Sunday 9 October 2016

Why a Nave Altar does not work at Coventry Cathedral

This morning, as often happens on Sundays, I served Mass at Coventry Cathedral. The service went really well unlike last week.

Last week we used a nave Altar.

Now in some cathedrals such as Peterborough Cathedral, where I was a server for a year in 1997-98 during my industrial placement year at Perkins Engines (Peterborough) Ltd, you need a nave Altar as due to distance and architecture since you can't actually see the High Altar.

However in Coventry there are no thick pillars, there is no rood screen. The High Altar can be easily seen from anywhere in the nave.

In actual fact a nave Altar is harder to see as it is on the same level as the nave so if you are not sitting at the front your sight line is blocked. Do people not realise that the High Altar, being raised several steps above the floor is designed to be seen from the back of nave.

It is therefore clear that, in Coventry's case anyway, there is no architectural need for a nave Altar.

So why use one?

Clearly it can only be for theological reasons.

So therefore, having established there is no architectural reasons for a nave Altar at Coventry we need to consider what theological point those clergy who support a nave Altar are trying to push.

The general theory seems to be that bringing the "action" closer to the people is a good thing. However as we have established above the use of the nave Altar actually blocks sight lines and therefore moves the "action" away from the people.

Therefore we must ignore the reason stated and look for the real reason.

Unfortunately we must then consider the only reason is because people are wishing to downgrade what we actually do.

Let's stop a moment consider what we do in Eucharist.

Bread and Wine becomes the actual and real Body and Blood of Christ to us. So therefore then just standing around a nave Altar rather than kneeling at an Altar rail means we are not considering what we are doing. We should kneel. This is Christ himself we are receiving. As Cardinal Arinze said with regards to receiving the Eucharist kneeling. "If we believe, if we truly believe that it is Jesus, the Son of God, then why don't we kneel, why don't we crawl?"

This is God himself we receive. Ignoring our architecture, standing around a small table that is hard to see apart from the first few rows at the front, is this really a foretaste of the heavenly banquet? Is this really the House of God? Is this really the Gate of Heaven?

Now some people might say, it's only planned for a couple of times a term, why not be flexible. That is fair point. But are the cathedral being flexible or are they pushing an agenda? If they truly believe that this is about being flexible in our worship, then I would hope to match the twice a term nave Altar that twice a term we have the Eucharist celebrated at the High Altar with the celebrant facing east.

Yes that's right, not a service with clergy behind the altar looking out over the congregation, making the Mass look like a coffee shop, but the Mass being celebrated by a priest facing the same way as the people. A priest leading his/her people to God not being the star of show. Or, as I fear, is all the flexibility just one way?

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