I am sending you this special Eblast in order to introduce a liturgical experiment we will be undertaking beginning February 10. It is a part of my job description as Interim to “introduce liturgical variants within the tradition.” I have been doing this in relatively small ways thus far in my 14+ months at St. Paul’s, but now we will be introducing a “variant” that is somewhat larger.
If you have ever visited another Episcopal church, or a Roman Catholic or Lutheran church, you must have noticed that the location of the altar and the orientation of the priest in relation to the congregation is different from our arrangement at St. Paul’s. We have at what is called an “east facing altar,” that is, the altar is against the rear wall of the chancel. At St. Paul’s we are literally facing the cardinal direction East because of the way our church building is situated in the neighborhood, but the term “east facing” is a liturgical term that means not only that the altar is against the wall, but also that the celebrant and the people are all facing the same direction during the consecration of the bread and wine. This is somewhat unusual in the modern church; in fact, there are only a handful of churches in the Diocese of Long Island and a handful in the Diocese of New York with this “east facing” arrangement. Most Episcopal Churches (and RC and Lutheran churches) have what is called a “free-standing altar” (sometimes called “west facing” or a “table altar”). A “free-standing altar,” as the name implies, is not against the wall, and the priest stands behind the altar and celebrates mass facing the people. This is the liturgical experiment we are undertaking. Beginning on February 10, for four Sundays, we will celebrate mass using a free-standing altar. This is a temporary arrangement for these four Sundays only. This is not a permanent change. The experiment ends on Sunday, March 3, and when Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (March 6), we will return to our customary manner of celebrating mass. Also, during the four Sundays of the experiment, we will continue using the traditional language of Rite I, and we will continue to receive Holy Communion in the same manner to which we are accustomed.
Foremost, it is important that everyone understand why we are doing this. The purpose of this experiment is for us to gain a better and deeper understanding of who we are as a worshiping community. We are not doing this because “it’s what everyone else does,” nor is this someone’s agenda. I want to be clear that I am not an advocate of free-standing altars. I am an advocate, however, of St. Paul’s, or any parish, learning about itself and developing a shared understanding of who it is and why it does what it does. Just as with the parish survey, the prayer walks, and the parish summit, this liturgical experiment is a part of our transition and discernment process. It is another way of asking ourselves “who are we?”. I guarantee that all of the candidates for rector will ask if St. Paul’s has ever tried celebrating mass using a free-standing altar. I hope that the insight gained from this experiment will enable our answer to be far more than “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but rather a more informed and deeper “yes, we have, and here is we learned.”
When the experiment is over, I will send out a formal survey asking for your reactions and perceptions, and, similar to the parish summit, we will have more informal discussions during a Coffee Hour or two. Actually, St. Paul’s has experienced a smaller version of this experiment before. Several years ago when the ceiling in the church was being restored and the nave was full of scaffolding, mass was celebrated at a free-standing altar in the Parish Hall, the same free-standing altar, in fact (built by Mike Miller) that we will be using. But that was out of self-evident necessity—the church was unusable. We are doing it this time in the church with intentionality and purpose.
There is much more to say, of course: the theological thinking behind free-standing altars and why they have become nearly ubiquitous in liturgical churches such as ours, but I will save that for next week’s eblast. This week only serves as an introduction. I do recognize that a change such as this in a place like St. Paul’s, even as an experiment, may elicit strong opinions and will certainly generate many, many conversations. I look forward to them all as we move forward in our transition and in our life in Christ together.
See you at mass.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Clinton & Carroll Streets, Brooklyn.
718-625-4126 • email: email@example.com
Rector: The Reverend Peter Cullen | Music Director: Vince Peterson