Deacon Greg Kandra has posted before and after pictures of the recently renovated and rededicated Holy Name of Jesus Church in Brooklyn. I commented on Dcn. Greg’s Facebook page:
While it is clearly a huge aesthetic improvement, I wish they could have found some way of avoiding having two altars in the sanctuary. I am presuming that the “high” altar will only be used as a place of reservation and that its main function is to give a “churchy” feel to the place. Altars are places of liturgical action, not aesthetic accessories. Putting in an altar that will never be used for celebrating the Eucharist just seems wrong. If they insist on having the “high” altar, better to have only that and celebrate ad orientem.
I thought that it might be good to shift this topic to a more open discussion forum here on PTB.
We have grown accustomed to seeing old churches that have preserved their former altars and simply placed new altars in front of them. My own parish has this arrangement:
This arrangement seeks to preserve historic features of the building and also recognizes the significant expense involved to removing or adapting the old high altar. I suppose we could simply continue to use the old altar and not have a new one, but trust me, celebration ad orientem would be a serious non-starter in my parish. So we end up with a compromise solution that is often found in older churches — and compromise is sometimes (often) inevitable.
But it seems to me we’re in a different situation when the old altar is no longer in place and it is a question of reintroducing a second altar into the sanctuary. Even more striking is the situation when a “back altar” (as it is sometimes called) is inserted into a modern building that never had one. For example, Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, South Carolina is a recent construction with an altar on a platform in the midst of the church and, originally, a free-standing tabernacle backed with a polychromed triptych:
In recent years this has been replaced with a high altar salvaged from an old church:
Now some might find the new arrangement at Prince of Peace more aesthetically pleasing. I suspect many people in the parish like it. I myself think, taking the architecture of the building as a whole, it is not an aesthetic gain but is highly artificial. But whatever one’s aesthetic judgment, as I said above, altars are not primarily decorative objects, but places of sacrifice. Moreover, the altar is a symbol of Christ (that’s why we kiss it), and should be such a powerful symbol that having two within the same space should strike us as incongruous.
I am all in favor of repurposing liturgical arts from the past. But I am also in favor of observing liturgical principles and not sacrificing them for the sake of nostalgia or aesthetics. It is a shame that Holy Name in Brooklyn did not find a way to renovate their building without making it look like the compromise solution found in so many older churches. It is even more of a shame that Prince of Peace took an arrangement that had both liturgical and aesthetic integrity and abandoned it in the attempt to build a 19th century stage set within a 21st century building.