Changing church interiors: what is at stake

Changing church interiors: what is at stake

Fr G.H. Duggan SM

Pressures continue to be exerted in many quarters of the Catholic Church for radical changes to the interiors of churches. This includes the altar being brought forward into the nave and so placed that the celebrant will be on the same level as the congregation.

Such a proposal would have commended itself to Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer, for whom the Mass was no more than a Communion service - as also to their modern counterparts for whom the Mass is no more than a community meal.

It is the faith of the Church that the Mass is primarily the offering of a sacrifice, the Victim being the Body and Blood of Christ, really present under the sacramental species. From the earliest times, as for example in the Didache, which is usually placed in the first century, the Mass has been regarded as the fulfilment of Malachi's prophecy regarding the sacrifice of the New Covenant which was to take the place of the sacrifices of Israel. The reception of Communion was that which completes the sacrifice, when those offering in union with Christ, the great High Priest, priest and congregation, partake of the Victim and thus are united with the Holy Trinity, to whom the sacrifice has been offered.

The notion that it is wrong for the celebrant to be at a higher level than the congregation reflects the erroneous, indeed, the heretical, ecclesiology of the Protestant Reformers, who denied that Christ instituted a hierarchical Church. Their views were rejected by the Council of Trent in Canon 6 of Session xxiii, which dealt with the Sacrament of Holy Order.

This ecclesiology of the reformers seems to have inspired an article on "Clericalism" by Bishop Peter Cullinane of Palmerston North, New Zealand, which appeared not long ago in the Australasian Catholic Record. The Bishop urged that the word "hierarchy" should be eliminated from such documents as the definition of the Council of Trent and the Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium] of the Second Vatican Council.

He may well have been influenced by Sister Sandra Schneiders IHMI who gave some lectures in his Pastoral Centre in January 1997. She called not only for the word "hierarchy" to be abolished, but also the reality for which it stands. In her book Beyond Patching (p.25) she admits that the divine institution of the Church as hierarchical has been defined by the Church. But she explicitly rejects this doctrine. She maintains that by divine institution the Church is "a discipleship of equals," and should return to this, its original, democratic structure.

In support of his thesis, Bishop Cullinane quotes a "Task Force" set up by the US Conference of Major Superiors to discuss "The Problem of Clericalism in the Catholic Church." This body suggested that the hierarchy of the Church came into existence for sociological reasons, as Christians became more numerous. They wrote: "As the community grew in numbers and in historical experience, there gradually evolved a complex social structure, organised along hierarchical and patriarchal lines."

Hierarchical Church

The Bishop himself suggests that "the term 'hierarchy' is a social construct that has been superimposed on the original Gospel reality which it is intended to signify with the use of that construct." The Bishop could have expressed himself more clearly, but he seems to be saying that the idea of a hierarchical Church is foreign to the teaching of the Gospel, and that at some moment, which he does not specify, a hierarchy was imposed on a Church, which up to that point had been non-hierarchical

This theory has some formidable objections to face. In the first place, if this radical change took place, there should be some evidence of the objections it would surely have been met with. There are none. Secondly, the time available for so momentous a change was very short. It is certain that by 108AD, when St Ignatius of Antioch wrote his letters, the churches in Asia Minor and in his native Syria had a highly developed hierarchical organisation of bishop, deacons and priests. Ignatius had very probably been Bishop by 80AD, only 50 years after Pentecost.

The Bishop asks the question: "Are vertical relationships the best way to reflect Christ's teaching regarding leadership?" A better phrase would have been "The exercise of authority", rather than leadership.

The answer to his question is an unequivocal yes. St Peter certainly thought so when he wrote: "To the elders ... Be shepherds of God's flock that is under you" (1 Peter 5:2). Neither Christ nor the Apostles ever suggest that those who were in charge of the community were not over the community, exercising their authority and demanding that their orders be obeyed. Of course, they were to do so humbly, but this did not rule out firmness, as in St Peter's treatment of Ananias and Saphira or St Paul's treatment of the incestuous Corinthian.

In a word, it is of faith that the government of the Church as it was founded by Christ is not democratic, but monarchical. He did not take counsel from Thomas Jefferson, nor James Madison.

It is this mistaken ecclesiology that has underpinned much of the vandalism perpetrated in our churches in the name of renewal.

Father G.H. Duggan is a New Zealand theologian, author and former seminary professor, who has been a regular contributor to 'AD2000' and other religious periodicals.

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