Brief Book Review: New Church, New Altar

New Church, New Altar:
Commentary on the Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar
by Paul Turner

Many years ago, I was part of a committee involved in the renovation of a liturgical space in which a new altar, a new tabernacle, and other appointments were dedicated. O, how I wished the members of our committee would have had at their disposal such a thorough and comprehensive resource as Paul Turner’s commentary, published in 2021. His commentary follows the publication of the current ICEL translation of the ritual for the Dedication of a Church and an Altar which was issued for publication in November 2018.

In addition to his academic and professional background in liturgy, and his considerable record of publications on the liturgy and sacraments, his long pastoral experience is evident in this publication. As a result, Turner provides a thoroughly documented historical and liturgical commentary and a most helpful pastoral guide to the celebration of this ritual for the dedication of a church and an altar.

Of course, few have the opportunity to experience such an event since this rite is used only for a new churches or a new altar, as is pointed out in the Introduction. This Introduction is not to be passed over. Though brief, it gives a substantial overview to this ritual and its place in the liturgy of the Church. As is noted here, and at many points throughout the book, the ritual needs to be placed in the context of the eucharist and the liturgical assembly: “[T]he ancient centrality of the eucharist in this act of dedication has been restored to its proper place… The rite and its introduction also present a compelling and renewed sense of the pre-eminence of the worshipping community as the primary liturgical symbol.” (p. 4, quoting ICEL).

As would be expected, the commentary follows the order of the ritual as published but Turner does caution the reader that this ritual is in fact made up of various rituals for different aspects and stages of building and dedication of a church. So, each group undertaking such a project needs “…discern which of its rituals apply to the project at hand” (p. 5).

Chapter one comments on the obviously first ritual for a new church: “The Order of Laying a Foundation Stone or the Commencement of Work on the Building of a Church.” Beside the historical references and the pastoral references to the rite itself, Turner gives substantial focus to the choice and place of Scripture in the ritual. He also explains the references in the other prayers used and in particular the prayers of the bishop.

Chapter two is the main event: “The Order of the Dedication of a Church.” This is the most significant (and longest) chapter in the book, and is rich in historical references to the development of the ritual. In his commentary, Turner also draws upon the helpful commentary of other authors, both contemporary and historical (pp. 22-23). Each step in the ritual is accompanied with helpful pastoral guidance and detailed explanation of the ritual. In this chapter too, he gives ample reference to the Liturgy of the Word, providing commentary on the reading chosen and the ritual surrounding the proclamation of the Word. For example, he points out that at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word “The bishops stands, shows the lectionary to the people, and proclaims, ‘May the word of God resound always in this building to open for you the mystery of Christ and to bring about your salvation in the church’” (p. 47). This chapter is filled with informative commentary which point out numerous points easily missed. Another example: “Even if the dedication takes place during Easter Time, when the first reading is generally to come from the New Testament, the Old Testament passage must be proclaimed. One reason the dedication liturgy may not take place on certain solemnities of the church year, such as Pentecost, is to avoid a conflict of first readings” (p. 49). Amidst the gems of this chapter is the commentary on the anointings in the course of this ritual and the dedication prayer(s). In short, this chapter two is a must read for anyone preparing for the actual celebration of the dedication of the church.

The remaining chapters of the commentary cover those rituals which are included in the full ritual but are designated for particular occasions or circumstances.

  • Chapter III, “The Order of the Dedication of a Church in Which Sacred Celebrations Are Already Regularly Taking Place.” This is for churches and altars which have been in use for some time but never dedicated formally and can only be used if the altar has never been dedicated.
  • Chapter IV, “The Order of the Dedication of an Altar” addresses the situation in which a new altar is dedicated in a church previously dedicated.
  • Chapter V, “The Order of Blessing a Church,” is directed towards oratories and chapels which are the place of the liturgy for only a period of time. Therefore, it is a simple ritual, as Turner notes.
  • Chapter VI, “The Order of Blessing an Altar,” addresses a most common issue in many worshipping communities: moveable altars. Turner notes that “A fixed altar, the main altar of a church, is to be dedicated; a movable altar is blessed.”

In final chapter of the commentary, Chapter VII, “The Order of Blessing a Chalice and a Paten,” Turner notes that it may seem odd that this is included with a ritual for the dedication of a church. But he notes that historically such rituals (i.e.  blessings of chalices, crosses, vestments etc.) have always been included in the Roman Pontifical and connected to the dedication of churches.

A helpful and important Appendix is included on important solemnities which the parish should celebrate following a dedication: the anniversary of the dedication and the titular feast of the church. Turner notes that the importance of the new church is apparent for the founding community but the celebration of these solemnities allows future communities to witness to that work of faith which began the church community.

The richness of this commentary is enhanced by the clarity of its organization and its superb pastoral approach. Clearly, this book is designed for a group planning for the building and dedication of a new church. While it is an easy read, any planning group will need a someone skilled and knowledgable in guiding the group through this rich liturgical and pastoral commentary.

Turner, Paul. New Church, New Altar: A Commentary on the Order of Dedication of a Church and an Altar. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2021. 192 pages. ISBN: 9780814666593.

REVIEWER: James Hentges
James Hentges is the administrator of
Blessed Sacrament Church in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada,
and is an assistant to the Archbishop of Regina.
He holds a doctorate in Sacred Liturgy (SLD) from the
Pontifical Liturgical Institute at
Sant’ Anselmo in Rome
and a diploma in Church Administration (Canon Law)
from Saint Paul’s University, Ottawa.

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