Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Altared" States

Courtesy of DMac at CMR, here's a look at yet another cathedral renovation that strains the meaning of the word.

Here, for easy comparison, is the old altar at the old cathedral:

And here's the new:

Now, the old altar is clearly an altar. There's no doubt that the church exists for the greater glory of God. The whole orientation of the church makes that clear.

The new altar--well, it looks like a 1970s coffee table, an example of which can be found here; I've put its picture below:
The 1970s influence is even greater when the altar in the new church has its lights on. Yes, lights. They emanate from the frosted glass (!) base. You can look at it here; I'm too fainthearted to post any more examples of the horror, neither the lights (which could have been worse--they could have gone all out with the 70s coffee-table theme and done disco lighting) nor what DMac succinctly describes as the "day-glo" panels behind the Coffee Table of Sacrifice. I'm also not showing the pictures of the "in-the-round" seating, which alas is no longer rare, but which still combines the charming ability to see full-on one's neighbor snoozing or the lady with the neckline that looks like it might plunge over the cliff or the kid with the obscene t-shirt etc., with the complete inability to ignore the showy cantor at center stage--er, sanctuary? Dais? What do we even call, anymore, that nebulous part of the "worship space" where podiums erupt like unfortunate stalagmites from the glistening floor?

The two cathedral buildings seem to have a different purpose altogether. The old cathedral says, simply, "Come and worship the Almighty God; participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and partake of the Eucharist." The new building says, "Are there any visitors here today? Oh, yes, and where are you from? Let's give them a round of applause. Now, what about birthdays? Anniversaries? Good, good. Well, here we are again, gathered around the Lord's (Coffee) Table, to become bread for each other. And to be good bread we need--what? Anybody? Elizabeth? Jim? Nice to see you're back from your vacation, Jim. Oh, Sally? Yes, that's right, we need God's special leaven to make us bread. We can't be bread for each other without God's leaven in our hearts, right? So for all those times when we've failed to be bread, let us ask God to add more leaven into our hearts..."

Meanwhile the congregation, having tuned out at "visitors," looks at the altar and thinks--if I slip out before the closing Song O' Our Specialness, I can hit the coffee and donuts before all the chocolate glazed are gone...


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. The "improvements" are a giant, expensive, leap in the wrong direction.

Jan Hus

Red Cardigan said...

Hi, Jan Hus! Nice to see you here. :) And thanks!

Todd said...

I don't agree, but the photos don't seem to tell the whole story.

The second altar seems made of fine polished wood for the mensa and stone for the support. Seems noble enough to me.

As for the "before" altar, it's hard to tell if it's real or not. I worked in a church that was proud of its altar of imported "Italian marble." Turned out it was 3/8 inch marble veneer attached to concrete.

Barbara said...

At first glance at the "new" I thought, "Mormon Tabernacle Choir!" Do they have an altar in their Temple?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Does anyone remember that Jan Hus was a freethinking Protestant, burned at the stake for heresy? How about if I started signing off as St. Ignatius of Loyola? OK, I know, many Jesuits are pretty darned liberal these days.

But on the altar matter, I really have a taste for architecture which has some age and strength and character to it, something with esthetics, and in sacred architecture, something that conveys a sense of awe. As long as its for God, not for one of his servants, I totally agree with the perspective offered here.

Gerard Nadal said...


I'm coming down to Texas to clone you. Don't bother resisting!!

What a travesty. It's no accident that the altar looks like a 70's coffee table, as the gang in charge were all ordained in the 60's and 70's.

Tell me, does the Bishop process in in a Partidge Family school bus?

Red Cardigan said...

Shh, Gerard. Don't give the Bishop any ideas! ;)

Barbara C. said...

I've never heard of an octagon being considered a Christian symbol before, like the article suggests. Interesting.

While I do have fond memories of the traditional "long" church, I must admit that I find the "in-the-round" seating (which may be more accurately described as sideways since "in-the-round" means the audience is on all sides of the stage) a little more practical in some respects. For instance, with small children it means that there are more front row seats available.

I agree about the horrible back's like a nightclub.

The more modern church in my area (c. 2006) on the other hand looks like it just needs tables and chairs to be turned into an Olive Garden and is set up like some of the Protestant mega-churches.

Anonymous said...

The wood, marble, rounded designs, domes, spires, incorporation of cultural figures, but especially the expanse of lighted cobalt blue wonderfully reminds me of the gargoyles, blackwork, intricate wood carving, organ pipe display of several cathedrals I visited in spring, including Frauenkirche and Katholische Hofkirche in Dresden, St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Stephensdom, Stift Heiligenkreuz, and St. Peter's in Vienna.

The brilliant blue of Berlin's Kaiserwilhelmkirche was astounding because one looks up into blue glass on entering the church and thinks they will be 'lost' in almost overwhelming sense of intense blue color in the windows behind the altar, but there is adequate lighting in the worship area for full participation; truly awesome. (Look up 'the broken tooth' Protestant Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin), so nicknamed because of what was left of the church standing after the bombing in WWII.

My neighborhood church has beautifully detailed stained glass installed when it was built in the late '50s which unfortunately (to my way of thinking) is way too dark with intricacies of black leading.

Another sign of the times, though, are the beautiful old Protestant churches with their stained glass and proud erect steeples and belfries which have many windows boarded up and abandoned because the upkeep was too expensive and the parish sold the building for profit to a flea market outfit, or another a quilt-making enterprise.

But, churches are only buildings, the Church is the heart of the matter, and the new church building appears as if it could hold many of the faithful.

Rebecca said...

The new one sure is ucky. It reminds me of Star Trek or something. What is it about new cathedrals? They call the one here in SF the Maytag.

The newer one in Oakland is also a massive travesty, inside and out.

I'm sorry, but it looks like it should house the headquarters of the evil Empire.