Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

9/3 2014

Reformed Church Symbolism: Five Examples


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Church Symbolism in Pennsylvania“What’s your favorite church building?”

I was recently asked this question by a couple that I will be marrying this fall. We were talking about the impact that a building can have on a wedding and the importance of church symbolism. Then they asked me about other buildings that stood out to me, and then my mind started racing. Here are just five of the many churches that came to my mind.

Aspinwall Presbyterian Church in the Aspinwall neighborhood of Pittsburgh has gorgeous stained glass windows that follow the liturgical calendar. It also has wide clear glass windows reminiscent of puritan architecture. It’s high church liturgy and puritan windows – the best of both worlds. This also happens to be the building in which we were standing when I had that conversation so it gets the first spot.

Harbison Chapel at Grove City College Harbison is a massive, imposing stone building that displays an American take on European architecture. The beautiful stained glass windows feature scenes from church history, including events from the United States like the founding of the college itself. Before pursuing my MDiv degree at Pittsburgh Seminary, I attended Grove City College and sat in those pews. Now that I occasionally serve as guest speaker in the chapel, it has become a permanent fixture in my memory.

Third Presbyterian in New Castle, Pa. In addition to permanent symbolism like stained glass windows, Third has cloth banners of the attributes of the disciples. Those symbols are largely unknown and appear strange and mysterious if you don’t know your church symbolism. They also present a great way to teach and remember the stories of the disciples.

Memorial Presbyterian in St. Augustine Memorial is unmistakably inspired by St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Venice. Even after living in Florida for years, I only worshiped there once. Nonetheless, it’s hard to forget a Presbyterian Church modeled after a Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Grace Covenant in Orlando, Fla. My fascination with church imagery really began while I was serving as a pastor at Grace Covenant. The stained glass windows were designed by the congregation and in the center of the four buildings is a beautiful courtyard with memorial gardens. While the sanctuary does not have a central cross in the chancel, it has (if I remember correctly) more than 80 crosses throughout – on pews and chandeliers and in windows. It was during my ministry there that I started researching church art and symbolism.

These kinds of buildings, all of them Presbyterian, fascinate me. If you’ve read my thoughts on theology and superheroes that should come as no surprise. It’s also interesting because the rich imagery in Presbyterian architecture stands in contrast to its tradition. John Calvin wrote that “…whatever men learn of God from images is futile, indeed false.” Yet despite Calvin’s objections, we use powerful visual imagery in our worship spaces. If you need evidence, just look at the five churches above.

What do you think? Should your church be on this list? Send me an e-mail at ddavenport@pts.edu and you might find your church in my next post!

Written by the Rev. Derek Davenport ’05, director of enrollment and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Derek is also an alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program. Derek has covered images like those listed above in greater detail on his website www.preachingsymbols.com

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