Boat Altar?

The Galilean pulpit at St Leonard’s Church, St Leonard’s on Sea.

If you caught the corny boat-altar on which Pope Francis celebrated Mass–here’s one for you which goes one better. It is called the Galilean pulpit and it is in the church of St Leonard’s on Sea in East Sussex in England. This unusual piece of church furniture was commissioned by the Anglican vicar from a genuine boat builder on the sea of Galilee. St Leonard’s is part of Hastings which is a fishing port.

I think the Anglicans have one up on us here because Jesus really did preach from a fishing boat, but he never celebrated the sacrifice of the Mass in a boat. St Leonard, for those who are interested, was an eighteenth century Franciscan missionary. We don’t know if he preached from a boat, but his father was a ship’s captain. (Whoops, I have been corrected by Fr Ray Blake who points out that a medieval English town could hardly be named for an 18th c. Franciscan. Look up St Leonard of Limoges instead) Kathy Schiffer goes one better and collects boat churches here.

I happen to have a few connections with St Leonard’s Church in East Sussex. I was Anglican curate at the next parish over: St Peter’s in Bexhill. My wife’s parents were married in St Leonard’s Church and the principal of my Anglican seminary was the Vicar there.

Which leads me to muse on the proper use of symbolism in church life. Why are the boat-altar and boat-pulpit tacky? Because they are trying to be a symbol, but the makers are not aware of what a symbol is and how it works. A symbol is not supposed to be preachy and obvious. We should not see a symbol and groan and say, “Uh huh. I get it. Clever.” This sort of “symbol” only draws attention to itself and away from the point of worship. I once met a modern church artist who made a tabernacle which was like the tree of life. No. This is too preachy and in a way obvious, but also in a way it needs to be explained.

Tree of Life tabernacle

A symbol is something different. A true symbol is a mysterious and ambiguous sign–a signal from this world of another world–not an item of furniture or decoration with a literalistic connection with only one meaning. A religious symbol for example is a lily or a palm. The lily represents purity and power. The palm represents royalty and martyrdom. A symbol carries a multiplicity of meanings. The tree of life tabernacle, the altar-boat and altar-pulpit can only carry one meaning. Once you’ve got the joke it’s sort of all over.

A symbol also functions within the iconography or architecture as a subsidiary, but meaningful decoration. The lily or the pelican, the flour de lys or the sword or the keys are secondary to the main icon, furniture or architecture. They are, if you like, secret signs of the deeper meanings. To put them right up front and make a big deal of them is to draw attention to them, and that violates a basic principle of worship. Nothing in the worship should draw attention to itself, but instead focus on, and assist the worship of Christ the Lord.


  • Augustine

    Indeed, a good symbol is a poetic symbol whose meaning has many folds that enrich each other. A literal depiction is not a symbol, but a… depiction.

  • Fr Ray Blake

    Father, Father, I think you have the wrong St Leonard.

    When I was the Curate there, and you were in Bexhill, we kept the feast of Saint Leonard of Limoges to whom there was an altar, who died in A.D. 559 as the towns patron, I think it would be strange for an English town to be named after an 18th century Franciscan.

  • Christopher Range

    The church has a rich visual vocabulary from which to draw in spreading the message. Yet today many people suffer from a kind of visual illiteracy. The cure for visual illiteracy, just as with verbal illiteracy, is to teach people to read. Religious education is a signifcant part of the New Evangelization. One hope I have as a convert is to see more cultural evangelism. Figuratively speaking – I need the teaching alphabet, but please don’t deprive me of the beauty of textura quadrata.

  • AnneG

    Thanks, Father, for that description of a symbol. I will definitely use that for an explanation. Praying for you and your sister.

  • Curious

    So, the Barque of Peter is tacky? Really? What’s you’re point? The “symbol” for the Year of Faith is the Bark of Peter, a boat. It appears in churches throughout the world. And has for centuries.

  • Really Curious

    Wood trumps the Living God? Seriously?

  • Charles Mac Kay

    In the fifties film Moby Dick there is a scene where Orson Wells preaches from a very similar pulpit. The message was the same – behave!

  • A Solis Ortu

    In my diocese there’s a church named for St Peter. It’s one of those modern theatre-in-the-round ‘worship spaces’ with a raised platform for a sanctuary. This raised platform is shaped, no kidding, like a basketball key (St Peter, key, get it?!) with the altar where the freethrow line would be and a huge hanging crucifix which makes me think irreverent thoughts about backboard Jesus.

  • BTP

    The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibit last year of some works by Fabergé created for the royal family of Russia. One of these was an egg with a depiction of a pelican — of course, the royal family being Orthodox. The little explanation below the piece helpfully explained that the pelican plucking at her breast and feeding her young with her own blood was an old Christian symbol of charity and self-giving.

    Well, yes. It is that.

    Maybe a symbol is a thing that has a meaning the smart folks at museums might completely miss.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Then symbol and metaphor share the same ancestry.