The Fittings and Ornaments of the Church.
By Harold S. Rogers
London: The Warham Guild, 1947.
Note.—This paper was prepared for a Conference of Representatives of Diocesan Advisory Committees of the Northern Province held at St. William's College, York, June 3-6, 1947, and was printed in The Builder of July 11, 1947.
The fact that it was read to such an audience will account for certain turns of expression more suited, perhaps, to a spoken than to a printed address, but it has been thought best to print the paper exactly as it was delivered.
‘Something there is more needful than Expense,
And something previous ev’n to Taste— ’tis Sense.
This couplet was set by my master, John Thomas Micklethwaite, on the title-page of his Modern Parish Churches over seventy years ago, and there can scarcely be a walk in life wherein it is not a valuable admonition. And not merely common-sense, which may be horse-sense and become crude and even philistine, but ‘sense’ in the fullest connotation of the term—a sense of proportion and form, of beauty and reverence, yes, and of humour as well, without which saving grace a ‘sensible’ make-up is not quite complete.
For Diocesan Advisory Committees who share an almost Pauline responsibility in the ‘care of all the churches’ [3/4] as well as for the artists and craftsmen whose work they review, and for the clergy with whose churches they are concerned, the particular sense which should inspire both work and judgement is based on an appreciation of the Liturgy and its requirements. ‘So,’ if I may venture a postscript to Pope’s couplet:
‘So, when we plan to fit and deck withal
Our Church, we need the Sense Liturgical?’
In a church, as in an house, the furnishing and embellishment to be entirely satisfactory should be fit for its purpose both in make and material, in harmony with its surroundings, and pleasing to the eye in form and colour; in short the architect’s threefold touchstone of beauty will be found to apply:
‘A Building’s beauty has a triple norm;
Convenience, strength, and comeliness of form.’
In the English Church we have the triple strands of tradition, custom, and development, and through all the varying expressions of its public worship for the past four hundred years there has been a continuity which is the very core of her growth. And the study which our churches and their equipment and public worship has received during the past century, the experiments and tendencies of the Church Revival in that time, the very mistakes which have been made by pioneers and copyists alike should find us better equipped to-day with a better sense of what is proper to the House of God.
And so to my subject, ‘The ornaments of the Church and of the Ministers thereof . . .’ how well we know these words from the rubric which stands at the head of Morning Prayer, and how well some of us recall the controversies which they have excited! The Book of Common Prayer provides a compendium of Public [4/5] Worship, and also explicitly or by implication indicates the instruments and method of carrying out its Offices: the font, the screen, the holy table and its coverings, the sacred vessels, the place of Communion, the Bible, the pulpit, the pews, and so on. While others have the duty of actually providing these things yours is the responsibility of advising the bishops’ officers as to their artistic and practical merit.
It is highly important, therefore, that while your committees include persons of antiquarian, artistic, literary, and clerical cunning (I use the word in a laudatory sense, of course!) you should all have a common knowledge of the Liturgy and of what is required in its presentation, and should acquaint yourselves with the writings of those scholars who have made it the subject of special research.
As the Christian life begins with Holy Baptism, I propose to start my short survey of furniture and ornaments with—
It is the age-old custom in our country for the font to stand in the body of the church and not in a separate compartment or baptistery, and this tradition should be strictly maintained. In the time of the finest development of the English Church plan (the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries) the font very often had a position of suitable prominence and dignity raised on steps in the centre of the westernmost bay of the nave. In earlier and smaller churches it was sometimes next to a pillar or in an aisle with only a single step, but always within the four walls of the church.
In modern churches where a west door is not wanted (and there are several reasons why north and south doors near the west end are to be preferred) the font can find [5/6] a central and suitable position near the west wall; wherever it be placed the standing-room for the minister and clerk and the godparents should be carefully planned in a clear space unencumbered with seats or odds and ends of furniture.
If the stone of which the font bowl is made be porous it should be lined with lead, and in every case the drain and pipe within the stem of the font should connect with a sump or dry-well below the floor so that the water may be carried off into the earth.
Every font should have a cover. I have known churches which would generally be considered as ‘well appointed’ lacking a drain or cover to the font, and I commend to the clergy, particularly to archdeacons, the importance of seeing that these essentials are provided; the lack of them is a grave breach of liturgical propriety and liable to encourage even further irreverence.
