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
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.