Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in New York City is a 19th-century neo-Gothic church built in the shape of a cross. At present the sanctuary is in the chancel, and the nave and transepts are filled with pews all facing in the same direction. The choir sings from the rear of the chancel, in front of a rectangular box that houses the speakers of the electronic organ. If, as is proper, the celebrant and the people symbolically faced east (in our cathedral, this would actually be west), they would be praying (not preaching) to the choir. The high altar, like the communion rails, was removed decades ago; parts of old high altar now make up the present altar, which stands in the chancel near the sanctuary steps. The tabernacle is, unsatisfactorily for worship, at the farther side altar in the north transept. The baptismal font is in the south transept. The high pulpit, used in “extraordinary” times is to the right (looking from the nave) of the sanctuary. A large speaker box looms high on the left.

When Bishop Howard Hubbard gets his way (as under Canon Law he will), the sanctuary will be extended into the nave, the altar placed at the crossing, the choir and the organ made more prominent in the chancel, pews or chairs in the transepts turned to face the altar, pews or chairs in the nave placed from near the foot of the new sanctuary to perhaps halfway or farther down the nave, and an immersion baptismal font positioned in the center of the nave, perhaps halfway between the sanctuary and the front doors. If there are no permanent pews or chairs going back to the choir loft, the sometimes empty floor (possibly a place for a labyrinth), might have different arrangements of chairs, tables, etc., depending on the occasion. I don't remember from the drawings I saw where (or if) the high pulpit might be. The large speaker box high on the left side will be gone. The tabernacle will have its own separate chapel. The church will be more comfortable, brighter, safer, more energy-efficient, more accessible to people of recognized disabilities than it is now. Attendance, and with it, collections will rise. There will also be more frequent concerts and other preformances. The new sanctuary will make a good stage, provided the altar is movable or not too large. The renovated cathedral will be a great success.

If one considers the cathedral church layout as a cross on which lies the body of the church, the present configurattion has the sanctuary as the head, the nave and transepts as the body (undifferentiated because the pews all face the same way), and the choir occupying the area of the hair, the organ box being a kind of cap. The choir loft would be part of the body and would afford a glorious view of the interior, except that it is no longer used by choir or congregation, since access is difficult and, besides, the pipe organ no longer speaks. (Perhaps the only more glorious interior view would have been that afforded to the celebrant raising the host or cup to God at the former high altar and looking at the figure of the Holy Spirit high above him.)

In the new configuration, the altar will be at the heart, the choir and organ at the head, the congregation at the left and right arms and trunk, the baptismal font in the center of the pelvis. The area of the legs will be part of the body or not, according to the occasion. I don't know if the choir loft will be part of the body. The organ committee, of which I am a member, will probably recommend a large gallery organ and a smaller chancel organ. The bishop may well nix the larger (if not both) of the organs as being unaffordable. Certainly, if, as seems likely, the floor will be “multipurpose” towards the back of the the church, the choir loft will often seem separated from the body. It may be a case of commencing with bad theology and finishing with bad anatomy. But a temporarily legless church, with a temporarily altar'd heart, and a temporarily piped or electronic head will still be alive, ready to hear, Talitha cumi, when this generation is dead and buried.


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