Altering the altar

Published January 1, 2005

The congregation of St. Thomas sits in chairs arranged in concentric circles around a movable altar.

When Canon Michael McKinley arrived as rector of St. Thomas’ church in St. Catharines, Ont., the first thing that struck him was how this downtown Richardson Romanesque church built in 1875 was “just crying out for improvement.”

The building itself was “somewhat decrepit,” he recalls. The furnishings were sombre, the lights too dull, pews outnumbered the congregation. There were just rows upon rows of pews so that “there was hardly any space to do things,” he recalls.

“A paint job just didn’t do the trick,” he says.

It was the mid-’80s – a time when 20th century liturgical renewal movement was gaining momentum among Anglicans in Canada, giving rise to the publication in 1985 of the Book of Alternative Services.

Mr. McKinley, like other similarly-minded Anglicans, was searching for different ways of worship, of breaking down barriers between God and people.

Elsewhere in the world, the idea of creating a “sacred space” – where God communicates through place and where people could, in turn, express their faith in non-traditional ways – was already a reality. In the aftermath of Vatican II, Roman Catholic churches in the 1970s did not just renew their liturgy but the design of liturgical space to meet changing needs. They embarked on “visioning” journeys and decided that the architecture of their churches needed to reflect their mission and values. For some, it meant not just re-ordering worship space (for example, removing the elevated pulpit where the priest is not only separated from the people but literally talks down to them) but also creating multi-layered spaces for other needs like community building, outreach, and private spaces for grieving, meditating, and yes, even daydreaming. For others, it involved literally tearing down walls.

Moved, as he said, by the Holy Spirit, Mr. McKinley took a leap of faith. He brought the idea of renewal to parishioners who organized a committee to study the proposal and learn how furnishings might facilitate, not obstruct worship.

“At first we were just aiming for flexibility,” he recalls. But Gerald Robinson, a Toronto architect and liturgical consultant, challenged them to be radical. Mr. Robinson visited St. Thomas and noted that the vitality of parishioners was contained inside the “stone box” that was the church. His suggestions: A glass door to attract people to the church from the outside and where churchgoers, in turn, could relate themselves to the community; theatrical lights instead of conventional ceiling lamps and chandeliers; flexible furnishings and moveable chairs instead of pews to allow greater variety in worship; the removal of steps and creation of a forecourt and elevator.

It was not an easy task convincing a congregation to change. “It was a big hurdle even just to remove the pews,” recalls Mr. McKinley. “I found that some people were attached to the trappings of Christianity, not the heart of Christianity. It was also the seven last words: We never did it that way before.”

Members of the community, who considered the church to be a city landmark and clung to the view that “if it’s old, it must be sacred,” and a local conservation committee were also opposed.

After much prayer, persistence and education, the call for change prevailed. “We wanted a building that would serve the purpose of worshippers rather than the other way around,” says Mr. McKinley. “We wanted to make sure it would reflect what we’re about.”

That definition is now reflected in the church’s exterior – the glass door and forecourt – and the interior, where the communion table is at the centre of the church, “emphasizing the imminence of God.” The congregation sits around the altar, in concentric circles, experiencing God in their midst rather than above them. St. Thomas has also become a place that spreads the Gospel through religious dramas and concerts performed by parishioners, where feasts can be commemorated in various settings because of the moveable altar and furnishings and where the centrality of baptism is dramatized by a baptismal font that can be moved to the centre of the worship space.

For those seeking space renewal, the challenge is turning the house of God into one that is more akin to a home rather than a palace.

“Although it will come as something of a shock to most members of our church communities, the interiors of the vast majority of our houses of the church are a living liturgical nightmare,” writes Richard Giles in his book Re-Pitching the Tent. “They are cluttered spaces devoid of space and full to overwhelming with furniture, displaying a total visual confusion of purpose, enshrining as sacrosanct liturgical divisions and practices which have long ceased to have any theological meaning, temples of prejudiced conservatism and repositories for threadbare furnishings which we would have discarded from our homes years ago.”

A church with a more conservative bent has also embarked on its own renewal journey, albeit in a different context.

St. James the Less, a charismatic/evangelical Anglican church in Renforth, N.B., in the diocese of Fredericton, erected a new, accessible building in 1998 that replaced an older one, a typical chapel on the hill.

“The funeral director used to hate coming here,” says its rector, Rev. Eric Phinney. “Can you imagine carrying a casket through all these steps (24 leading up to the chapel, six more to enter the sanctuary)?”

Mr. Phinney also believes that a church’s architecture and design must speak not only of the denomination but the congregation. But he says they must not only “respond to the needs of people but also have a biblical thread that runs through it.” Hence its adoption of full immersion baptism (more commonly associated with Baptists), which he says, speaks of his church as one “involved in the evangelism and the baptism of believers and their children.”

There have been other physical changes at St. James the Less. “There’s not a step in the whole church except the Lord’s table, which is one inch higher,” says Mr. Phinney. “Worship space is diamond-shaped. We don’t use an organ; we have musicians that gather around the Lord’s Table.” When he preaches, Mr. Phinney has a 270-degree field of vision. “I’m surrounded by people on three sides, so it speaks of a community speaking together rather than the traditional nave, which is a top-down, linear authority and structure.”

The movement, some would say revolution, towards renewal (and for some, restoration) continues across many Anglican churches in Canada. Some examples: All Saints’, Burnaby, in the diocese of British Columbia, has a moveable altar that creates an open space for performances. St. Laurence, in the diocese of Calgary, has also placed its sanctuary in the middle. Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver embarked on a full restoration and renewal project that “respects the heritage aspects of the traditional church building while enhancing the beauty and flexibility of the space for worship, cultural and civic events.”

The winds of change have also affected the diocese of Montreal, where Anglicans are surrounded by a large Roman Catholic population. Changes to Anglican worship space have generally been “very conservative,” according to Archdeacon Peter Hannen, diocesan executive officer. But he said that there have been some “dramatic makeovers” like St. Matthias, Westmount, “where the choir and organ were moved to the back of the nave, and the chancel was completely cleared.”

The former primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, was an advocate for renewal of liturgical space. In his January 1996 Grace Notes column for Anglican Journal, he called for the chopping up of “the great Anglican woodpile,” citing how an overpewed church “becomes an experience of isolation rather than communion.”

If a church is to be relevant in today’s world, writes Mr. Giles, it must realize that, “The house of the church is no longer a ‘weekend cottage’ for busy people to escape to on Sundays, it is a bustling centre of activity for a growing family who are in and out of the place every day of the week.

“The church’s building is now called upon to provide within its four walls a home, a worship workshop, a source of inspiration, an oasis of prayer, a community college, an advice centre, a typing pool, a soup kitchen and an operational headquarters for a missionary organization.”

In other words, it must be there for the people of God.

Re-Pitching the Tent, 3rd edition, The Canterbury Press Norwich & The Liturgical Press 2004 © Richard Giles 2004, reproduced by permission


Related Posts

Skip to content