Shortly after his appointment as Archbishop of Westminster in 2000, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor attended a meeting of the Westminster Cathedral Art and Architecture Committee. After thanking the members for their work, he said that the main reason for coming was to propose changes to the high altar. Several times, he recalled, he had asked Cardinal Hume why he had left the Cathedral only temporarily re-planned in conformity to the regulations laid down by the Second Vatican Council.
“I am leaving that to my successor,” explained the cardinal. “I am he,” declared the new archbishop, with a smile.
He proposed that the temporary altar erected for the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to England in 1982 should be removed and the great monolith of Cornish granite, given by the Hon George Savile, which forms the original high altar should be moved forward to the centre of the ciborium magnum, or baldacchino, to enable Mass to be celebrated versus populum and ad orientem. As a member of the committee, I welcomed this proposal because it meant returning to Bentley’s high altar and drawing the Cathedral into the liturgical unity it had formerly enjoyed. It also meant that once more Mass would be celebrated beneath a ciborium and that the sanctuary would have one altar. It was also enlightened in so far as it excluded destruction, built upon what was already there, rather than introduce innovations, and enabled Mass to be celebrated in both positions.
With few reservations the committee welcomed the proposal. These were that it would constitute a change to the relationship between the altar and ciborium, so far undisturbed, and the destruction of the inlaid wooden predella that stood in front of it. Michael Drury, the Cathedral’s inspecting architect, was commissioned to investigate the possibility of the proposal and make plans. The matter was then, under listed building consent, referred to English Heritage, the Westminster City Planning Department, the Victorian Society and the Historic Churches Committee.
All appeared to be going smoothly until a letter was received from Paul Vellouet, of English Heritage, an Anglican architect with an interest in liturgical planning. This reflected the provisional liturgical ideals of 40 years ago. He objected to the suggestion because he thought it would be temporary and would, in due course, be replaced by a radical re-planning of the sanctuary, of which he appeared to be enthusiastic. Adapting the high altar would represent an expensive waste of money and was the wrong path to take. Money was certainly a factor and it transpired that it had not entered the considerations behind the proposal. It would cost an estimated £50,000, but the Cathedral did not have it. An appeal was not launched and quietly the proposal fell into abeyance.
Meanwhile, a mock-up was made to show the new position of the altar and, for a time, experimentally, Mass was celebrated facing the people when it was used. The sightlines were unaffected and there were no objections to the proposed change. Indeed, the transformation of worship occasioned by returning to the high altar was met with wide approval. The practical problem was that there was hardly any room behind the altar to celebrate Mass easily and genuflection was almost impossible.
Nine years later the cardinal again came to the committee to bid farewell on the eve of his retirement. He said that one of his biggest regrets was that he had been unable to re-plan the sanctuary and leave a permanent liturgical legacy behind. He seemed concerned by the redundancy of the stalls and the obstruction created by the rosso antico cancelli walls. In 2005 Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, was elected Pope Benedict XVI and a new liturgical chapter in the history of the Church was opened that eclipsed the former liturgical zeitgeist which had come into being in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council and opened many of its radical, de-sacralising objectives to question. One was a criticism of the principle of a clean break with the past in architectural terms in the re-planning of churches; another was an emphasis on historical continuity in the celebration of Mass. Evidence of this is to be seen in the celebration of papal Masses in St Peter’s, St John Lateran and on papal visits abroad.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols was translated to Westminster in 2009 and his inaugural Mass and enthronement launched a new regime in the Cathedral. Despite the restricted space, Mass was celebrated with great splendour at the high altar, facing the people, and few, if any, complaints were received afterwards. The desire to make this practice permanent recurred. The proposal to move the massive mensa was abandoned but superseded by another to move the wall behind the altar, on which stood the crucifix and six candlesticks, three feet back towards the apse, narrowing the steps that led up to it, thereby freeing space behind the altar to enable greater ease of movement. At one time it was thought that this would be structurally impossible because of the shift of weight on the supporting pillars in the crypt, below the altar. Investigation by Michael Drury resulted in a positive solution and plans were made to make the structural changes as carefully and unobtrusively as possible at half the cost of the original proposal.
The aim was to finish the alterations in time for the state visit of the Holy Father this year. The papal Mass celebrated on September 18, televised universally, was widely considered to be the most magnificent Mass celebrated so far by the Pope on a foreign journey, and the use of the high altar significantly contributed to this verdict. Once more Westminster Cathedral embodied a liturgical unity which did not compromise its architectural integrity or the reformed and unreformed liturgical canons.
These developments are deeply significant for the liturgical life not only of the Diocese of Westminster, but the Church in England and Wales. Several radical proposals were drawn up since Vatican II to re-plan the sanctuary but none were executed, despite experiment with temporary solutions. The present result is so convincing that one wonders why it was not considered 40 years ago. Not least is the liturgical advantage of celebrating Mass once more beneath a ciborium.
In recent years there has been a tendency to erect permanent square altars in sanctuaries on the basis that they follow the primitive model of Constantinian basilican practice. Indeed they do to some extent, but they are frequently architecturally maladroit and their size as well as form often does violence to the scale of churches. As Edmund Bishop, the leading English 19th-century liturgiologist, whose influence on 20th-century liturgical theory was profound, proved, the primitive Christian altar was indeed square but it was completed by the addition of a ciborium to provide necessary protection and a liturgical enclosure. That is what is found in the undisturbed, fourth-century Roman basilicas and surviving churches of the period in Italy. It was Bishop’s research that persuaded Bentley that a ciborium was an essential part of the Christian altar and that his baldacchino was the best thing about the cathedral. A square altar looks wrong without a ciborium to cover it. Where square altars are put in modern churches, the liturgical space would be transformed by the addition of a simple ciborium and I hope that Westminster Cathedral will sow seed in their revival as necessary adjuncts to the sanctuary.
For the papal Mass a graceful silver 18th-century standing crucifix and candlesticks, chosen by Mgr Guido Marini, the papal master of ceremonies, were put on the altar and it would be good if these remained permanently in place. The crucifix simply applies what was laid down after Vatican II and provides an indispensable Christocentric focus for the celebrant. It is not an obstruction but a necessary ornament. All in all, the recent changes at Westminster and the example of the papal Mass are radical in their exemplary celebration of the Roman Rite and I hope the precedent they give will be followed in the parishes of England and Wales. Worship would thereby be newly reformed, as commended and practised by the highest source of ecclesial authority.
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