The Sacred and the Profane

Recently the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut announced that a bishop would soon be attending a ceremony in a small town near the Rhode Island border to “deconsecrate” a church that had ceased holding regular services 10 months earlier. Deconsecration is a term of art somewhat akin to decommissioning an old navy vessel that is being mothballed. The church itself was 130 years old, and no doubt there were former parishioners who still felt strong ties to the place. Some formal acknowledgment of the church’s passing was certainly in order, but how exactly do you deconsecrate it?

This being the Episcopal Church, everything is done by the book – in this case, the Book of Common Prayer, which has been in continuous use in various editions since 1549, following the split between the parent Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The Book of Common Prayer is kind of a users manual for Episcopal worship. It includes prayers for every conceivable occasion from birth to death, including –as it happens – “secularizing consecrated spaces.”

The rubrics for this section stipulate that the altar and all consecrated objects be removed from the premises before the service begins. The minister who presides over the service specifically notes that the altar has been removed “and protected from desecration.” Addressing those present, the minister says, “To many of you this building has been hallowed by cherished memories, and we know that some will suffer a sense of loss. We pray that they will be comforted by the knowledge that the presence of God is not tied to any place or building.” But if the presence of God is not tied to any building, why is such elaborate care taken to protect its contents from desecration once it is vacated?

The distinction between the sacred and the profane has been rigorously maintained in the Western religious tradition from the beginning – or rather, almost from the beginning. In the beginning, according to the Genesis creation story, the world the Lord made was deemed to be good in its entirety, and no parts of it were regarded as less than good. There was as yet no death or decay, and God was even known to go strolling in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day. The Greek paradeisos was first used to denote this earthly paradise in an early translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. It was derived from an ancient Persian word for a walled garden or private preserve of kings. Once Adam and Eve got themselves expelled from Eden for having tasted forbidden fruit, they found themselves walled out from the place where God was. They were now subject to suffering and death and had to struggle to survive.

According to sociologist Émile Durkheim, the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane lies at the heart of all religions. He wrote that “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” The first sacred object was a rock the patriarch Jacob had used for a pillow when he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven. "How awesome is this place!” Jacob cried. “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." Moses was introduced to the God of his ancestors when he encountered a bush that burned but was not consumed while tending his father-in-law’s flocks in the Sinai wilderness. A voice spoke to him out of the bush and told him to remove his shoes "for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." The Hebrew word for holy in the original text of the Old Testament is qodesh, which means “set apart.” The places and objects associated with God were henceforth set apart, or consecrated, for religious purposes. Detailed purity laws were developed to assure that nothing or no one judged to be unclean was allowed to enter a religious sanctuary or be used in religious rituals. Only the high priest was permitted to enter the inner sanctuary, or Holy of Holies, at the temple in Jerusalem -- and then only once a year after performing cleansing rituals.

The purity laws covered many aspects of daily life, including dietary practices, personal hygiene, childbirth, menstruation and the handling of dead bodies. The ancient Hebrews knew nothing, of course, about deadly microbes and their connection to the spread of disease. Nevertheless, their emphasis on hygiene stood them in good stead during the Middle Ages, when many rat-infested European cities were ravaged by the plague. The Jewish populations were spared the worst effects of the Black Death in the 14th century due to the more sanitary conditions in the ghettos that had been set apart for them to live in. However, this only fueled suspicions that Jews had started the plague by poisoning the wells of their Christian neighbors, leading to savage reprisals.

According to the Book of Common Prayer, we should be comforted by the knowledge that the presence of God is not tied to any place or building. There are echoes here of King Solomon’s prayer when he completed the original temple in Jerusalem: "Behold, heaven and earth and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!." St. Paul said essentially the same thing when he first laid eyes on the temples in Athens dedicated to every god imaginable: "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man." If this God is Lord of heaven and earth, having made the world and everything in it, where can we go to find something that is not consecrated?

Genesis 28:11-19
Exodus 3:1-5
Acts 17:22-28

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