The vicar of the Anglican parish of Castlemaine in central Victoria has decided as a parting shot before he retires to vandalise the interior of the parish church, a substantial Gothic Revival edifice in sandstone built in 1854 of which, he should remember, he was never more than a temporary custodian, not the proprietor. He has moved the choir stalls from either side of the chancel - an arrangement traditional in Anglican churches since its invention in the nineteenth century by the Ecclesiologists - and put them in ascending rows in the sanctuary. The altar that had stood there since the church was new has been trundled forward to the head of the nave. The choir faces the congregation like singers at a concert, with the reredos peeping above their heads. (You can just make out the inscription Holy Holy Holy: one hopes the choir wear appropriately beatific smiles.) The liturgical principle is that of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, though with a fraction of the choristers. The changes have compromised the internal logic of the building, the main part of which is one large nave and chancel combined in which the furnishings define the different parts.

It is a great pity that this church is being arbitrarily played around with, not least because on the whole the Anglican Church in Australia has hitherto treated its historic buildings with sensitivity and respect. On the whole - though even after ten or more years who can forget that one of the most notorious examples of vandalisation of any church in Australia was in an Anglican parish? At Glenhuntly in Melbourne's inner south-east, the then vicar of a church once declared the most beautiful in its diocese fell upon the building entrusted to him with an iconoclastic zeal the Puritans might have thought excessive. He tore out the graceful pulpit with its tester, wrenched the lectern from its pedestal, ripped up the floor of the sanctuary to lower - for some unfathomable reason - the level of the altar, scrapped some of the pews and moved the rest around and installed a refrigerator and "kitchenette" at the back of the nave under the First World War memorial board.

That vicar is long gone but, like the melody, his desecration lingers on, partly because no one has since put the church to rights and, now that the future of the parish is in doubt, probably no one ever well. Perhaps if the church passes out of use its mutilated interior could be retained as a cautionary example of what philistine clergymen can get up to when the mood for "reordering" is upon them.

Rare though this level of "wreckovation" has been in the Anglican Church, some disturbing cases are now being reported as the Evangelicals gain the ascendant in many parishes. These will be the subject of a future post.

Of course, when it comes to insane destruction of fine church interiors, Roman Catholics wrote the book, at least in Australia where priests seem to be able to do anything they want, unrestrained by authority or architectural and liturgical precedent.

I have written on this many times before and there is no need to go over it now, but one would have hoped that the worst of the damage carried out in the name of post-Vatican II "renewal" was over. But half a century after the Council it still goes on here and there, even though you'd think there wasn't much left to "renew". A recent example is the "restoration" of the Carmelite Church in Middle Park, Melbourne, a cavernous neo-Byzantine building in red brick designed before the First World War by the very prolific architect A. A. Fritsch in his usual full-blooded style. Fritsch's churches were intended to accommodate large congregations but of course there are fewer massgoers now (especially in gentrified paganised Middle Park) and the forest of pews can look a bit empty. Solution: move half of them out and bring the altar and everything down into the nave.

There was already a post-conciliar versus populum altar in Our Lady of Mount Carmel but it wasn't far enough forward for today's Carmelites. Now, an apron of polished timber flooring projects down what was the central aisle of the church with a conga line of new furnishings arranged on it. First comes a a big font like the bowl of a fountain - though perhaps for reasons of economy this is not the deluxe version, which you can get with water ("living water") flowing perpetually in and out of it through a tubular loop. Beyond that is an altar, square and with canted sides for no apparent reason. Stage left is a lectern and at the far end, with its back towards the tabernacle on the former high altar, a chair for the celebrant. The whole arrangement is pointless and liturgically impractical. It is of course an idea imported from the modish liturgical "experts" who held sway in the United States thirty years ago. Filling an empty space was only its incidental purpose; the real reason for putting altars in the middle of the congregation is to promote a quasi-Protestant understanding of the Mass in which "the people of God" enjoy a "family meal" around the table. This leaves the sanctuary redundant but that's just too bad.

Such protestantising of Catholic churches has almost faded from fashion in the US, where most ecclesiastical architects are now kept busy restoring "reordered" churches to their traditional appearance. But in Australia it lingers on, most notably in the work of an architect called Randall Lindstrom and Prism Designs. Have a look at what he's done to the Sydney church of the Blessed Sacrament fathers, whose raison d’ĂȘtre was once the antithesis of Protestant eucharistic notions (and one of whose elderly priests is a Prism "liturgical consultant"). Roman Catholics who care about their churches should be on guard if their priest suggests consulting Randall or threatens a parish "consultation" on making the sanctuary more "fitted to the eucharistic insights of Vatican II". Whatever changes are made won't get the crowds flocking back to Mass, and in a few years the damage will need to be expensively undone, and there'll be a smaller congregation to pay for it.

One might note in passing that the reason altars were turned around after the Second Vatican Council and brought down from the sanctuary closer to the congregation was to remove the "distinction" between priest and people in the offering of the Mass (and why have priests at all if there is no distinction?). In fact it has underlined it. Priest and congregation now face each other with the altar dividing them and engage in a dialogue, each with their own part. When priest and people faced the same way, the priest at the altar and the people following his words in translation in their missals, they were far more as one. Anyone attending a celebration of the pre-conciliar Mass will notice this at once. Progressives have not grasped this fact and will continue to turn around any altars left unturned they can get their hands on and to obstruct proposals to reinstate altars in their proper place.

23 November 2013

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