Liturgy Lab

Bishop Lee convenes a meeting of creative minds

In the season in which Christians remember their dead, Bishop Jeff Lee and the founders of Sacred Design Lab convened a two-day gathering at the Nicholas Center to explore the rituals in which people seek meaning, transformation and a sense of belonging. Not quite half of those who gathered were Episcopal liturgists or musicians. The others were experience designers. It turns out they had a lot to say to each other.

Experience design is a relatively new field that focuses on designing products, processes, events and environments from the perspective of the user or participant. It covers everything from how individuals interact with an automatic teller machine to the emotions they experience while participating in a communal enterprise—like, say, an Episcopal liturgy.

“We had some assumptions coming in,” said Sue Phillips, co-founder of Sacred Design Lab and graduate of Episcopal Divinity School. “Chief among those was that liturgists and experience designers are fundamentally in the same business as it were … crafting experience that put the users experience internally in dialog with what is happening externally.”


On the first day of the gathering, the two groups explained themselves to one another. The Rev. Canon Patrick Malloy of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, who previously taught liturgy at General Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Canon James Turrell, professor of divinity at Sewanee took the lead in explaining the history, theology and practice of Episcopal liturgy. Ida Benedetto, an experience designer whose work has been featured by The New York Times and National Public Radio and Matthew Chavez, who is widely known for his interactive art exhibits in New York City subways put some language to the field of experience design.

When Benedetto said her research suggested that all transformative experience involves an element of risk, heads began nodding around the room, Lee said, and the conversation spun into an exploration of the risks the earliest Christians faced in proclaiming their faith, and how processes such as the catechumenate had developed in part to help people prepare to face that risk.

Lee said Benedetto’s observation got him thinking about the nature of Episcopal religious ritual. “Where is the element of risk?” he said. “If our liturgical life is lackluster, maybe it is because there is often nothing at stake.”

Later, the group went next door to St. James Cathedral for a celebration of the evening prayer service of All Saints Day. The service, Lee says, was accompanied by “an explanation of what Christians mean by the term ‘all saints’ and why the church calendar focuses on the harvest of souls theme in advance of Advent.”

“There was something lovely and almost healing about being able to come into a church context with my skill set and be welcomed wholly and not questioned about the oddness of some of what I do,” Benedetto said.

The desire to remember the dead is universal, and provided an excellent prompt for the following day’s activities when participants worked on projects in small groups.

“They had two briefs,” Phillips said. “One was to create a public ritual or experience that invites people to make shared meaning of the veil between life and death, and then to create a ritual for pre-existing small groups.”

One proposed service, pictured above, involved an outdoor remembrance of the dead on a neighborhood cul de sac. Another, also pictured, involved the creation of a shrine during a shared meal.

“Until you can interact with a physical object, they literally don’t take shape. So they were building prototypes, with very simple materials, both to get their ideas out and then to explain them to large groups,” Phillips said.

Lee said he was encouraged by the depth of the conversation during the gathering and is eager to see it carried forward.

“This dialogue represents a remarkable opportunity for Christian participants to tell the story of  our faith in Christ and to learn from the experiences of others who are working to address the longing for meaning in our time,” he said.

“Liturgy and ritual involves so much more than just the words on the page,” the bishop added. “We need to redouble our work at recovering this understanding. We have this huge treasure chest, not just of words, but ways of enacting the words, and too often that gets short shrift.”

Participants in the diocese’s convention got a taste of the thinking and methodology that informed the gathering from keynote speakers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, the other two co-founders of Sacred Design Lab.