A Worthy Place for Worship

A common approach to decorating the church is to start with the sanctuary and ask: “What can we put in front of the altar?”

A better process is to consider the entire space where the people of God worship and look at the various areas and focal points within this. Everything about and within the space must convey the impression that something important is happening here.

This means that the church should be clean and uncluttered; that vestments are washed, ironed and in good repair; that the sacred vessels are of good quality and are treated with care; that all books used in liturgical celebrations are well bound and worthy-looking; that the furnishings are clean and polished, that they match in terms of size and style and are large enough for the space and their purpose.

Pathways and vestibules can be used to good effect to prepare people for worship and to provide a link between liturgy and life. Outdoor areas can often be used for displays more effectively than the usual sanctuary. On Palm Sunday, for example, clusters of large palm branches can adorn outside areas to great effect and should line the route of the procession.

The purpose of decorations in the baptismal area is to enhance the primary baptismal symbols of water, oils and paschal candle. They might take the form of a beautifully crafted hanging or tapestry, or a long piece of fabric suspended from the ceiling with its draping folds drawing attention to the waters of the baptismal pool below.

The nave is where the members of the assembly sit, stand, listen, respond, sing, acclaim, intercede and give thanks and should be decorated as intentionally as any other area. Hangings from pillars or on the surrounding walls or lengths of fabric in seasonal colours draped over crossbeams for the entire length of the church are just two examples of how this might be done effectively.

Whatever is used to enhance the sacred space should never compete with, or overshadow, the primary symbols in the church. Floral arrangements, nativity scenes, flags, books and papers often clutter the altar area and distract from the ritual actions that occur there. Heavily coloured or decorated altar cloths, especially when they are draped to the floor, can detract from the dignity of the altar. The altar is a symbol of Christ and the table of the Eucharist. Even candles are best placed beside the altar rather than on it.

A balance needs to be struck between over-decorating the worship space and leaving it too bare. Blank walls, vast empty spaces and a complete absence of artwork will not open us up to the transcendent. On the other hand, an overabundance of statues, pictures, stained glass, etc. can be disquieting and intrusive. It is also difficult to experience the power of a symbol when it is multiplied and thereby diminished.

It is best to use natural materials and real flowers and greenery whenever possible. Artificial flowers might be more convenient but real ones speak of God’s creation and our care for the environment and so are more fitting for the place where the Divine encounter takes place.

Whatever is done to the worship space should always be thought through in relation to the purpose for which we gather – to meet our God.

Elizabeth Harrington