Question: The congregation I recently started serving currently has the choir moving from the choir loft to the chancel to sing the anthem and has actually set up the handbell tables along the communion rails, which then must be moved to serve Communion. I have consulted the Manual on the Liturgy, and have found some great information, but none of it has specifically talked about the sanctity and focus of the altar within the chancel in lieu of placement of musicians. If you could be of assistance I would greatly appreciate it.
Frank Answers: The Eucharist is the central liturgical rite of the church and since it is a meal a table is the essential piece of furniture for this rite. Nothing should obscure the altar-table as the focus of attention. Ideally, the lines of sight in the church building will lead the eye toward the altar-table.
Placing choirs and musicians up front comes from two traditions: Anglican and revival. In Anglican and other churches during the 19th century Gothic revival the choir was placed in a divided chancel between the nave where the people gathered and the sanctuary in which the altar was located. In medieval cathedrals and abbeys a choir or rood screen separated the chancel from the nave. This allowed the cathedral canons or monks to assemble to sing the daily prayer offices without a lot of distraction from other activities in the nave. In the Gothic revival divided chancels were restored. Lay choir members were vested like the monks. This arrangement was helpful in antiphonal singing of psalms and canticles, and during a time when choral Morning Prayer and Evensong were daily or at least regular services and Holy Communion was less frequently celebrated. It is a less desirable arrangement for singing concerted music, although choir directors have worked around the architectural arrangement. In English cathedrals worshipers may also sit in the “choir” (quire), if the verger so directs them. The following image of St. Luke-Epiphany Episcopal Church in Philadelphia shows the choir vested in white surplices in a divided choir formation.
In many neo-gothic church buildings since the 1960s, the altar has been moved forward (free standing) and the choir with the organ console have been relocated against the “east wall” so that the choir sings toward the congregation across the altar. Sometimes a low barrier or screen is erected between the choir and the altar, as in this image of the renovated Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. The altar is still front and center. The organ and choir are partially visible behind the screen behind the altar,
In revivalism the choir was placed behind and above the preacher. The role of music was to help engender an emotional response to the word. The song leader often sat on the platform along with the worship leader and the preacher (hence the three chairs behind the pulpit in many Protestant churches). Mainline Protestant churches copied this auditorium arrangement even though they were not part of the revival tradition. The following image of a Presbyterian church shows the choir in a slightly raised gallery behind the pulpit and communion table.
The revival auditorium served the service of the word (with choir members facing the people). The communion table was placed on the floor level at the head of the central aisle. Much contemporary worship is simply a high tech updating of the old revival services that included “preliminaries” with songs and testimonies (now the “praise medley”), reading and sermon (now called a “message”), and altar call (now an invitation to sign up for classes, small groups, or projects). The praise band simply takes over the front stage of the worship space. Of course, this has encouraged musicians taking over the front of the church for special music like bell choirs.
In historic Catholic and Lutheran churches the choir and other musical forces were placed in galleries (often in the rear but sometimes also on the side of the nave). The organ was placed upstairs in the loft. The musical forces became the engine driving congregational song. Before the Gothic revival many Anglican churches also had a west gallery “band” (as in the 1847 painting by Thomas Webster, “A Village Choir”— the image above this post). This was the social setting of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under The Greenwood Tree. Music was to be heard, not seen. What was seen in Catholic and Lutheran churches was the action around the altar. The priest or pastor conducted the Mass or Service at the altar and the high moment in the liturgy was coming to the table for Holy Communion (restored in Catholic worship after Vatican II).
Many Catholic church buildings erected after Vatican II tried to gather the congregation around the altar-table. In such an arrangement the choir may be on the main floor as one section of the circle. In Orthodox churches the choir is off to the side of the bema.
Placing musicians in the rear gallery has its advantages. The congregation doesn’t see what’s going on up there and the musicians are free to move around and arrange themselves as they need to without unduly disturbing the rest of the worshipers. There’s no reason that bells can’t be placed in a balcony or in the back of the nave. The bells will still be heard.
The idea of “performance” as understood in the entertainment culture is anathema to liturgical worship. Performance as a ritual category is something else. We do perform the liturgy. We perform it in the presence of God and for the life of the world. Worshipers in liturgical worship have a role to perform as the people of God. Choirs are simply portions of the congregation that have rehearsed to lead the people’s song and to offer music that proclaims the word. But they don’t perform in the sense that entertainers perform—to win applause. If your choir is already in the loft, that’s the place from which they should sing and ring bells. If that was OK with Bach, well then… The image following this article shows the main organ and choir gallery in the rear of the nave in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where J. S. Bach served as cantor from 1723-1750.
If your church architecture lacks a gallery, then find a place where the choir can support the congregation but not call attention to itself. And always take the acoustics into consideration.
Pastor Frank C. Senn