THE ALTAR is a primary sign and symbol in the worship space.

I noticed something recently. A bishop was writing about standing behind the altar. Standing behind the altar. Such a use of language not only suggests a particular understanding of Eucharist and of leadership in the Eucharist, but it also, to me, speaks of a sideboard-like altar behind which the bishop is standing.

Until relatively recently, the Western altars we had become used to were much like sideboards set against the East wall of the church. With “liturgical renewal” many pulled these sideboard-like altars away from the Eastern wall and just stood in the gap created between the wall and the altar. The impression: priest as bartender. Some went further, dragging the sideboard-like altar further towards the nave. But they continued to look like bartenders behind furniture that tends to be too high, and looking little like a table.

The presider’s chair might even have been placed directly behind the altar. The impression: priest as judge. If one does not take care, even with a newer altar that configuration and impression can continue.

I have seen worship spaces with three altars in a row! The no-longer-used “high” altar, a newer “nave” altar, and a smaller altar in between for weekday services.

I have seen altars on rollers, where the altar is rolled “away” more often than it is present. What do you want your worship space to speak of when there is no service in there: this is the place where we gather for God’s community meal? If so – the altar needs to be mostly present. Certainly there might be flexibility and the ability, on a particular occasion, to move the altar, but what are we saying when, for example, the altar is little better than a sacred tea trolley?

A contemporary altar is not as long across the front as the older sideboard-style. The one in the photo is 1.5 m (5 feet) across the front. It will be closer to square than the thin rectangle of the past. Square, of course, is not a required shape – an altar could be circular, eight-sided, semi-circular,… it is primarily a table, and a table has no particularly required shape.

The height of the altar is important. The general sideboard-style is probably a bit too high. A dining table is meant for sitting down to. It’s usually around 0.75 m (30 inches) high. This is too low. Kitchen counter height is designed to be at a comfortable height to stand and work at. That standard is 0.91 m (36 inches). This is a good height for a new altar. The height of the altar in the photo stands 0.91 m above the floor.

Space around the altar is important. We move to the altar. We stand around the altar. We stand at an altar. Not behind it.


Photos of the new altar at St Michael and All Angels, Christchurch with the Vicar, Rev. Peter Williams included to give perspective.

This post is, hopefully, useful for a number of contexts. It is particularly offered as one in a series for reflection as we begin planning the building of a number of church buildings after the closing of dozens of church buildings because of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Can you add some ideas, responses, even further questions to help people’s reflections…

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