Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reordering the sanctuary

A discussion paper for West Mersea PCC

The Rector would like the PCC to consider reordering the sanctuary and chancel area within St Peter and St Paul’s church, principally through moving the altar from its present position at the East End, swapping places with the choir.

Theological context
Jesus said “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2.19). The New Covenant inaugurated in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection involved a replacement of the Temple with Jesus’ own body, most especially the celebration of the Eucharist – “This is my blood of the New Covenant”. This has many aspects, but one key element can be thought of as a replacement of a vertical form of worship with a horizontal one.

The temple was built according to very specific instructions, and a plan looks like this:

Temple worship is hierarchical – there is a steady ascension from the world of the profane to the Holy of Holies, and there is a corresponding stripping away of profane people – first the gentiles, then the women, then the non-priests, then finally only the High Priest is able to enter into the most holy place itself. This is what Jesus overturns.

In contrast to Temple worship, with its vertical hierarchy, the Eucharist is a horizontal form of worship, involving a gathering of the equally profane around a common table, to share in a common meal. Whilst there are still ‘priests’, these are not priests in the Temple sense – they are rather ‘presidents’, those whom the church has called out to a specialised rĂ´le in the worshipping life of the community. So an image of horizontal worship, in this sense, might be this:

“There am I in the midst of them.”

Although this is a very basic feature of the New Covenant, it is fair to say that church history records a community which has largely ignored the nature of horizontal worship in favour of the hierarchical model. Hence the prevalence in churches of an altar at the East End. A reaction against this began with the Reformers, who sometimes brought the altar down into the nave itself, but beginning with Vatican II, there is now a substantial ecumenical consensus in favour of a more horizontal understanding of eucharistic worship. This can be seen where cathedrals have re-ordered their own sanctuaries. In St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, celebrations of the eucharist now take place beneath the great dome, in the centre of the cathedral, and the choir are behind the altar. This is what I am looking to establish here in West Mersea.

Logistical issues
As well as this fundamental theological point, there are two practical issues which concern me about our present arrangement, one minor, one major. The minor issue is that the president at the altar cannot see the main part of the lady chapel – and cannot be seen by them. That part of our community is therefore prevented from a full participation in what is happening at the Eucharist (‘Behold the Lamb of God’ doesn’t really work where the beholding is impossible). More crucially – and putting it bluntly – the choir get in the way! (This is not the fault of the choir, of course, it is a purely physical point.) I see two main issues – firstly, when people are at the altar rail to receive communion there is a severe bottle-neck on each side of the church as people have to either wait for a group of people to leave the altar rail, or else walk amongst people’s feet; secondly, people have to negotiate their way past the Director of Music as he conducts the choir from his position at the top of the steps. Each of these aspects I see as significant.

I therefore propose that we bring the altar forward from its present position, and move the choir to the rear of the church, to look something like this:
I see the choir being deployed facing directly West. This maximises the available space, and is acoustically the best option. A number of people have expressed a concern about ‘worshipping the choir’, but that is still applying the vertical model of worship to the arrangement. The whole point is that Christ is ‘in the midst’ of us. At the far East End, between the choir stalls, I see the Bishop’s chair being placed, signifying his role as the ‘ordinary’ of the church (ie the one with ultimate responsibility for our eucharistic worship – the Rector and other clergy operate ‘in his stead’).

Issues to consider
There are a number of detailed elements which need to be considered, as well as the major principle itself. Amongst others:
- how to distribute communion under the new arrangement;
- how to cater for those who wish to kneel to receive;
- whether to move the crucifix from its present position to one directly above the altar (which would be a powerful visual symbol of the nature of the eucharist itself);
- where to place the Rector’s and curate’s pews;
- whether the new arrangement would work for all services, thinking especially of funerals.
There are doubtless other aspects and details which PCC members may wish to raise.

I propose the following timetable:
- firstly, that in its February meeting the PCC agree that this is a suggestion worth exploring, and that we write to the Archdeacon requesting a temporary faculty covering an initial moving of the altar;
- secondly, that we move the altar as soon as possible, and ‘live with’ the arrangements for a period of three months. There will certainly be unforeseen aspects of the change that only become apparent after a change of use;
- thirdly, that we meet for a study day on a Saturday morning in the summer, with the wider congregation, to discuss our experience and to consider whether this is a path that we wish to pursue further;
- fourthly, if we do wish to pursue the rearrangement, that we then formally engage our architect to work up concrete proposals for the PCC to take forward.

(Being distributed to PCC members and ministers today.)

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