Respecting Church Space and Furnishings


Wedding photographers are the worst! I have personally witnessed them using the altar as a convenient place to organise their photographic equipment, moving candles because they might block the faces of the couple in the wedding video, and even standing on the presider’s chair to get a better shot! I cannot imagine anybody going into a mosque or temple and behaving in such a disrespectful, insensitive manner.

And photographers aren’t the only ones. Catholic schools have been known to turn churches into convenient venues for class assemblies, sporting awards ceremonies, lectures by visiting speakers - occasions which have little, if anything, to do with liturgy. Not only is the church itself being used inappropriately in such cases, but sacred furnishings like the altar, lectern and presider’s chair are also pressed into serving functions that degrade their meaning and symbolic value.

The claim is sometimes made that Christians don’t need churches because, like Jesus, we can pray to God anywhere – even on a mountain or by a lake. Certainly, but Jesus also regularly worshipped at the synagogue or temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers who desecrated his Father’s house.

God does not need a church, but we as the people of God need a place to come together and celebrate the sacred rites that make us the church. Our church building is that place. A church is not just any other assembly hall or conference room, or even a classroom. It is a sacred place because the community of faith comes here to carry out sacred actions, to offer and share the sacrifice of Christ. As a place, then, it naturally becomes a reference and orientation point for believers.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says this:
“The sacred buildings and requisites for divine worship should be truly worthy and beautiful signs and symbols of heavenly realities. " (GIRM 2000 # 288)
“The character and beauty of the place and all its furnishings should foster devotion and show the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there." (GIRM 2000 # 294)
The sacred nature and symbolic significance of church furnishings is clearly spelt out:
Altar: “The altar is the table of the Lord … and the centre of the thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes.” (GIRM 2000 # 296)
Ambo/Lectern: “The dignity of the word of God requires the church to have a place that is suitable for proclaiming the word…..The readings, the responsorial psalm, and the Easter proclamation (Exsultet) are proclaimed only from the ambo; it may be used also for the homily and intentions of the prayer of the faithful. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should go up to it.” (GIRM 2000 # 390 – emphasis added).
Presider’s Chair: “The priest celebrant's chair stands as a symbol of his office of presiding over the assembly and of directing prayer…. It is appropriate that, before it is set aside for liturgical use, the chair be blessed.” (GIRM 2000 # 310).

Most people would take pains not to defile the sacred place of another faith tradition through ignorance or insensitivity. We need to ensure that we preserve the sacredness of our own places of worship by becoming better informed about, and more sensitive to, their purpose and use.


Elizabeth Harrington