Liturgical stage fright – On stopping platform worship

Bouyer, Liturgy, “ideal arrangements”, p. 99.

I’ve always found it ironic, if not a bit irritating, that the greatest take-away from Louis Bouyer’s short treatise on the liturgy, Liturgy and Architecture (1967), seems to be his comments regarding which direction the priest should face during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Much more important, and much more often ignored, are Bouyer’s space-maps for the ideal celebration of the liturgy. While the historical research is imprecise, much is to be recommended regarding the suggested arrangements of Assembly, Choir, Ministers, Altar, Ambo, and Chair. To a great extent these ideas are still ignored both in renovating and building places for worship. Churches, both in interior details and architectural form, continue to be statically defined by platforms and pews. We still worship the wall.

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Basilica of Maxentius, 308-312 A.D.


The history of liturgical art and architecture speaks eloquently of alternatives. The idea of a hierarchically arranged space along a longitudinal axis that terminated in a raised platform was inherited from Maxsentius’ basilica in the Roman Forum. While it may have been typical for Roman Christianity to use the basilica to spatially define roles of people within, it was but one possibility. The Church of East Syria thought of the interior space according to the ‘geography of salvation’ in which the building with its bema and apse moved from earth to heaven, from the incarnation to the eternal banquet. In general, Byzantine spaces emphasized pseudo-Dioynsian hierarchies through the building’s vertical axis. More specifically, Antiochene and Alexandrian theologians often thought of the spatial divisions within churches in terms of the homoousios or other Christological issues.  In most cases this varying array of buildings did not physically read as static spaces directed toward a terminating platform – moreover, liturgical roles in this sense were secondary, though admittedly plenty of historical documents abound forbidding the mingling of clergy and laity.

Liber Divinorum Operum I.2: The Cosmic Spheres and Human Being. Biblioteca Statale di Lucca, MS 1942, fol. 9r

Arrangements of people and liturgical appointments varied therefore between the families. In the medieval period anthropomorphic references regarding the church building were not, as commonly thought, about Pauline issues of headship applied to liturgical roles, but anthropomorphic concepts of the universe found in the thought of such people as Hildegard of Bingen. Similar concepts of divine proportions occupied Renaissance design of the church building in the works of theologians and architects like Giorgio Martini.

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Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Torino, Biblioteca Reale (Codice Torinese Saluzziano 148, f. 12 v, detail).







If we are to find the modern precursor to staged-worship anywhere, we must look to Charles Borromeo’s Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae (1577) and the Jesuits’ post-tridentine importation of Baroque spatial and decorative theory. It was in these centuries that space planning of churches included wide open halls that terminated in an elevated, balustraded sanctuary where altar, pulpits, chairs, and choir were all placed. The church became a performance hall for the dramatization of a liturgy that was directly related to the staging of opera. It is no coincidence that persons such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini and Andrea Pozzo worked for both Church and theatre.

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Church of the Gesù, Rome. 1568-1584.

Historically speaking, however, churches tend to be dynamic in their arrangements. Liturgies used the space as a means of ritual and theological communication. Given this fact, the problem with pews and platforms is that they don’t simply render the assembly passive spectators, which they do, but they destroy the symbolic and trasformative potential of the space as a primary language in which rites speak.

Sacred Heart Church, Erie, PA.
Sacred Heart Church, Erie, Pennsylvania (renovation, 1994) .

Yet, this is precisely the problem with documents, such as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, that dissect buildings into binary categories. The GIRM defines the sanctuary as “the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation” (295). Such a concept is historically naïve and the product of the Baroque liturgy. It is insufficient for enabling reformed liturgies. In like manner, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. prohibits sloped floors lest a church feel like the local mega-plex cinema. The problem of course is not the sloped floor, it’s the contraction of every liturgical point of interaction upon a platform rendering the church an auditorium by default.

If Baroque scenography helped cause this deformative dynamic, contemporary scenography and its concern to develop ‘immersive spaces’ points to new ways forward in liturgical architecture. As I have argued elsewhere, the entirety of buildings should be involved in ritual action.

Winning design. Redemptoris Mater Church, Cinisi, Italy. 2016. Architects – Studio Kuadra.

Liturgy must be spatially activated so that it takes place among the assembly, not before their eyes in some type of retrograde medieval ocular communion. A building that is immersive will allow the ritual to attain its full expressive power, not because it makes people feel like they are doing something, but because space fundamentally involves the assembly on bodily, visceral and intellectual terms.  How so? The philosopher Jan Patočka in Lo Spazio e la Sua Problematica (2014) describes space as the proto-structure of relationships; The experience of space highlights mechanically the I–you complementary disparity, and in doing so effects the realization of relationships in which I am both an agent of participation and causing. Space both defines me as limited and unique but also requires me to approach another object in an act of encounter. Anything that traverses space therefore touches in a fundamental way the sense of my being since boundary moving is hardwired into the mind by the experience of life. Platforms and pews inhibit this instinctive boundary crossing.

