Thursday, February 07, 2008
Sanctuary Appointments and Lent
Sanctuaries have a way of reflecting the personality of the congregation. Often times the best way to get to know a congregation is to walk into the sanctuary and look around. Where is the baptismal font? Is there a Christ candle? Are there pews? If so, are they straight, padded, curved, or angled? Are there kneelers? Is there a chancel proper? Where does the choir stand? Are they using multimedia? How integrated are the video components? The sanctuary says a great deal about a congregation's understanding of community, sacrament, Christology, and mission. How is your sanctuary decorated for Lent?
I currently serve a small neighborhood church in North Seattle. You can tell right away when you enter the sanctuary that they value intimate relationship. Often there are quilts on the pews; they are made by church members and then given or auctioned for chairty. Liturgical banners and frontals are also created within the congregation. They are not satin or silk; they are not mass produced or particularly formal. They reflect the communal understandings of this local congregation.
This Lent we are using a set of sanctuary art pieces that are quite interesting. They are quilted pieces that depict a pathway surrounded by wilderness. In keeping with the tradition of Lent the main color is purple. The main decoration is the full frontal of the fixed altar on the chancel wall. Each week during Lent a new part of the journey is added until a big sunrise completes the picture on Easter Sunday. I like the idea of adding a rock, a tree, a mountain as a way of visually moving this community through Lent to Easter. There are complementary paraments for the lectern and the pulpit.
Last year we made the image more compelling by furthering the image of the path. We added plants and rocks - real ones - in the chancel to extend the path on the frontal. We even added cairns. That was a particularly interesting addition since cairns are used to show hikers the pathway. These decorations reminded us that even though we are in the wilderness, there are markers to help us find our way to Easter, to resurrection.
One challenge with these decorations is that the full frontal is obscured when we serve communion from a communion table set up in front of the main altar. This challenge reflects the marginalization of Holy Communion in many United Methodist congregations. There was a time not so long ago when Holy Communion was celebrated only quarterly; now most congregations participate in the sacrament monthly. However, as we move toward a weekly celebration of Holy Communion, the decorations that we currently use will no longer serve their function.
The visuals used in the sanctuary are important, whether we are in the midst of penitential seasons or in the middle of Ordinary Time. How we appoint the sanctuary speaks volumes to us and to our visitors about what we think about God, community, and worship.
Is your church decorated in a way that helps worshipers understand what is happening in the service? In the season? Do you have a theme? Nonverbal messages are at least as important as the verbal ones. What we say, sing, and pray will be undermined if what we do and display don't play a supporting role.
An aside: You can find a lot of horrible, HORRIBLE sanctuary art (my opinion, of course). If you are interested in how sanctuaries and altars "should" look and what the names of the appointments are that you find in sanctuaries, there are a number of good guides. I recommend "The Altar Guild" by Lee Maxwell. For helps in keying in on important themes that will help in decorating your sanctuary, I recommend "Sundays and Seasons" as well as "Living Liturgy". For a look at what good liturgical art looks like, check out the artist Nancy Chinn.
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