The cover need not be elaborate; it gives opportunity for a variety in design. I need hardly say that it should not be rendered immobile by flower-pots or removed for the sake of floral extravagances which are most unseemly and sometimes damage the font itself.
After the font the eye would be attracted by the chancel entrance with the screen and the great rood above; that is, if the church were furnished on traditional lines. To-day it is too often taken up with the pews, which shall have their proper and subordinate place later on.
Amid the varieties of plan and style and growth of our parish churches, one feature is common to all, and that is the division into chancel and nave. This division carries us back right to the door of the missionaries’ hut and the lattices, cancelli, of the basilicas; they are to-day [6/7] represented by the chancel arch and the screen, beyond which the sacred offices are performed, while on their hither side the worshippers are ranged to bear their part.
While I admit that there are certain types of building where a fully developed screen would be inappropriate, I urge that the tradition should never be entirely abandoned. In spite of spoliation and neglect and of deliberate removal in more modern times, this land has probably a greater treasure of screens than any other, and it should be remembered that the Elizabethan orders for the removal of lofts and images not only did not apply to the screens below them, but sometimes definitely gave instructions for reparations to the screens and particularly to their cornices which had suffered, it may be, from rough usage when the loft was destroyed.
In this functional and ferro-concrete age, when some would have us believe that we have outgrown the old models and need freedom of expression in our church building, I value the chancel-screen as a salutary corrective, for not only is it truly functional but it sets a standard of good manners and liturgical propriety.
So we pass through the screen into the chancel, where we find another line of division. I refer to the sanctuary step, or the communion step as it is more often called, which has a greater ritual and practical significance than a step at the entrance to the chancel; in passing, I may be allowed to say that it may be desirable in a modern church to omit the chancel step and let the nave floor level run on until the sanctuary step is reached.
East of this step everything is deliberately subordinate to the altar; west of it were the seats for the parson and the clerk or clerks who assisted at the services. But there [7/8] was not always space for a present-day surpliced choir, and the intrusion of these bands of singers into chancels, neither designed for them nor large enough, became most unfortunately the rule in nearly every church beginning, in the late ’forties of the last century.
At first it was a matter of some daring, later on of great satisfaction, and chancels old and new had their floors raised to exhibit the singers, and enhance their performance.
And into the chancel with the choir went the parson, when his former reading pew was abandoned, but unfortunately he did not resume the chief place back to the screen, which his early predecessors had occupied, but was ranged with the choir facing north or south or sometimes in a little gig-like seat-and-desk by their side, and the sight of clergyman’s whiskers in profile became, after the excitement of the novelty, an almost stereotyped feature of a restored chancel—almost, but not quite, for there are still unspoiled churches up and down the country which escaped this mark of the Gothic revival in which the parson’s seat is found against the screen.
I do not wish to dogmatize on the ‘correct’ position of the choir and clergy seats, but I do stress that the position of the sanctuary step in new churches and the recovery of its original position in old ones is very important, for on it may depend the dignity of the altar and the convenient planning of the entire sanctuary.
Having crowded the chancel with seats and singers it seemed desirable to the Restorers to provide ‘a well-raised altar,’ which could be obtained only by steps, and it was not properly understood that additional steps required far greater length than the average chancel afforded.
The mistake began with two, or even three, steps at [8/9] the entrance to the chancel; another, and perhaps the least objectionable, at the east end of the choir seats; then, after too short an interval, two more, with the communion rail on top of them, and another or perhaps two only three feet further on, leaving on the altar platform two feet or even less in front and at the ends of the altar; by such mistaken steps the already cramped sanctuary floor-space became little better than a flight of unequally distributed stairs.
It is more generally appreciated to-day that a well-placed altar with fewer and broader levels before it is the desideratum, and in dealing with an old sanctuary or chapel floor it is important to retain or recover the original levels, for they will be found to be the most, convenient for use to-day.
