An episcopal priest, Fr. Tim Schenck, has some interesting observations on his blog, and I think they apply to Catholic parishes, as well:
My only living predecessor as rector at St. John’s (they all stay 30 years) has a theory about free-standing altars. He says the unintended consequence when they pulled them out from the walls for a more communal feel is that it turned the priest into the “guy behind the counter.” And from this perspective the priest does indeed appear like a shopkeeper or a liturgical bar tender.
Coinciding with a gradual decline in denominationalism — one that has since become the new reality — this has added to a dangerous model of consumerism in American church life. We’re all familiar with the concept of “church shopping.” People new to town visit a bunch of churches before deciding which one is the most comfortable or which one feeds them or which one meets their needs or where they feel a “connection” with the clergy. I’ve done the same thing — though sticking to a single denomination, you’ll be glad to know.
With the advent of the Model-T Ford, Americans moved away from the parish model where you simply attended the church in your neighborhood and stuck with it in good times and bad. These days, unless you live next door, most people pass a variety of churches on their Sunday morning trek to worship.
Clergy feed into this consumer approach to finding a parish when we joke with Sunday morning visitors about checking out the “competition” when what we really want to scream is “Pick me! Pick us!”
The knock on East-facing altars during the Liturgical Renewal Movement of the 1970′s was that they didn’t offer a participatory experience of worship. This was also at a time when the clergy did most of the talking during liturgy while facing “the wall” when celebrating the Eucharist rather than the people. Yet, having served churches with East-facing altars for the first nine years of my ministry, there’s also something unifying and transcendent in all facing the same way — toward God. This is neither the time nor place to renew this debate but it’s hard to look at the priest as the sacramental Pez dispenser when he/she is not standing behind the deli “counter.”
So recognizing there is a pervasive consumer culture in parish life, what can we do about it?