I am the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill, New York, a historic Hudson Valley church. It is a beautiful stone building with a massive stone tower topped by a steeple. The nave is held up by beautifully worked timbers and filled with wonderful stained glass from the Lamb Studios and one window from Tiffany.
The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1893. At this time the full weight of the Oxford revival was being felt in the Hudson Valley. The nave is long, with a deep choir and a raised, high altar of marble against the (liturgical) east wall, over which a striking rose window was placed in memory of the famous American artist Thomas Cole, a member of the parish. Originally there was a rood screen in front of the choir, and the communion rail was at the foot of the altar steps.
The presentation of the Cross as tabernacle and temple in the Book of Hebrews provided a theological rationale for this architecture. Because of Christ’s sacrifice we may go boldly into the holy of holies, to the throne of grace, there to receive the body and blood of the Lord and be made one with him. The building’s original architecture allowed this dramatic movement to be enacted in the liturgy, by passing through the Cross into the inner sanctum for the administration of communion.
Subsequently the rood screen has been removed, and now decorates a parish hall across the river in Hudson. About ten years ago, St. Luke’s received a grant from the United Thank Offering to refurbish the choir area for a substantial, freestanding altar. It was done exceptionally well and gives a capacious liturgical space for celebrating versus populum. The communion rail is now in the nave and the freestanding altar sits just under the arch where the choir begins.
All of these changes were made with the hope that bringing the people and priest closer together, both spatially and theologically, would reverse numerical decline and be more user-friendly for contemporary people. It would clarify that the Eucharist was the action of the whole people of God, according to each person’s order.
A significant portion of the parish really likes the freestanding altar and the entire liturgical ethos that goes with it. Another portion, probably a majority of the parish, has a great attachment to the high altar. (The divisions are not generational.) While the change to versus populum brought about various gains and losses in the parish’s liturgical and spiritual life, they have not slowed the numerical decline typical of mainline churches in small-town America.
Perhaps 20 years ago I participated in a sophisticated parish leadership simulation game. By a throw of the dice, you received cards involving a set of leadership decisions. One involved leading an imaginary parish through the process of changing from an Eastward-facing to a freestanding altar. Follow-on decisions related to the level of education to be offered and whether to hire liturgical consultants for the redesign.
In the wisdom of the game’s designers this turned out to be a losing card. You did better in the simulation if you took a pass and kept instead the card that read “Emphasize small group Bible studies.” Some canny parish observers came to recognize that liturgical remodeling promised more than it delivered.
I received my theological education and training in liturgy under the assurance that versus populum celebration was the most ancient and liturgically correct option. All else was accursed medievalism. For most of my 35 years of ministry, I have celebrated happily at freestanding altars, only occasionally flummoxed by celebrating ad orientem due to immovable architecture in a church where I was a guest.
As a seminary teacher I had the opportunity to visit a great many churches as a guest preacher. Some were beautifully made for a freestanding altar; others had refits that really worked; but in many, many churches the refit just didn’t work very well.
Something happened to me over these years. I became more and more sensitive to the architectural violence done to so many sanctuaries in refitting them for a freestanding altar. Usually the high altar is still there against the wall, abandoned but looming in the background, while the Eucharist is celebrated at a table that often looks too small and shoehorned into the space. I wonder now about the iconoclasm perpetrated in the name of the liturgical movement.
A former parishioner of mine is a Harvard-trained landscape architect. She is a wonderful person with a limited interest in Christian doctrine who enthusiastically defines herself as an Episco-Buddhist. She is sensitive to design, but with little background in theology and no axe to grind in this debate. She asked me once why the altar has been abandoned in so many of our churches. There was more theology in her observation than she knew.
In most refitted liturgical spaces that one encounters, the message of iconoclasm and abandonment is unavoidable. I have come to find this visual message a poignant embarrassment. What drove my elders’ compulsion to disturb and distort liturgical spaces that were based upon a completely coherent and orthodox theological rationale? Why the drive to fight the original design and turn one thing done well into a poor copy of the other?
Certainly liturgical spaces specifically designed for versus populum have their own completely coherent and orthodox theological rationale, and I don’t think there was a plot to abandon the themes of cross and sacrifice. But we are communicating visually more than we know.
Priests always assured the faithful that the changes returned sanctuaries designed for ad orientem to the most ancient and theologically correct scheme. The certainty of these scholarly judgments looks overstated now. C.S. Lewis said somewhere that most laity are more interested in whether something is meat or poison than in its original position on the menu. In Letters to Malcolm, he noted that the clergy had changed Feed my sheep into Experiment on my rats. “It lays one’s devotion waste.”
When I came to St. Luke’s Church with its well-done, freestanding altar, I was still struck by the feeling of turning my back on and abandoning the monumental high altar. As I looked through the parish paraments, I found exquisite and expensive frontals for it, including a striking red set. I thought it would be wonderful to use these at the high altar for my institution as rector. The idea was well received in the parish, and we moved the freestanding altar out of the way and had the celebration for my institution at the high altar. There was such good feedback about the service that we did the same thing for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It has become our custom now to use the high altar for Christmas, Easter, and other high feasts. Several have requested it for funerals. Many people comment on the feeling of solemnity and transcendence that they feel with the celebration at the high altar. Those who serve at it are often surprised by the power of the experience.
Lately, the men of the parish — who do the heavy lifting involved in moving the freestanding altar back and forth — have asked how often this is really necessary. We need to decide as a parish whether we will continue to use both altars and, if so, what the pattern will be.
It is a teachable moment, and we are looking at the theological rationale for both the original architecture and for the contemporary reforms. Both have integrity and are orthodox and coherent. We probably will use some combination of the two. I doubt I can sell anyone on the idea that only one of these positions is the correct and proper one.
It also seems obvious that something important, precious, and once lost has been recovered.