So we have these debates about ‘full participation’ at the Mass and it seems to me that an awful lot of American Catholics have been educated at the Broadway School of Liturgy, and that ‘full participation’ means that everyone possible must sit as close as can be to the ‘stage’ and that the actors must come down the aisle as often as possible in wonderful costumes in order to ‘engage’ with the audience. Full participation requires that as many people be involved in the performance as possible and that all of the audience should join in with chants and cheers and whoops and tears, with rollicking music and a game show host style of celebration on the part of the priest.

To achieve this ideal the Broadway Liturgists insist on building round or fan shaped churches so that everyone can–‘fooly participate in the liturgy.’  But even if this is the ideal, does a big fan shaped church make this happen? I’m talking to my favorite friendly architect who was explaining to me the dynamics of the fan shaped church. Sure, everyone can see the altar, but in a fan shaped church that seats 1200 people, there are always going to be a good number of people who are far away from ‘the action’. Furthermore, although they seem to be sitting in the round and therefore relating to one another the reverse is true–and here’s why:

As the seating in a fan shaped church goes further back the pews have to be longer and longer. Consequently, because of building codes, they also have to be further and further apart from the pew in front in order to allow that many people to get out quickly. This means that a large number of the people are actually sitting further apart from the rest of the worshippers than in a straight ‘up and down’ type church where shorter pews are equidistant. In this sort of church the space between the pew in front and the next pew is about 3′. At the back of the fan shaped church the distance is as much as 3’8″. So what you ask?

Well, the psychological guys say that the more distance there is between worshippers, the more cut off they feel from each other. Furthermore, the more distraction they have from the focus of attention, the more cut off and disjointed their experience and therefore the more distanced they are from one another. On the other hand, when worshippers in a ‘straight up and down’ church are in the pew they are not only closer to one another, but they are all facing the same direction and the same focus is on the altar–and not on one another (or the choir, or the cantor, or the windows, or what on earth Mrs Florsheim’s wearing this Sunday!)

This closer proximity and shared focus actually draws the congregation together more effectively than the seemingly obvious circle or fan church. Think of it like this: I get full participation from the congregation when they are seated close together, all focusing on the same object of worship–Christ made present at the altar. Furthermore, when everyone is focussed on a shared object (any object) outside themselves they are drawn out of themselves to that object, and in that process draw closer to one another. Think of ten people going on a journey from different starting points to the same destination. As they journey they will draw closer to each other by virtue of all heading in the same direction.

So, in the traditional style of worship we have ‘full participation’ in the liturgy in a much subtler and complete way than simply making as many people as possible take part in the procession, sing in the choir, be ushers and lectors and so forth. What we get is full participation in a corporate sense–in which each individual gets caught up in the action of the whole community as we worship the Almighty.

And isn’t that what the trendy liturgists wanted in the first place?