I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I was born and raised, baptized and confirmed in the United Methodist Church. Then as a teenager, I fell away from the church because it seemed meaningless, moralistic and woefully out-of-date. Each time I walked through the doors, I felt as if I would suffocate.
In its place, architecture came to be my religion; and my creed was “better living through design and the arts!” I found that “beauty” stirred something deep within my soul. No matter whether it was natural beauty or beauty shaped by human hands, I found myself inspired, encouraged, even comforted in the presence of beauty. In some instances, the experience of beauty was so incredible, so heart-wrenching, so awesome to behold, that it moved me to tears. Something the church had not been able to do.
Then in my thirties, I spent an extended period of time in an Islamic country, working on an archaeological project. There, in the midst of a culture so radically different from my own, I witnessed a people incredibly devoted to their faith, who piously responded to the daily call to prayer, no matter their station in life. Their devotion caused me to realize that a tremendous spiritual void existed in my heart and, if I was smart, I would find a way to fill it. It was the time I decided to return to the church. Not to the church of my childhood, which no longer spoke to me, but to the Episcopal Church, where I often found places that celebrated beauty.
Growing up in Virginia, I was surrounded by many beautiful, historic Episcopal Churches, whose architecture was carefully crafted to reflect devotion to God and commitment to the faith; rooted in the past, but relevant in the present. Unbeknownst to me, their beauty influenced my perceptions, shaped my sensibilities on what constitute sacred space. I came to realize that beauty is a manifestation of God—a means by which God’s grace permeates, illuminates and enriches our world. It became clear that, for me, the architectural setting for worship is extremely important. If the space is to be sacred, it also must beautiful to the eye, especially during those times when a sermon can be so deadening to the ear! In other words, beauty is what brought me to the Episcopal Church.
Beauty is essential to life. Just as air, water, food and shelter are fundamental to our basic survival; beauty helps raise us from a primitive existence to a higher quality of life. It infuses our souls with purpose, passion and inspiration. Yet, beauty must not be mistaken as a luxury. Every human being is entitled to enjoy it benefits—not just the well-to-do or the intellectual elites. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” He is not talking about us having more air, all the food and water we can eat and drink, or larger houses. He is talking about quality of life, and beauty is the means by which this transfiguration often comes about.
Traditionally, Episcopalians are a people who subscribe to this notion. We pursue beauty in all aspects of our corporate life. From the flower arrangements and needlepoint cushions, to our music and our buildings and grounds, we find spiritual sustenance in bringing beauty to our places of worship.
But why is this? Why do Episcopalians hold beauty in such high regard?
John Westerhoff, in his book, A People Called Episcopalians, writes, “Anglicans have made beauty the doorway into truth and goodness. We have a strong respect for and belief in the beauty of holiness and righteousness. Money spent on beauty…is justified insofar as it is our way of revealing and advocating truth and goodness. Our churches are intended to be works of art and we make every effort to ensure that the arts used in our churches are of high quality.” In other words, for Episcopalians—when one is in the presence of beauty, one also is in the presence of the Divine.
Certainly, there are Christians who approach worship by emphasizing truth and goodness, but pay little heed to beauty. They focus on the word of God—both written and spoken—as the primary means by which to know God. They appeal to the rational mind, thinking a right understanding of God’s word will bring right behavior, which is a perfectly reasonable, acceptable and time-tested approach to Christian worship.
However, another approach to Christian worship is to reach for the imagination and the heart, in addition to the rational mind. And the means by which the imagination and heart are stirred most effectively is by the five senses. The goal of this type of worship is to encourage an attitude of mystery and awe before the presence of God, evoking devotion, admiration and thanksgiving; and, in doing so, inspiring right behavior as a result.
To stimulate the senses, we historically make use of the arts—the visual arts and the performing arts. The arts convey profound and timeless truths in imaginative and relevant ways—deeper theology than mere words. As someone once said, “The Word was not made flesh in order to be turned back into word again. Art makes incarnate the Word of God.” The beauty of art encourages our imagination to take precedence over the rational side of the brain, which, more often than not, controls much of what we do. Beauty stirs the ineffable and numinous qualities that reside deep within us and brings them to consciousness.
Finally, Episcopalians are a sacramental people. We believe the Transcendent is made know to us through material things. From God, there flows a continuous stream of Divine Love, making itself available to all through the material, most specifically through the person of Christ Jesus, as well as through the waters of Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In a broader sense, all creation is a manifestation of our Creator—God’s handiwork is visible in every direction. Therefore, the spiritual cannot be separated from the physical. As a result, architecture and the arts are sacramental to us. We look to architecture and the arts to support our worship, education, evangelization and mission. For us, God’s presence and actions are mediated most powerfully through our places of worship. For Episcopalians, orthodoxy is right worship, rather than right belief. To put it another way, it is through the beauty of sacred space that makes it easy to fall in love with God.
 John 10:10
 A People Called Episcopalians, John H. Westerhoff (Atlanta: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 1998) 23.
The Rev. John Runkle is an Episcopal priest and a church architect who lives and practices in Sewanee, TN. You may reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.