Enhancing the Worship Space


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about several factors to be considered when decorating churches. Preparing places for worship requires creativity, a good understanding of the liturgy, careful planning and hard work.
Sometimes we can be tempted to focus on ourselves in liturgy. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is God who calls us to worship and who becomes present to us during liturgy. The most profound thing that happens in worship is our encounter with the Divine Presence. For this reason, the task of environment ministers is to “enhance” rather than “decorate” the church. The goal of their work is to intensify the sense of mystery and awe when we gather to encounter God.
There are several key principles which flow from this understanding.
· Everything about and within the space must convey the impression that something important is happening here. This means that the church should be clean, uncluttered and aesthetically pleasing; that vestments fit properly and are washed, ironed and in good repair; that the sacred vessels match, are of good quality, and are treated with care; that all books used in liturgical celebrations are well bound and worthy-looking and are repaired as soon as they become tattered and worn; that the furnishings (altar, ambo, pews, tables, candle holders, etc.) are clean and polished, that they match in terms of size and style and are large enough for the space and their purpose.
· Whatever is used to enhance the sacred space should never compete with, or overshadow, the essentials of the space. For example, if the nativity scene at Christmas draws attention away from the sacred action at the ambo and altar, then the decoration is detrimental to Divine encounter. Even candles are best placed beside the altar rather than on it. Very dark and heavily patterned altar cloths, especially when they are draped to the floor, can detract from the dignity of the altar.
· 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. (The cross seems to most often be the “victim” of this practice!)
· Natural materials and real flowers and greenery should be used 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.
· The people who gather for liturgy express the dignity of the celebration by the way they dress, speak and act. Dirty or untidy dress, over-exuberant greetings and lengthy private conversations all diminish efforts to enhance the worship space. This does not mean that we should return to the times when silence reigned supreme, but rather that a reverent and dignified atmosphere is always appropriate.
God is encountered in people and prayer, not in bows and grapevines! 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