Displaced altars

Peter Mullen offers a cheerful rant against the use of nave altars a secularization of the liturgy which destroys the symbolic purpose of church design and the mystery of the Sacrament

I have just got back from a visit to some notable French churches - particularly the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vezelay and the glorious Bourges cathedral. Apart from Paris, France is mainly rural with a sense of spaciousness, and every village has its ancient church. They are acutely short of priests of course, but when you visit those medieval churches, you can still sense the Middle Ages, the lingering presence of what used to be known as Christendom.

There is one flaw which disfigures these evocative church buildings, and this is the bringing forward of the high altar from its proper place under the east wall and setting it up at the head of the nave. It is not just Bourges and Vezelay, but Rheims and St Peters in Rome, Canterbury and York and almost all the parish churches throughout Europe.

Purpose of the design

This is a fairly recent desecration. Until the Second Vatican Council in the Sixties and the dumbed-down modernization of church services by the Church of England's Liturgical Commission which began about the same time, the interiors of our churches and cathedrals were so ordered as to be conduits for awe and holy fear, to remind us of the majesty of God and the lineaments of the Christian life.

Before this blasphemous meddling occurred, we understood from a church's design that the Christian life is a pilgrimage of grace which begins at the font at the back, proceeds to the chancel step where we are confirmed and married and reaches its fulfilment in the extreme east at the high altar in the sacrifice of the Mass and the receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The altar dumped at the head of the nave destroys this spiritual progression by savagely interrupting it. It is blasphemous because it removes awe, wonder and mystery. It obliterates the internal coherence of the church by rendering the east end - what is meant to be the apogee - redundant. The nave altar even looks out of place and you are left wondering why ever they decided to put it there.

The answer is a loss of nerve and confidence by the hierarchy and the destruction of tangible holiness by the very people, bishops and the like, who were ordained and appointed to uphold it. No persecution by external enemies can ever harm the Church. We are only undermined when our own bishops and councils and synods behave as people who think the Faith incredible. More even than the imposition of the crass modern liturgies, this single act of physical vandalism has diminished what is numinous, the sense of the holy.

Mystery and reverence

The nave altar, with the priest standing behind it and facing the congregation, represents the secularization of the Sacrament and the destruction of the central mystery. The people of God were not meant to stand like idle spectators gawping at the consecration of the sacred elements. The manual actions of the over-the-table priest resemble the motions of the conjurer or the shopkeeper.

The saints themselves warned us relentlessly of the danger of becoming too familiar with holy things. There is meant to be awe and mystery. The mystery works two ways: from God to us and from us back to God in response, through the priest. The actions of the priest at the consecration are something that he does before God on behalf of the people. The next logical step is to have lay people celebrate the Mass; and, predictably, there is a campaign for just this.

The physical grammar of the east end altar is a perfect liturgical and theological representation of what is going on in the Mass. The priest faces the east wall or window which is the symbol of God's transcendence and speaks with God on behalf of the people. Having his back to the people is not discourtesy towards them but reverence - from the priest and the people - towards God. Of course he does not have his back to the people all the time: with perfect consistency, he turns to face the people when he speaks to them on behalf of God - when he pronounces the Absolution, for example.

The liturgical iconoclasts argued that the over-the-table rite at a nave altar symbolizes Christ's accessibility to all. The veil of the levitical Temple from the Old Testament days has been rent in twain. But the price paid for this false theologizing is desacralization. The mystery has departed - and with it the glory and the blessing.

The modernizers'reasons

The modern liturgists say that the priests of the early Church celebrated the Mass facing the people. Perhaps, but that was centuries before the theological genius represented by the form and structure of the gothic cathedral: the Incarnation in glass and stone. We are traditionalists; but we are not prisoners of history, as our opponents make us out to be. The faith develops: that is, Christ's promise of the Holy Ghost to teach us and to lead us into all truth; not to locate the whole truth in any particular moment of history. Besides, it is odd to hear these liturgical progressives telling us to follow the procedures of the first century when they also declare that we cannot understand the language of the seventeenth-century Book of Common Prayer.

They argued also that the west-facing priest makes the whole liturgical action more open and inclusive. This is nonsense, for it places the priest and people together in a circle, which excludes those who are beyond its circumference. The liturgical circle whose centre is the nave altar excludes the world beyond and so destroys the missionary and outreach symbolism that was always clear in the traditional way.

If Christianity in Europe is to survive in the face of militant, expansionary Islam and the virulent secularizing tendencies of our own elite, then we need to recover the sense of sacred mystery and holy fear. The secularizing, democratizing hierarchies have had it their way for forty years with the result that churches have emptied. Any restoration must begin with a counter-revolution. Replacing the altar to its proper place would be the most important single act in the holy warfare we are called to engage in. |jyp|

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