Dean Letter: Chancel Update

Hello St. Paul’s,

It’s time for me to update you on the work of the chancel and nave renovation task force, which consists of a number of staff, liturgical leaders, and Chapter members. We’ve been working together since August to come up with a design that will make the cathedral space as accessible and flexible as possible. We are looking to a future when we will need to find new ways of supporting our ministry, and that will include making the best use of all our beautiful spaces. Early in the year a generous parishioner offered to underwrite the cost of the project. Chapter discussed this in July and gave us the green light to start the research.

The project is in two parts: one, to replace our beloved but unwieldy pews with suitable chairs that can be reconfigured or stacked; and the other, to maximize space in our famously narrow chancel and make both chancel and chapel fully accessible.  For those of you unfamiliar with church-speak, the chancel is the area of the church behind the communion rail

Some weeks ago I showed you the various chair samples we had obtained and invited you to make an appointment to come and try them out. I have a stack of paper letting me know what you all thought, and the runaway favorite was the chair pictured below, which has been in use in several American and European cathedrals for decades. It can be stacked 40 high and is very hard-wearing.

Here’s a rendering of what the chairs would look like en masse in our nave. Note that we are planning to have a bronze-colored frame, rather than the chrome seen here.

And here’s a photograph of the same chairs, with a lighter stain, in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral in England.

We are currently working on the exact number of chairs, book racks, and carts needed, as well as the finish details. If our donor approves, the proposal will go to Chapter in January, and if Chapter gives the green light, we will order the chairs and they should arrive within 6-8 weeks. Kathleen Burgess is looking into possible new homes for the pews, but we will be holding onto a number of them, to repurpose the wood in the chancel, as I’ll explain in a minute. The Queen’s pew will remain in use.

So that’s part one of the project.

Part two is the Chancel remodel, from a narrow, hazardous space full of different levels and limited flexibility, into a broad, expansive surface that can be transformed with minimal effort into a stage or intimate worship space, accessible to wheelchair-assisted individuals and inviting close engagement with worship.  This began as a project to replace the floor, which is sagging badly in the altar area, with tile to match the chapel and sacristy, but Chapter, with the encouragement of our donor, has endorsed the vision of a complete makeover. We have had many conversations with our architects, who have been very patient with us, and the project expanded to include a remodel of the sacristy, to accommodate more storage space. Last week we arrived at a milestone agreement on the general shape of the chancel and sacristy (for non-Episcopalians, the sacristy is the area where the altar guild and clergy prepare for worship). I don’t have drawings to show you yet, but the basic outline is like this:

The chancel will be slightly extended out into the nave, with the suggestion of an octagonal border, echoing the baptismal font. A ramp will run behind the organ console up to the chapel and chancel, expanding the square footage of the chancel even more to the south. Once up the ramp, the chancel and chapel will all be one level. Eliminating the furthest, top step, where the altar now sits, means we will need a short ramp for access to the sacristy, and this will be located in the sacristy. The sacristy itself will be one large room rather than the two smaller rooms that we have now, and the storage units will be designed to the altar guild’s specifications to hold all of our liturgical treasures and equipment, including vestments.

Every item on the chancel, except for the bishop’s cathedra and the hanging cross, will be moveable: the choir will have wooden chairs with moveable screens in front of the front rows. The stalls for celebrant, dean, and deacon will remain. The altar rail will be positioned at the nave floor level and will be removable. I mentioned repurposing some of the pews: we hope to use the wood to create the choir screens.

I know that this is a lot of change, and I know that the prospect of remodeling our beloved worship space is upsetting to some of you. I am sorry for the pain you may be feeling. But I want to emphasize that we are doing this out of love for the Cathedral. This year we have experienced the reality that church is more than a building and that Christ’s body can live and flourish anywhere, even when we can only meet online. That’s something to hold onto, even after the Pandemic is only a memory. For years we have seen a steady decline in church attendance, and it’s harder every year to come up with the resources to support all the ministries we feel called to. I believe that the longterm survival of the Cathedral depends on our ability to be flexible and innovative: putting our buildings to their best use in support of our mission is a priority, and this is the best time to make the changes, especially in view of the generous gift that will finance them. As much as it hurts now to think of these changes, it would hurt a whole lot more if we found ourselves unable to maintain the building or to pay essential staff.

So please believe me when I say that the Chapter’s decisions, while they may feel iconoclastic, are intended to ensure the cathedral’s longterm presence as a center of community in our city.

See you on Sunday!

Your sister in Christ,

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7 thoughts on “Dean Letter: Chancel Update”

  1. This project is very exciting and I for one am eager to see the results. I’m very glad that we are keeping the Queen’s pew, however. The chairs are very comfortable (I tried one out some time ago) and I am reminded of an overheard comment one Christmas Eve from a lady who had sat through carol singing and the complete service: “I’m numb right you think I’d be.”

  2. I also think the project is very exciting. I’m happy about the proposed changes to the chancel and chapel, making them wheelchair accessible. I love going to Noon Eucharist in the chapel, and felt terrible for attendees who had real trouble with the stairs. Those stairs are such an impediment!

    I have a request – I think it would be helpful to describe all the things that will remain the same in the Cathedral, like the Queen’s pew, the pulpit, the bishop’s chair, the organ, the oak paneling, and the cross. It will be great to see a drawing, but my sense is that most of what we cherish about the building will feel the same, and beautiful as always.

  3. All this sounds interesting, but it will be better when our in-person services can be a fact, what the majority of us miss.
    At the moment we remain together throug our connection online.
    Take care and be safe dear St. Paul’s family and friends, until Covid time finish …

    • Thanks for the question Steve. We will have some individual cushion-type kneelers available for those who wish to kneel. The kneelers at the altar rail will be thicker, to make up for the loss of the step.


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