During our travels over the summer, I dragged my family through dozens of former monasteries, abbeys, and friaries. I can recognize all the various types of stones from one end of the British isles to the other in the backgrounds of movies. The features started to run together for my family, not being obsessive over the same issues. There was one feature that stood out from place to place as they began to grow familiar. It was the Chapter Room.
In Benedictine life, and other orders as well, the Rule requires that after mass or at another time of the day, the community gather to read and discuss a chapter from the Rule. It is also the place where the abbot or prioress might call the community together for business that required everyone’s insight. They were often round and quite beautiful. There was usually a bench around the outside wall, though active communities also had chairs, they were quite rare when the communities were founded.
The Chapter Room was replaced in Anglican life by the Vestry. This was a sad development in a way. Not that I think Vestries are a bad innovation. Business in a lay community requires a different ongoing oversight that would it would be superfluous to involve the whole community. But we rarely see a place outside the sanctuary where the whole community is gathered. Our fellowship hall at Grace is not even large enough for our whole congregation.
I am not advocate of multi-use facilities because I have come to see over time that our architecture expresses our anthropology of community in particular ways. As Louis Weil used to say, “When it comes to liturgy, the building always wins.”
What if we saw our entire community as essential to the mission of our church? What if we didn’t accept members unless they committed to the ministry of the congregation? What if we built our community into our space? Shared leadership or mutual ministry models often miss that there is a particular charism to leading that is necessary to healthy community. As I have written elsewhere, leadership is service. My towel work may be telling a group that it is time for them to stop meeting at our church. I believe in leaders as necessary, as necessary as toilets. But on the other hand, I also advocate for shared stewardship, the ownership of the mission by the whole community.
If we are to embody a whole community as part of the wisdom and necessary to the function of our congregations, do we need a Chapter Room?