I love church doorways. It may have something to do with my admiration for the portal sculptures on the west entrance at Reims cathedral where the smiling, elegant figures seem to welcome you into paradise. Or maybe it’s because I was once captivated by the door handles at San Xavier de la Bac Mission in Tucson, which are in the shape of a serpent. (Since I’ve seen this, I’ve never really been able to get it out of my mind that in order to enter church you have to grasp the serpent.)
Yet even ordinary doorways of churches, simple entrances, and ones that have no narrative artwork, seem to me a natural symbol. The movement from outside to inside suggests so much—warmth, or coolness, journey to destination, the threshold of gathering. Just as surely, the movement from inside to outside is an evocative moment. Out to daylight, to world, to mission, to “the street”—a term that makes sense in my urban environment here in New York—with all that this implies.
It therefore has always seemed right and just to me that some of the Church’s liturgical rituals take place, not in the sanctuary, but at the entrance, at the doors. It is there that, according to our liturgical books, the priest meets the wedding couple, there that the coffin of the deceased is met and blessed. And it is there, in an act most foundational, that the Church signs with the cross those who will become catechumens and in a similar way welcomes parents and godparents bearing infants to be baptized. It is this last set of rituals that sparks my reflections here.
Why is it that so many priests and liturgy planners choose not to place those initiation rites at the doors? Sure, there are alternatives given in the ritual books. It’s a wise thing for the ritual books to do, as necessity sometimes does limit the ability to use spaces that one would like to use under better circumstances. But even when the entry is available and could be used, often it is not used. And no plans are made to overcome the obstacles when they could be overcome.
Maybe it’s just inertia. The reason I’ve heard most often is visibility and audibility. People can’t see. (Heaven forbid they should be asked to turn around in their pews, or move from their cherished spot for even a brief interval.) People can’t hear. (We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t put a microphone in the entryway of the church.) Occasionally I come across someone who wants everything to take place in the middle of church because it’s “in the midst of the people,” but this sadly suggests that the entryway must be too tiny for a gathering of people—a real problem in some churches.
After listening to a lot of discussion about celebrating the first catechumenal rite and the beginning of the baptismal rite for infants “up front” rather than at the doors however, I suspect there is something deeper going on beneath the surface of practical issues. There is a nagging sense that the altar area is the only “real” sacred space. Other places just don’t count. There is also, often enough, an unarticulated assumption that liturgy is about watching something rather than about doing something. The altar area functions like a proscenium stage, the assembly an audience in their pews. The entryway is referred to as “the back of church”—the lowest-ranking place, where the latecomers sit, and where the ushers stash their baskets.
“We can’t do it in the back of church!” The language itself gives the game away. I was talking to J Glenn Murray about this sort of thing one day and he told me “I never say ‘the back of church’ anymore. It’s the entry.”
There are many beautiful churches that have taken care that their threshold is used and fit for the rites we celebrate. There are places where the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens is conducted beautifully, at the threshold, and I’ve seen the greeting of parents at the doors of the church done much in the same spirit. Yet I believe it is an ongoing challenge to actually value our worship spaces in their fullness and to understand how varied our ritual repertoire for using them really is. Everything does not have to happen “up front.” In fact, some things are better done at the doorway.
What do you think?