There should be at least 3 ft. on which the priest may stand at the altar and 4 ft. is better. An approaching step (or steps) should be 2 ft. broad and there should be 5 ft. (or 4 ft. at the least) between the lowest altar step and the communion rail. West of the rail, at a distance of 12 in., the sanctuary step will occur, and there should be a clear floor-space of 5 ft. beyond it before the seating begins. Then, and not till then, can a decision be made as to whether the remaining space will accommodate a choir of the size desired; the wrong way to furnish the chancel is to entrench a choir firmly in the western half and simply ‘do the best you can’ with what is left for the sanctuary.
There are, of course, exceptions to most of the dimensions which I have given, and in very small chancels only one change of level may be possible, and this should be the communion step and not less than 4 ft. 6 in. from the altar.
 Where the chancel is long enough nothing gives greater dignity to the altar—next, of course, to its actual adornments—than the generous levels of the steps which approach it.
It is quite a mistake to suppose that the altar, because it is the most important piece of furniture in the church, must be seen by as many people at once as is possible; there should be some reserve in this matter, and that is where the chancel screen is so valuable. Let me say quite bluntly, then, that the altar should not shout its presence; the worshippers should rather be led to discover it. If the details of the reredos or the design of the Cross can be recognized from the west door it is pretty certain that something is amiss. From the west door, as I have said, it is the great rood which should edify the worshipper, and the ‘something beyond’ impression which is given by the screen; when the screen is reached it is time to appreciate the beauty of the altar and its surroundings.
And this beauty can be attained very largely by following the advice given, in quite a different connection, by Robert Louis Stevenson, who once said: ‘To omit, to omit, to omit, there, if only we knew it, lies half our art.’ I am quite sure that maxim will help us here.
Be, therefore, on the look-out for all superfluous wall decoration, unnecessary furniture, thrones, stools, desks, gongs, little mats, and fal-lals of all kinds; some of them are necessary on occasions, then by all means let them be brought in, and taken out when the service is over; to leave them standing about gives an untidy look to the sanctuary and robs the altar of its dominance.
The Holy Table is the Prayer Book name for the altar, [10/11] and I wish we would pay more attention to the implications of that title; too often the reverence due to the altar is lost sight of by neglect of appropriate adornment and by parsimony in its construction.
Whether the altar be of stone or wood, its proportions are important. It must be of convenient height, which in the very largest churches cannot well be more than 3 ft. 6 in., and as a rule 2 in. or 3 in. less is better. Its length is to some extent governed by the width of the sanctuary or by the vertical lines of the east window with its rere-arch but I would concede to what I may call the ‘west-door view’ that where a narrow chancel remains attached to a' much wider church, the altar should be more in proportion with the width of the nave.
It should be of the best possible workmanship, and I stress this because there are so many ‘cheap’ altars made to-day, starved in their timber to reduce the price so that more may be spent on their frontals and reredos. This seems to me entirely wrong. God’s Board itself deserves the best treatment, and then its coverings may be as good as can be afforded.
Above all, I deprecate the rather flimsy three-sided casings which too often serve as altars, for they are, in my experience, seldom moved, never cleaned out, and become an harbourage of dust and cobwebs; even when they are sufficiently substantial and have arcaded fronts they err in another respect, for they suggest the omission of the frontal so that the carved-front may be seen!
I have no hesitation in advising that the best form of altar is frankly the table with four or, where the length is over 7 ft., eight massive legs turned after the sixteenth-century models, with broad moulded stretchers connecting them. Particular care should be given to the top or mensa, which should be very securely framed with its top [11/12] edges as nearly true square as the wood will allow without danger of splintering.
Width is a great adjunct to dignity, and while a 6 ft. altar in a side chapel may perhaps be as narrow as 2 ft., one twice that length should be at least 3 ft. 6 in., but the architect who knows his job will decide this according to the space at his disposal.
The altar should have a frontal (and probably a frontlet), a linen cloth at service-time, and a backcloth or some decorative feature, behind. I am, personally, entirely opposed to the idea that a frontal should be dropped because of the beauty or the antiquity of the altar, but I can only provide the frontal and expect that it will be used at service-time. Should the sacristan choose to remove the frontal and other ornaments when service is over, thereby following medieval precedent, I could not complain, but there should be no half-measures and no deliberate encouragement of bare altars—except on Good Friday.
