Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Altar Austerity

I had never given much thought to the way we decorate a chancel until I went to Mepkin Abbey in 2004.  The space around the altar was changed, sometimes throughout the day, depending on the purpose of the worship service.  The flowers were in a huge urn beside the altar, not on the altar.  The flowers were cut from the grounds and mixed with some autumn leaf garland, the kind you could get from JoAnns.  It was very different from anything I had ever experienced.

I grew up in fairly traditional Lutheran churches.  We might have had a new banner here and there, but for the most part, they remained the same.  The flowers were fresh each week, but it was always a tasteful bouquet.  The paraments changed with the seasons, but the paraments were likely the same ones that the church had possessed for decades.  They looked like this:

The end of Maundy Thursday service was so forceful because we so seldom saw the stripped altar.  The altar in my current church has been created out of beautiful, white marble, but I'm not sure that people perceive it as marble from a distance.  Until recently, my church, like the churches of my childhood, decorated the altar with traditional paraments and white cloths that got washed every week.

Now we have no altar guild, so there's not as much pressure to use the paraments.  The families that might have bought those paraments have died long ago.  We can do more with the open space under the altar if it's not covered.

But it's important to remember that we have a substantial number of church members who might prefer a more austere altar space.  Last year, we draped the altar with fabrics to create this look:

But as we worked with the fabrics, one parishioner voiced her displeasure.  After trying different approaches and talking to her further, I realized that she would never like the same kind of altar that I do.  She thought that the draped and cascading fabrics looked too busy.  She missed the quiet paraments that we used to have.

I wonder if this tension is ever taught in seminary.  I wonder if the possibility of the worship space as artistic expression is taught.  I imagine that most seminaries assume some altar guild will take care of all that, but I realize I am likely selling seminaries short in assuming that seminaries focus on translating sacred texts and explicating them in words, not images.

I feel lucky that I'm part of a church that's willing to experiment.  But I also want to remain alert to the silent ones in the pews that might wish we didn't feel the need to experiment quite so much.

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