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Archdiocese of Milan, Parish of Trezzano sul Naviglio, Italy 2006-2014.

In light of the fundamental importance of the experience of space and the diversity of ways church buildings have been conceived symbolically the notion that “the ordering of the sacred building must […] in some way convey the image of the gathered assembly” (GIRM 294) seems to be a misplaced priority in determining spatial arrangements of churches. At the least, such phrases should not be interpreted to mean rows of pews terminating in a sanctuary platform for the sake of defining groups.

Winning design. Redemptoris Mater Church, Cinisi, Italy. 2016. Baptistery. Architects – Studio Kuadra.

We need a new spatialization of the liturgy. We need to worship with space, not simply in space. Liturgical spaces should be designed according to poles of liturgical action that are arranged according to the logic of the rites.

Rededication Liturgy. Cathedral of Reggio Emilia, Italy. 2012.

To this extent, the idea of the building as sacred geography is more apropos. The building and its art programming should comment primarily upon the nature of worship, not who is sitting where. In new buildings this is easier to accomplish. The altar, ambo, presidential chair, and baptismal pool can have their own positions that require liturgical movement and which refrain from being situated in stage-like settings.

In historical buildings this might involve using once again historic pulpits for the Liturgy of the Word and the elimination of seating arrangements that make the nave simply a holding pen. Historical preservationist tend to complain but there is no reason suitable solutions that work with the architecture and which prioritize the living liturgy cannot be found .

In the typical parish where remodeling may not be feasible or a fixed ambo is in use, the anglo-catholic practice of processing the Book of Gospels into the midst of the assembly for its proclamation is at least one way to begin to break stage-bound worship.

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All Saints’ Anglican Church, Rome Italy. 1887. The historic brass eagle lectern serves as the ambo in the main aisle.
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Le mystère catholique. Maurice Denis. 1889.

In many cases it would be a quick and inexpensive remodel to move the ambo to a central location simply cutting back a few pews to make adequate room. Like the painting of the catholic modernist painter Maurice Denis this arrangement speaks eloquently of the incarnation of the word in the assembly – in which the boundary between heaven and earth is ritually and sacramentally traversed.

A more radical rethinking of the spatial priorities and requirements of reformed liturgies is needed that does not simply update Baroque precedents. It’s time to end staged liturgies and seek instead a new understanding of space’s sensual-moral possibilities in the service of worship.


  1. I suspect the time for this has come and . . . gone again. There’s a great deal of focus on visual and conceptual dimensions, but not on other dimensions like aural/acoustical, among others, and a great deal of ought/should language here relies on assumptions that are no more given than the ones being critiqued.

    1. It is true that the issue has been a pretty constant theme in the liturgical renewal – hence Bouyer’s writing…but judging by the architecture of churches in general I’d say the full potential has not really been thought through sincerely or completely, much less put into practice. I am in one mind with Neil O’Donoghue who said in another post “We cannot allow our liturgical future to be decided by what is the path of least resistance.” And I would add, ideas that have been proposed before but not yet put into practice. Or the notion that the only ideas worthy of consideration were thought by the generation of the Second Vatican Council. There’s a whole history and a whole future to work with to enliven our worship.

      1. Should the iconostases be removed in Byzantine rite Catholic churches? How should this be applied to my Byzantine Catholic parish?

  2. Excellent! Although I wouldn’t agree on everything in the post/article. GIRM is vague on many points, and doesn’t emphasise the platform-theatrical arrangement as much as one might imagine.

    1. The GIRM may not emphasize this for the discerning reader. Obviously it does not for architects in Italy and the Episcopal Conference of Italy – though they may, like most Europeans, do what they think is best in light of official documents unlike their anglo counterparts. In the US however the GIRM is quite often read in this manner precisely. The arrangement of churches evidence this fact.

  3. I’ve got to say that I find the rendering of the Redemptoris Mater church baffling. It looks like whoever is at the ambo must have his/her back to a large segment of the congregation.

    I do, however, agree with the general point that assemblies locked into pews for the duration of the liturgy are suboptimal.

    1. The Redemptoris Mater church seating is irregular. But this is partly my point. Why do we feel that during the liturgy we must be looking at everyone in the face all the time? Is not possible for those seated to turn their bodies? The feeling of ‘miss alignment’ is precisely the result of an ‘updating’ of Baroque liturgies that want stages in order to see the faces of actors – though the later is an issue of the 20th cent. liturgical reform in part.