In times past frontals have been of wood, precious metals, and textiles and embroideries. The former were naturally on stiff frames, but they were definitely movable and afford no precedent for a fixed elaborate front to-day. But the hanging of tapestry or silk was., and is, the more usual and more manageable. It is hung from a rod an inch or so below the fable-edge, or attached to a strong linen cover fitting box-lid-like over the altar; the former method is best, as it allows some fullness of material, which prevents the frontal looking flat and wallpapery. The frontlet is a strip of from four to six inches in depth sewn on to a linen cloth which covers the mensa and falls over the back, where it is secured by a rod or hooks, the [12/13] frontlet fitting tight over the front edge and masking the frontal-rod. Frontals of very elaborate embroidery may really need to be mounted on frames; there is no objection to this provided that the frame is not applied to materials which do not demand it.
The fair linen should be put on before the Communion service; it should be the exact width of the altar and hang to within a few inches of the floor at each end. Fortunately, the habit of allowing about two inches of this cloth to overlap the front edge of the altar is dying out, and no new cloth should be made which will allow its continuance. Whether the fair linen be always left on the altar or not, there should be a dust cover of coloured linen of similar size.
There is now the background to consider, and the relation of the altar to the window above.
As a rule, it is best for the dorsal or reredos to be only very slightly taller than the altar itself, though its central portion may sometimes be higher or have a curved outline. If the wall-space is awkwardly high (which scarcely ever occurs in old churches) it is unwise to try to cover it by the reredos. A separate scheme of sculpture or a central figure above the normal reredos is the better solution.
In the great churches of the Middle Ages, where there was what may almost be called a wall of sculpture behind the high altar, this big-scale work never touched the altar, for the lowest tier was invariably arranged so as to form a separate composition approximating to the normal reredos.
It is all too easy to swamp an altar, and a tall reredos will [13/14] tend to make the altar a mere predella to its own chief ornament.
THE VALUE OF COLOUR
The use of colour in both frontal and reredos is essential, but it must be the right colour or colours; as a rule, what looks well in a drawing-room is disappointing in a church, where the dimensions and the lighting are so different. What are known as ‘art-shades’ are generally disappointing, too, and it is best to have good, strong heraldic colouring managed by some one accustomed to churches rather than drawing-rooms.
The Gothic Revival men conceded colour (not always with success) in frontals, but failed lamentably in their reredoses. Who does hot know the mantelpiece type, with its aggressive marble shelf and chilly arcade and gables behind, which as often as not contain nothing in particular? The composition attracts attention away from the altar and has nothing satisfactory to return. The first attempts at figure sculpture were weak and unsatisfactory, and we have done better since. I am always careful to retain anything of the ‘revival’ period when it is really worth it, and have sometimes retained the figures and given them an entirely new and more reposeful setting.
Heraldry is a valuable item of decoration, and its introduction gives an added interest to reredos, or monument, or screen, or other furniture on which it may be used, but it must be genuine and should not be overdone.
It is far better not to attempt or allow a reredos where funds are not sufficient to make it really worthy of its position. Far better to make the frame of it first and fill it with a well-designed tapestry and wait for its completion on the right scale.
If curtains are hung, at each end of the reredos—and it is very seemly that they should be, for they have a long tradition and are practical and artistic—they should be hung at right angles to the east wall and not splayed out ‘to show the pattern,’ and here may I enter a protest at the desire, which is too prevalent, to see everything at once? It should be remembered that the church, or the chancel, is not a show or a staged scene, but that the series of its compartments—nave, choir, sanctuary, altar—connected though they are, have each their own content, so to speak, and deserve more than just a nave-view treatment. You see them in their proper setting when closer to them; for instance, the altar cross and reredos, as I have said, are set in proportion with the sanctuary. Banners, if they are left to ornament the sanctuary, should be placed against the side walls and not slewed round half-west on the chance of getting a glance from some one in the nave, and it is surely stupid to advertise that you have a processional cross by strapping it on to the choir seats, when you have to undo it and take it somewhere else before a procession!
So far we have considered the altar’s material and form, its colourful frontal and reredos—the latter of moderate height and simple outline—with riddel curtains enshrining it at each end, and ample standing room before it. We now come to the smaller ornaments.
The unbroken English tradition is for two lights only, set direct upon the mensa, and these candlesticks should be of modest height. A row of six, besides being quite foreign to our use, immediately becomes assertive and takes possession of the scene, but additional lights may [15/16] be added in hanging candelabra, in tall candlesticks on the sanctuary floor and in prickets at the front ends of the rods which carry the curtains.
