Sweeney Chapel on the campus of Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, is one of the most distinctive churches in the nation. It was designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes as the final element in a modern campus that he described as pre-Gothic in style.
When the seminary began using this space in 1987, however, some of the faculty and students responded unfavorably to the facility. Although it was a moderately sized room when compared with some of the larger Indianapolis churches, its classic proportions, austere whiteness, reverberant acoustics, hard surfaces, and lack of adornment conveyed a sense of formality and distance rather than the intimacy that was becoming a mark of contemporary liturgical practice.
Responding to these concerns, the architect proposed a rearrangement of the pews and designed other appointments to be used when a closer sense of community was desired. The architect’s acoustical consultant helped the seminary overcome difficulties that had been experienced when the chapel was first used. Over time, the community and the building came together.
As director of the chapel when it was designed and for the first years it was in use, I reveled in the space and was inspired by a sense of awe that was conveyed by the “sacred emptiness” which architect Barnes, citing theologian Paul Tillich, declared was its primary symbol of the divine.
The immense Latin cross of hammered stainless steel, its liturgical furniture, and the striking baptismal pool declared that the room was designed to be a Christian house of worship.
Although I retired and moved away from Indianapolis twenty years ago, these remembrances were kindled on July 13, 2015, when I was on campus briefly to use the library. A small sign near the chapel entrance announced “Hymn Festival: In God’s Time” 3:45–5:00. I rearranged my schedule in order to participate.
When I entered the chapel at 3:30, it was already filled. Two hundred fifty people were occupying all the seating and the stone bench that lines two of the chapel walls. They were rehearsing the anthem that they—serving simultaneously as congregation and choir—would sing as part of the service. The program books that everyone carried indicated that the American Guild of Organists, Great Lakes Region, was holding its 2015 convention in Indianapolis and this event was part of its program.
The festival included the singing of nine hymns, from differing periods of congregational song. Some stanzas were sung in unison, others in parts, some with cantor but most of them with the full congregation doing all of the singing. In addition to the Holtkamp organ, a string quartette, flute, percussion, and grand piano were used to accompany our song.
The officiant for the service was Robert A. Schilling who for forty-one years had served as minister of music and the arts at North United Methodist Church, a short distance away, and for twenty of these years had also been an adjunct faculty member at Butler University whose campus adjoins the seminary. Reader for the service was D. Paul Thomas, actor, director, and playwright with a distinguished record. He too is a resident of Indianapolis.
They knew how to speak in a room with the reverberant qualities of the chapel and their strong voices intensified the power of the words they spoke: readings from the Bible and poets from earlier years and our own time, and prayers from several sources. For his voluntary at the beginning of the service, Ryan Brunkhurst who attends Indiana University-Jacobs School of Music and studies organ performance with Dr. Janette Fishell, chose Toccata and Fugue in E Major by J. S. Bach and Partita on Nettleton by Joel Martinson. His concluding voluntary was Prelude and Fugue in B Major by Marcel Dupré.
Of course, the congregational song was the most powerful part of the service. The texts were strong and the tunes vibrant and singable. These examples of Christian song combined a sense of the grandeur of God and the beauty of the world in which we live. At the same time, they acknowledged the many-sided character of life in the world.
The themes of death and resurrection as well as the reality of despair and hope resounded throughout the service.
The service was conducted with a degree of formality that is suitable in public events when people are affirming their deepest commitments in life. There was nothing trivial or sentimental about this festival, yet it conveyed a strong emotional impact. The liturgy invoked the mystery of faith and confidence that the God we know through Jesus Christ comes to us in love which is “the key of life and death,” using words from a poem by Christina Rossetti. A poem by Maya Angelou closed the service with lines that affirm that “love costs all we are” yet is the one force “which sets us free.”