Theology and Form

Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America

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Nicholas Denysenko
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many Orthodox Christians celebrate the fact that their services of worship have changed very little in centuries. Yet one dimension that has necessarily changed are the spaces in which the liturgies are performed. This is especially the case in a land such as the United States, where Orthodoxy has spread through immigration and evangelization. Nicholas Denysenko examines the resulting variety of Orthodox church buildings in this informative, detailed, and smartly illustrated book.

He examines these buildings’ roles in some of the major narratives of American religion, including liturgical reform, the power of the laity, and the relationship between ethnicity and Americanization. Denysenko broadens his focus to include not only the intersection of architecture and worship, but also how these buildings express their communities’ identities as Orthodox Christians in contemporary America. To do so, he extends his discussion from the form and decoration of the liturgical space to the relationship of the buildings to their environment and to the extra-liturgical spaces that are part of these congregations’ physical presence. In short, Theology and Form provides us with an exemplary analysis of religious space.

Building on detailed studies of seven buildings, Denysenko develops three models of how congregations approach their buildings. Churches fashioned in the “Immigrant model” emphasize adherence to the traditions of the congregation’s homeland, sustain the traditional liturgy with as little change as possible, and include important additional buildings on the property, such as museums and function halls, in order to sustain and celebrate the immigrant community’s history and culture. His primary examples of this model are St. Kathrine Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arden Hills, Minnesota, and San Francisco’s Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee is also identified as sharing aspects of this model, but because its congregation employed the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the church, it is also an example of what he describes as the “American Church model.”

Denysenko’s emphasis on considering both the liturgical and extra-liturgical spaces built by communities is an important feature of his work. It extends the approach of Jeanne Halgren Kilde (When Church Became Theatre, Oxford University Press, 2002) and others to the Orthodox tradition where most scholars have focused only on liturgical architecture. This feature can be seen most prominently in Denysenko’s discussion of buildings shaped by the aforementioned “American Church model,” which emphasize architectural innovation, blending in with the local neighborhood, and active participation of the laity in the liturgy and mission of the community. Naturally, the examples that he groups into this model are more varied in their form. St. Matthew Orthodox Church conforms to the unique zoning restrictions of Columbia Village Center in Maryland. These restrictions prohibit external religious imagery and require multiple religious expressions on the same site. The congregation’s commitment to ministry to the community is also evident in the congregation’s decision to build “a home for people unable to completely care for themselves” on the property before building their church (93).

Another building typical of the “American Church model” is Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church in Culver City, California. It is a mission that began in 1996 and meets in a small store-front building while practicing the full weekly cycle of Orthodox liturgy in a very traditional and conservative fashion. Denysenko insightfully argues that mission churches, meeting in rented or other adapted spaces, may be a permanent rather than transitional feature of American Orthodoxy.

The third model Denysenko defines is the “Liturgical Renewal model.” Such churches engage liturgical history in order to adapt their liturgy to serve contemporary peoples. They design their buildings to accommodate this revised liturgy. Churches grouped within this type include the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the Church of the Holy Wisdom at the New Skete Monastery in rural Cambridge, New York. St. Matthew also shares elements of these models, just as it shares elements of the American Church model it typifies. While New Skete, as a monastic community, has had the freedom to be more innovative in the reform of its space and liturgy, its rural location and “the vibrant perception” in American Orthodoxy “of liturgy as unchangeable” limit its influence (229). Denysenko judges St. Vladimir’s focus on achieving renewal by emphasizing neglected aspects of received tradition to be capable of greater influence. Indeed, the Church of the Holy Wisdom has already been a model for parish churches.

Denysenko builds his study on detailed field observations. He participated in the development of St. Katherine’s and St. Matthew’s current buildings, and he worshiped regularly for three years in the Holy Hierarchs Chapel while studying at St. Vladimir’s. In the first chapter, he orients the reader to the history of Orthodox liturgy and architecture. Definitions of many distinctive terms may be found in the endnotes. Thus, the book is both an informed and accessible study of the diversity of Orthodox architecture in contemporary America.

Perhaps the book’s most persistent question is whether architectural form still follows from liturgical function, as Robert Taft argued in the earlier development of the tradition (27). Denysenko concludes that in some cases it does, but that new community priorities increasingly result in the detachment of form from function (224). He highlights how even those pursuing liturgical maximalism are able to perform the liturgy appropriately in any large room, even a storefront (219), and how a congregation neglects the processional path that was part of its building’s design in order to make processions visible to the broader community (87). As the title Theology and Form suggests, Denysenko shows that it is the complete lived theology of the communities, encompassing a focus on ethnic heritage and mission, as well as liturgy, that shapes the spaces American Orthodox Christians build or adapt.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David R. Bains is S. Louis and Ann W. Armstrong Professor of Religion at Samford University.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Denysenko is associate professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.


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