There are some large sanctuaries in which the altar stands away from the east wall where the curtain rods may be carried conveniently by four posts some seven or eight feet high, and these posts may themselves bear additional lights. But this arrangement, beautiful though it be in an appropriate setting, should not be pressed everywhere; indeed, it has too often earned criticism from unfortunate examples where the posts have been meagre and the proportions cramped to suit a too narrow chancel.
If the reredos include carved figures with a central Christ, whether on the cross, or standing, or seated in majesty, it is clearly an error of taste—to put it no higher—to set a standing cross before it; but if the background have no centrepiece or be of textile, without any central emblem, a standing cross seems desirable—the two lights are the more essential ornaments. The altar cross may be a beautiful thing when handled by one who understands proportion; plain brass should not be admitted here, for it is blatant and inartistic.
A desk or cushion for the service book is the only other necessity, except, of course, the actual communion vessels, and long altars may have two such cushions which may be suffered to remain out of service time.
Flowers in vases are clearly out of place in front of a decorated reredos, for they violate an artistic principle and always tend to be overpowering; they were popular in the days of the last century when backgrounds were bleaker, but now that we are improving in that particular they present a striking instance of misdirected zeal; and [16/17] the loving care which arranges them, but does not always remove them when they have wilted, could be so much better spent on arranging them elsewhere—at the sides of the altar, for instance, or on window-sills, or in front of the altar steps, where they can be displayed in larger masses with much better effect and without the hideous tyranny of the brass vase.
I, personally, feel that there is something revolting in the presence of flowers in process of decay upon an altar; and the inevitable drippings of water, leaves, and the presence of insects are additional objections.
I have gone into some detail into what I have learned to be the essentials of altar furnishing, and now turn to two items in the sanctuary before moving west to the choir and nave.
In old churches where the piscina has its drain in working order, it may be desired to make use of it, though I have generally found it more convenient to place another in the sacristy for the thorough cleansing of the vessels after service; it is sometimes useful to cover a disused piscina with an oak shelf, shaped to the recess and projecting slightly in front to take the crewets and bread-dish, but a credence table is needed as well for larger objects. I have found a cupboard, of suitable height, is sometimes useful; its top supplies a credence and within it can be placed a bread canister, extra purificators, alms-bags, and so on, and, on a separate shelf, matches and tapers for the altar caudles. But, whether table or cupboard, the design should be practical and simple without strange curves and knobbles of carving.
Our old churches supplied seats on the south side of the sanctuary (generally three in number) for the sacred [17/18] ministers, and some are of great beauty. They often followed the rise of the steps before the altar, the celebrant, of course, in the highest seat with the readers of the Gospel and Epistle, in that order, on his left, and this is the proper order whether the seats be raised or level. Stone seats certainly deserve a cushion or cushions and wooden ones as well.
On the occasion of a visit from the bishop chairs should be set on the north side of the sanctuary for him and his chaplains, and these should not be left standing about when he has gone.
The north wall frequently has an aumbry, a cupboard recessed in the wall, which was one of the places most usual for the Holy Sacrament to be reserved for the communion of the sick, and no place could be more convenient when it is authorized for that use to-day.
THE COMMUNION RAIL
On leaving the sanctuary we pass the sanctuary step, where it is usual for the communicants to kneel, and it is natural to supply some support for them. The polished pole and cast-iron or brass standards which became so popular are one of the unhappiest legacies of the ‘Revival,’ and they should be removed whenever opportunity offers. In their stead long, low kneeling desks or a, continuous balustrade rail, both of wood, are far more convenient and less obtrusive. The desks, and the broad gap between them, should be calculated for a definite number of persons, four, five, or six as the width of the chancel may allow; the continuous rail should have a pair of gates in the centre with a smoothly running bolt so that they may be firm when fastened.
There are many such rails surviving from the sixteenth century and later, and these balusters afford quite [18/19] permissible ‘copy,’ but they are over-massive for present-day purposes and too high for convenience; the height of rail or desk should be about 26 in. above the step. I have never found that these balustrades look out of place in a much older building, whereas the low arched and traceried barriers, in their attempt to be ‘in keeping’ with a Gothic church, invariably appear as intruders.
