|The church in the round.|
Whether it be a new purpose-built church or a church which has been renovated since then, the seating around the altar is intended by the liturgical designers and architects to foster "a sense of community" and to emphasize the "sacred meal" aspect of the Mass. I'd like to take a few posts here to take a look at what sort of ideas and symbols are communicated by this form of church and what sort of philosophical and theological problems arise from those ideas.
The first problem of the "church in the round" is a problem of orientation and emphasis. The church in the round sets the altar of the church directly in the center of the church. The liturgical designers note that being circular, the seats are all arranged closer to the altar, allowing for ease of visibility. Oftentimes the church floor is sloped downward to the altar, much like in a theater, making the altar easier to see. Aspects of community too then would be emphasized, as everyone could see the face of their fellow parishioners and literally gather "around the altar."
The liturgical designers of this sort of church note that the Council asked for the altar to be "truly central" (p. 91), meaning that it be the symbolic focus of worship. Therefore, what could be more symbolic of an altar being central to attention than it being literally central as well! The configuration then was a "win-win" situation, as it both got you community and gathering, but also kept the focus on the altar and the sacrifice of the Mass.
However, this latter aspect, the idea that Christ himself is offered on the altar, that God is present in the church, over time seems to have been steadily eroded. A recent paean to a parish renovation in what we might well assume to be a church in the round, in National Catholic Reporter was illustrative. While the author talked glowingly about how often she "looked for" her friends and various people, not once did she mention that she looked for God in the church. The purpose of this author's church seemed to be more on socializing than the worship of God in the Mass.
Why then is this sense of sacredness and presence of God so lacking? There are of course many reasons, but one striking one philosophically is of orientation, or rather the lack of orientation. Despite the claims of the liturgical experts that the church in the round would increase the importance of the altar, the arrangement in fact actually almost nullifies the importance of the altar. The reasons for this are apparent when we look at the form of buildings, and how architecture is derived from our own human form.
As human beings we of course have the ability to communicate, and most universally through speech. Our speech of course comes through our mouths, and because we only have one mouth, the sound tends to emanate from only one side of our head. Logically then if you want to hear a person speaking, you stand in front of them and face toward their face. This then is even more important when someone of authority is speaking. Everyone who gathers to hear them stands not around them but in front of them, oriented facing toward them.
As societies developed throughout history, the places where authority resided, mostly kings and other lawgivers, would be built so that the speaker would stand or sit at one end of a large space, and the audience facing toward him. The shape of the architecture then is determined in a very real way by human nature. This is so attuned to our universal human nature that almost every single example of the architecture of authority is made this way, no matter what time or place the building was made.
In the Old Testament God instituted both the form of the Tabernacle in the desert, and the Temple in Jerusalem and the Israelites would have recognized that a universal form, where the the rational place for authority, was placed at one end of the space, facing the gathered. So even more so for the highest possible authority, the One true God, would the form be appropriate and good.
Now the problem of the church in the round and the presence of the sacred and of God becomes apparent. When the altar is set below and amidst everyone, the authority is lessened, if not negated entirely. According to our natures, we look to authority to be placed facing us, to be situated even a few steps above us. What would we think of a judge seated not in the usual raised box bench, but seated at floor level at the center of the court? The authority he holds would be lessened, as we could look down on him, or be in a position to not even hear him. So too for a President being sworn in, or delivering a State of the Union address, or even a teacher in front of a lecture hall.
So in church in the round the altar, the priest and the sacrifice of the Mass itself lose the true position of authority, and cannot compete with the overbearing symbolism of the community, the meal and the social gathering or even the rock show. Each "participant" in the Mass then too sits at a position of equal authority, equal even to God.
Now, one could argue the in the usus antiquior form of the Roman Rite, the priest faces away from the congregation. However this only emphasizes the point further, as God is the authority, the priest faces not the people, but toward to the cross and the tabernacle.