      1. “Is not possible for those seated to turn their bodies?”

        To a degree, but in my experience of designs that are used to force that, the designers overestimate the appetite and ability of the congregational bodies to turn thus when scaled up from a small chapel to a larger church. Lots of top-down thinking from designers in that respect. What may “work” in one context won’t necessarily in another.

        Perhaps the largest layer of assumptions underneath all this is: what basis do we have to assume that changing these things will matter, and how, and how would that be measured?

      2. My issue is not with having to turn, but with the fact that even once you’ve turned the speaker still has his or her back to you. I suppose one might argue that with modern amplification one need not have the speaker facing you, but this seems to turn the speaker into a disembodied voice. I don’t think we need to be looking everyone in the face all the time (far from it; I’ve got not problem in principle with either the iconostasis or ad orientem), but it seems to me that the readings/homily are one point at which this would be important.

      3. Why call it baroque considering the fact you find similar situations among the ancient Churches of the East? All do the liturgy facing East in the apse of the church.

        Is the goal to express the post-Enlightenment West’s obsession with equality?

  4. Oh, heavens! Did you catch those liturgical dancers at the rededication liturgy for the Cathedral of Reggio Emilia, Italy?

    1. “Let them praise His name with dancing;
      Let them sing praises to Him with timbrel and lyre.
      For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; “

  5. The point of the person at the ambo is not to be seen, but to be heard. At least primarily.

    KLs has a point. Musicians and acousticians are excluded from too many design teams. Visuals are vital–no one disputes that. But within the bounds of good hearing and proclamation, there are many possibilities for liturgical geography.

  6. To my mind the problem is pews and fixed seating generally, which ties the lay members of the assembly and makes them into an audience. In this arrangement, it is obviously necessary for the ministers to speak to them facing them, as the liturgical model has now passed from mobile assembly to theatre, or more accurately (given modern theatre) to corporate conference or shareholders meeting.

    In speaking of the delineation of the sanctuary, the IGMR does not have to be read in the ‘baroque’ or opera house manner, though its insistence on the sanctuary as the place where the Word is proclaimed shows an ignorance of tradition.

    In the Church I serve, at Sunday Mass the Gospel is read in the midst of the assembly – yes I picked that one up in my young days as an Anglican (Deo Gratias!).


  7. “The GIRM defines the sanctuary as “the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation” (295). Such a concept is historically naïve and the product of the Baroque liturgy. It is insufficient for enabling reformed liturgies.”

    This statement seems arrogant and out of touch with reality. The vast majority of parishes worldwide differentiate the sanctuary (in myriad ways – I am not merely referring to “traditional” architecture). The clergy and parishioners who worship at those places daily might be surprised to learn that their space is naive and insufficient. If only an enlightened and well-informed person could set them right, they might have a chance at true worship!

    But seriously, Mr. Hadley – what is the point of polemical over-generalizations like this? I think you might have some interesting points, but your method of communicating them is not convincing.

    1. Well, I do think the “The Church has been doing all wrong for centuries” gambit for liturgical design advocacy (and other liturgical reform issues at the parochial level) has more than outworn its welcome. Nowadays, that gambit might be more likely to boomerang rather badly, given that people (and their wallets and posteriors in the pews) are much less willing to be docile to those presented as experts as well as to clerical authority.

      1. I’m not reading “the Church has been wrong” in this. I am amused that some of the more vociferous critics of performance (Fr Talk Show Host or America’s Next Cantor) also advocate for a liturgical geography that emphasizes staging and a “special” area along a short wall.

        That said, if a faith community were invested in a prayerful, studious, and intelligent discernment on design, I expect the end result in many communities would look a good bit different than our grandparents’ eastern US churches.

        The whole “churches should look like churches” movement bears the whiff of maintenance. And we need to be thinking more in terms of mission, an activated contingent of the baptized. Not just ministry specialists, ordered or not. In that sense, yes, perhaps doing what was done a century ago is doing it “wrong.” We’re doing a lot of things wrong. There’s no shame in that. But if we persist in saying the old ways are always right, perhaps we deceive ourselves.

      2. Todd

        I had actually reworded this comment more specifically below to be clear I wasn’t talking about this specific post and thought it was being deleted.

    2. The article states that the manner of defining the sanctuary as the GIRM does is historically naive, for the reasons I pointed to. The article does not say that people who worship in churches of whatever design are naive. Clearly such an equivocation is not made nor intended.