THE CHOIR SEATS
I have mentioned the need for a good clear space west of the sanctuary step; beyond this, if the chancel be long enough, is where the singers may be placed. The choir seats should be properly designed in graduated rows, the lower for boys and the upper on more generous spacing for adults; they should be on wood platforms of, say, three and eight inches respectively, and it will be found that a properly designed block of two rows will be 7 ft. wide, perhaps an inch or two less, and in passing I would say that two rows of ordinary church-seating will not be convenient for choir seats. There should be a central space between these seats as wide as possible; 5 ft. should be the minimum and 10 ft. is, of course, just twice as good. It is better to omit one row of choir-seats, on one or both sides, rather than cramp this important central passageway.
In medieval choir plans the back row of seats was returned against the screen and the parson would use the seat next the screen door on the south side. If this arrangement can be restored so much the better (in my opinion), but it is not always easy to overcome a preference for the sideways parson.
THE NAVE FURNITURE AND OPEN SPACES
Beyond the screen and chancel arch, at the east end of the nave, there should always be a broad space clear of [19/20] furniture before the seating begins, for here various things happen in the course of different services; for instance, part of the marriage service is held here with a group of six or more people assembled; the coffin is placed here at a funeral and space is needed for its decent handling; the Litany is normally said at a desk here; and here is the principal station in a procession. I advise a space of 10 ft. be left clear in front of the screen, or as near that space as possible.
The pews themselves need not be uncomfortable if properly designed and spaced. 20 in. at least should be allowed for each person measured between the ends for seats holding five or less, but for longer pews the ‘over-all’ measurement should be a multiple of 20 in. The seatbacks should have a slope of 1 in. and the seatboards of half an inch, and the seats should be not less than 14 in. broad set out in rows across the church spaced 3 ft. (at least) back to back. Wide passageways from west to east are important factors in the appearance and convenience of a church. I know only one parish church where the central passage is 8 ft. wide, the effect is superb; but except in very small churches 6 ft. should be the minimum, with the side aisles rather less.
In most old churches the existing seating arrangements must probably be kept, but where any re-seating is contemplated wider gangways should be an important part of the scheme.
There should be a good pewless area at the west end of the nave—and of the aisles if the north and south doors are near the west end—where space may be found for bookshelves, tables for literature, and umbrella stands.
Except when at the altar the parson addresses the congregation from three different places: 1, from his stall [20/21] where he turns round to face them; 2, from the lectern, and 3, from the pulpit.
There is no correct position for lectern or pulpit; both should be placed as the size and shape of the church seem to need.
Wood is a kinder material for both these items, and while we have handsome and elaborate pulpits of stone and wood surviving from medieval times with more of a later date which we should cherish with the greatest care, it seems better to aim at something less elaborate to-day, relying on simple and graceful outline and putting more into mouldings and less into carved adornment.
And among the desirable omissions I do earnestly include those little coloured flaps and the brass desks they so often cover; a wood desk and a cushion are much pleasanter, and if the bishop is preaching throw a fine tapestry hanging 4 ft. long and 2 ft. wide over all to mark the occasion.
A lot of unnecessary money has been spent on almsbags and pulpit falls and trivialities which might have provided something really worth while. I know of a church which “has four sets of alms-bags,—red, white, and blue, and, of course, green, the colour of nature we are told—six bags to a set and this church still lacks a font-cover.
Wood is better for a lectern than metal and is more often within the means of the donor and the power of the designer, and in either material it is best to avoid poultry; a carefully-sloped desk and a graceful pedestal with a firm base are the chief essentials.
I have only time for two notes on the organ.
I cannot tell you where to put it; it depends on the whereabouts of the choir to some extent and the space that can be afforded. There are, however, two places that it is safe to avoid, one is in the chancel and the other a little penthouse built out of the chancel.
In planning a new organ do not specify a concert instrument—two manuals are enough for the ordinary church—and money should be spent on tone, and, quality rather than on throbbing effects. The organ can be a sweet handmaid to worship; it should not be allowed to become an overbearing master.
There are many other things which you have to supervise which I have no time to touch, and I could plead with you for twenty minutes on the text: ‘Is this tablet-really necessary?’