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Maggie Durran: Reordered chancel

24 August 2012

We are significantly reordering our church in order to bring it up to standard for current and future use. Since we have a nave altar, why shouldn't we just go ahead and dispense with the high altar, and use the chancel for a meeting room?

I run the risk of showing my sensitivities. Churches have not always had the early-20th-century tradition of a high altar on which everyone focused attention during services. The table has moved around, the pulpit has moved around, and so has the congregation. But here are my reasons for not moving the eucharistic table from its easterly high-point.

We are currently in a period, dating back to the 1960s, during which we have domesticated our worship, with the commendable aim of affirming our collective identity as the Body of Christ. For the same reason, we placed the priest behind the table for the eucharistic celebration. Sometimes, the high-altar tradition emphasised the transcendence of God over the immanence. We sought to redress the balance.

The downside of this is that we can lose sight of great traditions: looking towards the east, the symbolic direction from which Christ will return in glory; seeing Christ in his sacramental presence on the table; the priest's facing east with the people, seen as their leader more than as "a Christ" at the table; bowing before the sacrament, not the priest.

In times to come - our buildings will outlast our concerns - the way the liturgy is conducted will change. What is present is not for ever. Also, architecturally and historically - although our primary purpose is to serve and worship God - our older and listed churches embody much of the history and culture of past generations, and, because the church belongs to the parish and not to contemporary worshippers, we are also to care for it on their behalf.

Developing our building can enhance people's interest in our common heritage, and maintaining those elements that embody that history can attract people into church.

Sometimes, past church reorderings, such as some Victorian changes to fixtures and fittings, are now seen to be of little merit, and the diocesan advisory committee will help you to identify these. Writing a Statement of Significance and a Statement of Need will help to keep the changes that are being made now from being unnecessarily disruptive of the past, and too prescriptive for the future.

Respect is the key word - respect for our forebears, and respect for the future, as well as the present. And, despite our present domesticating of things liturgical and sacramental, this is not the only acceptable approach to how we order our building. Just as we would never serve coffee from the chalice, let us be sure that we are not disrespectfully reordering our chancels.



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