The architecture and the interior arrangement of the church building are not that way by chance—not by haphazard selection. There is more than aesthetics involved here—there is also tradition.
In examining how reformed churches in general, and our own building in particular, are arranged, let us start with the assumption that the arrangement of the place for worship, as well as the form of the service or worship, makes a theological statement.
Certainly not all building committees and not even all ministers are aware of this fact. Architects are often ignorant of the theological implications when designing a place of worship. Hence, the arrangement and décor of a house of worship may be sending out a message at odds with the theology and tradition which underlie the teaching, the preaching, and the Christian life of the congregation.
In a church building, then, that has been planned in harmony with the reformed tradition, what is that theological statement? How, for example, does the room in which we worship here at Faith tell the informed observer what we believe?
You may be able to come up with a statement that you like better, but the one that strikes me as the best that I have encountered, is this: “God speaks to His people in Word and sacrament,” or stated in another way, “Christ comes to His Church in Word and in sacrament.”
The pulpit, with the Holy Bible, symbolize the written and the spoken Word. The Pulpit is imposing—usually, but not necessarily centered, but even when not in the center, it is elevated and so placed that it symbolizes the dominance of God’s Word in our worship.
The Lord’s table, symbol of Holy Communion, occupies a place of honor. Note, however, that it is not placed on a platform or other elevation. It is in the midst of the people and on their level, signifying that God’s presence in this sacrament is with the people. It is not an altar—there is no altar.
“Christ comes to His Church in Word and in sacrament.” We have spoken of the pulpit, symbol of the written and of the spoken Word. We have discussed the placement of the table, symbol of the Lord’s Supper. We now come to the third and final piece of furniture essential to a place of reformed worship—the baptismal font, symbol of the sacrament of baptism.
It is true that this item, so important to the life and vitality of the congregation, is often given much less prominent placement than it deserves, and it behooves the Reformed Churches to see that the sacrament which it symbolized is not allowed to become less significant by relegating it to the status of an “incidental” service as an “afterthought.” After all, this is one of the two sacraments through which we have stated, “God speaks to his people.”
These are, I think, the basic considerations that would be advanced in this kind of a presentation. There are others, though, of lesser importance, but I hope of some interest to those with an inquiring mind.
The placement of the choir is one. In our tradition the choir is never in front facing the congregation. When it is so placed, it becomes either sort of an assistant to the minister in presenting God’s Word, or it comes under the heading of entertainment. Neither of course is acceptable! The choir is included in the congregation.
This should be obvious when we consider the part the congregation has in a worship service—prayer and praise! In the Roman tradition and in many Protestant churches the altar is the center of attention, whether or not it is surmounted by a crucifix on the reredos. it is symbolic of sacrifice and the priestly office.
In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, here on the altar is God’s presence. The priest, as intermediary, speaks to God for the people, and to the people of God. The altar rail symbolized the veil of the temple beyond which the people might not approach.
Unlike our tenet that God is present throughout the congregation—that He comes to us through and in the sacrament—the tradition of the altar has the Holy Presence on the altar, only entering the people as dispensed by the priest.
I don’t feel qualified to speak of the Roman tradition, but I think that I have been fairly accurate in what I have said. I have tried to explain the symbolism of the altar only to point out the difference between the significance of the altar and the tradition that surrounds it, and that of the communion table in our tradition.
Let me add that strictly speaking, the table should be, and should look like, a table. Further, there would be on the table only those things pertaining to the Lord’s Supper—in other words, this is not a place for candles, flowers, crosses, or collection plates. (Note: This statement was written by Elder Bill Kuhn Sr., many years before his passing. It has been used in recent years in our Inquirer’s Class to provide some insight on the design of our sanctuary.)