Making Sense of Sacred Space: An Interview with Maggi Dawn

Maggi Dawn is a liturgist, author, musician, theologian, a Church of England priest, and, since 2011, associate professor of theology and literature and dean of Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School. Her books include Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2013) and The Accidental Pilgrim: New Journeys on Ancient Pathways (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011). Her 1996 recording Elements explores biblical images of God. In the liner notes she writes: “We live with a choice. We may opt for the safety of spiritual certainties, limiting the risk factors and never having too much of a spiritual crisis. Or we may go closer to the edge, and let our faith be turned upside down for the sake of a clearer revelation of God. But the revelation, in my experience, is of a bigger, kinder, more liberating God than I ever imagined possible.”

Reflections: What do you say to churches that worry about losing their young people?

Maggi Dawn: I think it’s a mistake to get too hooked on certain questions. Churches ask, “How can we appeal to young people?” But let’s remember that nothing appeals to all young people. They are all different one from another. So are people of any other age group. We have to ask ourselves better questions: Whom do we want to connect with in the space we’ve got? What are our strengths? Some churches invite people to sit on sofas in the worship space. It’s a way of saying: “You can be yourself when you come here.” Another church creates community around a dinner. Another will collaborate with local artists who transform the space and give people a whole new experience. What’s important is the context of each congregation: What elements of culture should we use to reconnect people and the gospel? What makes the gospel approachable? Each church should focus on what it can do best.

Reflections: We seem to be in the middle of a permanent cultural revolution built on technology, globalization, competing truths. What has changed most about churchgoing in recent decades?

Dawn: One dramatic change is: Younger people now are far less willing to be told “this is how it is and you’re supposed to accept it.” In previous times, people were more willing to sit and listen. But consumer culture, self-help culture, the breakdown of religious authority all make it hard for the church to be seen as the only voice that is speaking truth.

The internet is having a level of impact as dramatic as that of the printing press. The scale of change is similar – anyone can publish anything, and anyone can reply. Every sort of music and language and image can move across the world. This means that everything we are experiencing in church we are seeing with different eyes.

At the time of the printing press, people were saying, Don’t allow the common people to read! It’s too dangerous! It will cause revolution! People were terrified by that. We’re hearing that same sort of fear now.

Reflections: Should churches overhaul what they do?

Dawn: I think it would be a disaster to transform church in order to please consumer society. The issue is how to present the gospel in ways that make sense to people. Church still does things the culture can’t do. The gospel isn’t religious self-help or therapy. It’s a lot more exciting than that. There’s poetry, singing, communal prayer, musicianship, art, communion – with centuries of practice to draw on. So perhaps we need to ask what is absolutely invaluable about church that you can’t get on the internet or get from this culture.

Look at one of the great success stories of the last 50 years: Taizé. In a Taizé service, people sing simple songs over and over.*** It’s solidly Christian worship, yet it works in the way a mantra does. It’s a way of focusing the mind and the spirit. In Europe and increasingly in the U.S., it is popular especially with younger people. It works particularly well in the evening, a way of winding down, rather like a Compline service in a monastic community.

Reflections: Should worship keep a particular aim in mind regardless of style or setting or cultural challenge?

Dawn: Worship is, uniquely, about God and me and others. I can meet God in an art gallery or a library or even in my kitchen. But in those places I don’t actively experience the presence of God and others. I don’t mean to say God is more present here in the worship space than out there in the world, but when we are gathered together in worship we can focus on God in ways we can’t do separately. At worship you place yourself in a community – and not just with people you like but with people who are not like you. It’s as if we cannot fully engage with God – we can’t get the full picture of God – unless we do it with others, including people who differ from us.

It’s likely that there always will be different kinds of church, a multiplicity of worship styles. The worst thing to do is to line them up against each other. What matters is: Is the gospel being preached, and are people being reached?

*** EDITOR’S NOTE: Located in France, the Taizé Community is dedicated to Christian reconciliation and peace. More than 100 monastic brothers, Catholic and Protestant from about 30 nations, take up ministries there, including hospitality to visitors and pilgrims. It is known for its liturgy of prayer and song, which has become a model for church services elsewhere. On the Taizé website, one practitioner writes: “Something very interesting at Taizé is that this formula of calming repetition has been taken up in the liturgy. … Some young people who know almost nothing of mystery are introduced to it here, and they begin to learn how to pray.”