Christopher McElroy

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The architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: PART 3

This third blog post on the architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral focusses on the centre of the circle: the Sanctuary.

Upon entering into the cathedral, ones eyes are immediately drawn to the high altar in the center of the space, and upwards to the seemingly endless lantern that crowns it.

altar  lantern

Described by the architect as the fulcrum or pivotal space from which the design of the cathedral was set out, the altar is placed directly in the center of the cathedral, raised up several steps, made of white marble and free standing so that the priest may celebrate either liturgical east or west. The same slab of marble was used for the altars in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the Lady Chapel and Baptistery, providing a liturgical unity between many of the primary objects in the cathedral’s worshiping life. Considering that most altars in RC churches to this point (mid 1960’s) were fixed against the east wall, this was a striking innovation.

In considering this background of other English 20th Century Cathedrals and earlier attempts at building the Metropolitan Cathedral (covered in blog 1), Gibberd’s design for the Metropolitan Cathedral was indeed a strikingly revolutionary ideal, completely unlike any other cathedral in Britain. A principal difference in the planning for each building relates to the liturgical principals of the design process. At the Metropolitan Cathedral, it is clear that the theological conception was that of the people of God gathered around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist, something that was clearly either ignored or dismissed by the other cathedrals. In accessing the competition designs, the Archbishop of Liverpool is reported to have kept asking ‘How far is the furthest seat from the altar?’

Roman Catholic tradition dictates that an altar is incomplete without some sort of canopy to define the space.  The canopy generally takes one of two forms, firstly the civory or baldacchino, which would usually be a columned structure dwarfing the altar, as found in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Mary major

and secondly a tester, a smaller lighter structure usually suspended from above.


Gibberd opted for the latter on the grounds that he did not want to detract from the visual environment of the sanctuary. Suspended some 30 ft above the altar, it’s design is reminiscent of a crown of thorns (rather appropriate in a Cathedral dedicated to Christ the King) but actually somewhat transparent in viewing drawing attention to the sanctuary area rather than to itself.


As the building stood at the mass of consecration, the altar was the only permanent fitting in the sanctuary. Designing a cathedral in times of liturgical change, both architect and cathedral authorities were aware of evolving expectations and needs of the space. Prior to Vatican II most Catholic churches had two ambos, one to the right of the altar for the reading of the Epistle, and one to the left for Gospel. This was to allow special reverence to be given to the Gospels. Today all scriptural readings are usually read from the same ambo, the Gospels distinguished by their reading from the Book of the Gospels which is placed on the altar at the beginning of mass, and by their being read only by a priest or deacon. At the mass of consecration a single (moveable) ambo was used, placed on the left side of the altar. Whilst it is obviously preferable to have a permanent structure, this was clearly a sensible decision on the part of the architect not to anticipate what directions might result for ensuing liturgical reforms.

dedication sanctuary

Today a permanent ambo stands slightly raised on the right side of the altar, illustrating a strong theological, architectural and aesthetic relationship between the altar and the ambo, making it clear that the ‘liturgy of the Word and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper … constitute a single act of worship.’ (Eucharisticum mysterium # 10)



Two interesting issues could be raised in regard to the sanctuary. Firstly, if the desire was for the whole congregation to be able to see the liturgical action taking place in the sanctuary – is this actually possible from those seats the furthest distance away? And if not, should the sanctuary have been raised higher, or the nave sloped for better sight lines? Whether the sanctuary is clearly visible form the rear pews is debatable depending on ones vision and height. Interestingly, to combat this problem, Gibberd’s original design called for a sloping floor towards the sanctuary. However this was subsequently reversed by the cathedral committee in conjunction with the architect, believing that it would turn the cathedral into an ‘arena,’ precluding the possibility of adaptation due to future liturgical change.  However, one must wonder exactly how much change could be effected to the basic plan of the cathedral anyhow – the center of the space being filled by the altar is integral to the plan. However, it is clear that whilst the cathedral comes into its own for large scale celebrations of the Eucharist, it is not so suitable for smaller gatherings, especially those non–eucharistic occasions such as when the Liturgy of the Hours are celebrated.

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