Liturgy - the impact of setting (at Philadelphia Cathedral)



Following on from the articles in the last edition of the Spire on the impact of setting in liturgy, John Wheeler tells us about his visit to Philadelphia Cathedral, on whose layout our Easter liturgy was based. Read more here.

Philadelphia is where the United States of America started. From there the disgruntled settlers sent a letter listing their complaints to George III. When they failed to get an answer it was there that they wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence. It is also the location of the Hall of the Carpenters Company of Philadelphia, the only trade guild or livery in the United States, at whose invitation Roz and I, with a UK group, spent a week there in May.


A point of interest to St Jude’s is the Philadelphia Cathedral on whose layout our Easter services at St Jude’s were based. It is not in the city centre, as the name would suggest, but in a rundown suburb. That said it is next to a huge university complex. It is a church of similar size and age to St Jude’s, with the bishop’s adjoining residence currently empty (apparently, he was sacked for a misdemeanour!) In spite of there being signs of the organisation being without a leader, the interior physically is extremely attractive, well lit and furnished. The apse also had strong resemblances to St Jude’s. The quality of the space, with its very attractive lighting and occasional display for works of art, I found most appealing.

Words in the cathedral leaflet reminded me of the special focus placed on the altar and ambo during our Holy Week services at St Jude's:

The ambo is the place from which God’s word in the sacred scriptures is proclaimed. In the first Christian buildings the ambo served as both lectern and pulpit, the functions of which became separated in a later era. The design is based on the bema or reading desk of the synagogue, at which Jesus himself would have read from the scriptures (Luke 4, 16 – 17).
The ambo, like the altar table, is set in the midst of the assembly. In this way we are reminder that the people of God are fed at the two central tables – word and sacrament. The ambo is set on the central axis at the west end of the nave, facing east, as it would have been placed in the Christian basilica of the early centuries. The ambo is inscribed in Hebrew with the words from Psalm 168: I am ever aware of the presence of the Eternal.


The altar table is the central liturgical focus in Christian worship, for it is symbolically both a place of sacrifice (where we recall the sacrifice of Christ and offer ourselves sacrificially to God) and a place of communion (where we gather to celebrate the presence of the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread).

It is square in shape, symbolising the centering of the community and indicative of the equal access to God’s table enjoyed by all members of the household of the faithful. It is set in the midst of the assembly of the faith, not set apart at the east end, to symbolise the rediscovery of the Eucharist as a participatory sacred meal, instead of a distant ritual celebrated exclusively by the ordained.

It is neither fenced off by rails, nor distanced from us by steps, for it belongs to the whole people of God. It is movable; reminding us we are a pilgrim people like our spiritual forebears the Jews who carried the ark with them, and to allow for many different configurations in the same place.

The two guides on duty on a Monday morning were most helpful and turned on lights to enable me to take photographs, although I did not feel able to ask them to move the cleaning hoist in the apse!

Of general interest, after that particular visit was over, Roz and I went on to see the historic area of Williamsburg, which is approximately 150 miles south of Washington and was one of the early colonial settlements. In the historic area, we visited the parish church of Bruton for the first of the two Sunday morning services at 9.30am. The traditional Anglican church was full to capacity. The previous day we had thoroughly enjoyed watching some of the phases of the early colonial history being acted out in costume in the streets of the town. The next day we moved on to Washington and visited Washington Cathedral. Built in the gothic style it is the sixth largest cathedral in the world, although it was only finished 10 years ago.

John Wheeler
Published in the August 2009 edition of The Spire

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