      If, as I suggested, platform arrangements are according to the priorities of a Baroque-Tridentine liturgy then it goes to follow that in as much as reformed liturgies have differing priorities from Baroque liturgies, we can certainly expect differing architectural and artistic answers.

      Suggesting there are differing spatial priorities today than in the past that are more in keeping with the reformed liturgy is no different than saying certain translation principles are better in-tune with the goals of the reformed liturgy: Numerous parallels could be made in other areas of rites and theology. If this is understood as implying that there are “right” or “wrong”, or “better” or “worse” arrangements, I see little problem with this.

      It is not clear to me what is so polemical about such an argument, nor what precisely is a gross generalization.

      What I hear you saying is something similar to: if the reformed liturgy (or VII) critiqued the Tridentine liturgy as being deformed in certain areas, and something “better” could be formulated, then my Grandmother’s experience of mass-going all her life was pointless, and by critiquing the liturgy, I am attacking my grandmother. I don’t find this argument persuasive.

      1. James,

        You stated that a differentiated sanctuary is naiive and makes a space “insufficient” for the reformed liturgy. It is hard to imagine a more general statement than that, since you are making a sweeping judgment of all spaces designed for the reformed liturgy worldwide. If you merely argued that something is “better” or “worse” I could agree/disagree. However, the general judgment of most existing spaces as “insufficient” goes too far – it crosses over into the absurd. “Insufficient” implies that something does not work (there is a major difference between a “better” lifejacket, and a lifejacket that provides “insufficient” flotation for my body weight).

        I’m not talking about the Tridentine liturgy or Grandma’s experience here, but the reformed liturgy and spaces we have today. According to you, for example, the chapel at St. John’s Collegeville (hardly a flagship traditionalist building) is “insufficient” for enabling the reformed liturgy because it has a raised, differentiated sanctuary.

        Another problem with your assessment is that the “reformed liturgy” comes to us in the form of a Missal with praenotanda (an important component of liturgical legislation). However, you see the documents which transmit the liturgy to us as out of touch with the liturgy itself – a nonsensical approach in my opinion. You seem to see the reformed liturgy as an idea (and I would add – who gets to decide what that idea consists of?), while I see it as the actual thing that was formulated and passed on to us through the documents. Your argument, if I understand it, is that the Church reformed the liturgy, formulated a new Missal, and then specifically instructed us to build churches poorly suited (nay: “insufficient”) for the liturgy she had just reformed. I’m not convinced.

        Finally – the simple fact that some liturgical component or practice is “Baroque” in origin does not make that component good or bad. The liturgy develops over time and accumulates (and at times sheds) various…

  8. In like manner, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. prohibits sloped floors lest a church feel like the local mega-plex cinema. The problem of course is not the sloped floor, it’s the contraction of every liturgical point of interaction upon a platform rendering the church an auditorium by default.

    Washington’s stance is somewhat naive. The problem is not the rake, but the angle of rake. In practice, those churches with a mildly raked floor work better than those without. I’m also assuming that those with serried straight rows of pews work less well than those where to some extent the assembly is gathered together to worship. No one wants a church that looks like a lecture theatre.

    Before dismissing this as nonsense, it may help to know that there is an optical illusion on the church floor that I think I wrote about some time ago in another thread. It is this: to those on the floor, the presider on a stage or plinth, whether in the middle or at one end, appears optically smaller, more remote, than those people appear to the presider. Most priests are completely unaware of this. Because they are placed higher than the people, they don’t realise that the people appear larger, closer to the presider than the presider does to the people. That’s because they’re always on the stage. Once they experience the floor, they may realise that the optical illusion exists.

    So when most or all the people are placed a little higher than the presider, the entire dynamic of the assembly changes. In some cases, such as St Thomas More, Eastcote, Middlesex, or the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, the floor is slightly raked and the sanctuary is on a low plinth. The principle remains the same.

  9. I would venture that at least some of the resistance to raked floorplans in new churches (or in church renovations) in the USA is that they can be problematic for those for whom raked flooring would necessitate more effort or caution to move around. That’s not to say that designs are consistent about access issues, but that it’s probably become part of a growing default bias against them.

    At a more general level, not specific to this post but related to it, I also think that design advocates should strain out any whiff of the “The Church has been doing all wrong for centuries” implications from their advocacy, as it’s more likely to boomerang rather badly, given that people (and their wallets and posteriors in the pews) are much less willing to be docile to those presented as experts as well as to clerical authority. Because of those realities, I would instead recommend making narrower claims and more modest suggestions, and be more transparent and engaging about differing assumptions that might advise against the adoption of the design principles advocated (and not for the stock purpose of prolepsis) – and also avoid cherry-picking historical alternatives that only favor what one is advocating without fairly addressing those that do not. In that vein, I would suggest that, were one actually dealing with a potential client community, “naive” is kind of word that is virtually begging for a fight and potentially setting one’s goal up for failure.

