place’ for us. A space might become sacred or holy when an individual’s experience, or their perception of it, moves them to name it as a place where an encounter with God could occur.
In my own context, as a Methodist Presbyter in a circuit appointment, when we entered lockdown in March 2020 the particular physical spaces in which churches I serve had met and worshipped, the spaces that had been formational in creating place, and in our continuing expressions of faith, were no longer accessible. We, like so many others, were forced to explore new spaces in which we were able to connect and therefore offer ways of creating place using digital resources, including video podcasts and Zoom. To some surprise, we found that people were finding new ways of connecting in all these things. We began to see new places forming, these places could still shape and sustain particular modes of identity, offer some kind of connection to God that enables the “seeing and knowing” of the world that Cresswell speaks of.
As I reflect on these new connections, I am drawn back to Avery Dulles’ work on the nature of the church. One of the marks of the church that Dulles identifies is Mystical Communion. In this model, Dulles (1974, p40) argues that the church is “not an institution but a brotherhood [sic]”. There is, he claims, a kind of Christian DNA that allows believers to recognise one another, this creates an almost intangible (mystical) connection which shapes the interaction of members within a church and affects its practice. The institution of the church, its physical presence and practice, enable us to know the ‘real’ church – which is community sustained by the mystical communion. The problem, I think, is that much of Dulles’ understanding requires a traditional understanding of the physical presence of Christians which reveals the mystical – a group gathered in one space, the meeting of eyes followed by a knowing nod, or a congregation meeting to worship on site in a church. Whatever the ways in which we create connections, the digital experience challenges them – it does not remove our physicality from meetings, or study groups, or worship – it changes it, and in the same way it does not remove our sense of connection (mystical communion) from our digital engagement – it changes it. So perhaps we need a new reading, a larger understanding, of mystical communion which allows us to see that “on site” gatherings, the bricks and mortar of our church buildings, the pews, the chairs, and whatever else we might list, are not the only things that allow us to glimpse the true church. Watching a podcast on our living room sofa, sharing in worship, or study and fellowship through Zoom (other web conferencing software is available!), reading worship materials prepared by a local preacher or minister, or whatever else we might come up with, might actually enable us to know true community and glimpse the true church that God calls us to be.
My understanding of place has shifted in this last year, that mysterious invisible digital space, has the power to become place – place that allows seeing and knowing of the world, enables us to find and take our place within that world, and encounter the God who calls us onward.
Cresswell, T. (2015). Place: An Introduction. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.
Dulles, A. (2002). Models of the Church. New York: Doubleday.
Inge, J. (2003). A Christian Theology of Place. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Tuan, Y.-F. (1977). Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.