  10. A few points:
    1. When Western Christians built the first churches after the Edict of Milan, they deliberately chose the basilica as the form for those churches. There were other architectural forms, such as a theater, which they would have known, but rejected. Western Christians chose the basilica because it said something. Perhaps the solution for our time is to rediscover what the choice of the basilica was saying instead of deracinating our church architecture.
    2. In terms of “worshiping the wall,” most Christian churches from the first millennium had their altars placed at one end of the building. Obviously that is true for western basilica church. It also appears to be true even when round forms, like domes, were part of the architecture — witness Haiga Sophia and St. Mark’s. While there may be some isolated precedent for moving the altar away from the end of the building, that precedent appears to be rather limited.
    3. While the author attempted to trace the raised stage to the baroque period, I would have to disagree. It would appear that the original St. Peter’s had a raised area at the apse where the altar stood. So there is at least some evidence that a raised altar predates the baroque by over a millennium. Of course, this would make sense. In order to preserve good sight lines in large buildings one can either elevate the altar or have the floor of the nave slope down towards the altar.
    4. Finally, the reasons for the prominence of the altar in the baroque is not a copy of the opera. When Palladio (for one) designed San Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore, not a note of opera had been heard anywhere. The prominence of the altar in baroque churches is perhaps best explained as a reaction to and reform of medieval. In the medieval church, the altar would have been hidden behind the rood screen and not visible at all. A visible, raised altar would seem to be progress in the direction the author urges, not against it.

    1. Thanks for your observations. Obviously a blog entry is not a scientific journal so what can be stated is truly minimal to other formats. I will restrict myself to two comments: Yes, raised platforms or sanctuaries existed prior to the Baroque in a variety of formats and for various purposes. One thinks of the introduction of annular crypts that necessitated the raising of apsidal platforms, for example. My point is that it is in the Baroque period that every liturgical point of action was consolidated and reduced to the sanctuary platform (with a specific Baroque spatial conception of ‘framing’ the ritual). I would also note that Palladio is an outlier, in the sense that Venetian (or Northern) Baroque was distinct from what was happening in Rome in terms of their decorative and architectonic character.

  11. ” In order to preserve good sight lines in large buildings one can either elevate the altar or have the floor of the nave slope down towards the altar.”

    This illustrates one problem with imitation. How many smaller buildings needlessly imitate the styles of large? For the US, we’ve entered an era where the new churches are practically all large buildings. That may not be a good development, but the powers-that-be clearly see it as necessary.

    1. “How many smaller buildings needlessly imitate the styles of large?”

      Indeed. One largely overlooked aspect of this is the fact that new buildings are typically designed around utility conduit desiderata, which seems to have the effect of either making rooms take on the air of a convention or hotel gathering space when adhering to modern design idioms or distort the proportions and materials of historicist designs, all the harder when spaces are small unless great care is taken.

  12. Let’s name the reasons why so many newly constructed Catholic Church buildings are big enough to hold one or two thousand people: 1)The bishops have no plans to provide more priests by changing the criteria for ordination so new churches must accommodate more worshippers; and 2) the reaction to the style and intimacy of buildings constructed in the wake of Vatican II finds us with priests and bishops who want to build larger buildings that are “truly” catholic. These edifices may cost tens of millions of dollars but clerical Catholics are ready to spring for them.

    1. What is a “clerical Catholic?” Is this a Catholic who is a clerk, a Catholic who is a cleric, or some novel pejorative?

  13. “intimacy of buildings constructed in the wake of Vatican II”

    or lack thereof.

    Of many things I associate with church buildings designed and built after the Council, “intimate” does not immediately come to mind as a general default association, except for certain chapels and oratories, where it also was often the case before the Council, too. Of the old churches vs new in suburban NY where I grew, it was more often the case that the older parish churches were more intimate than the new buildings that followed the Council; not a universal pattern, of course, but just sayin’.

  14. To be clear, the real dividing line for “modern” Catholic architecture is WWII, not Vatican II. Common to both the 50s and 70s was a lot of poor architecture and worse acoustics. My sense is that there’s been a movement toward better church design since the 70s or 80s, though it has yet to hit some dioceses.

    1. I would push that back in the USA even to the Great Depression, which is typically when great uniquely designed urban churches stopped being built and cookie-cutter theme-and-variation designs became more common, and pragmatism became the rule because pastors discovered they could get away with it.

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