St. Malachy’s church in Tehachapi is indicative of what’s going on around this country and throughout the church, says one not-so-pleased writer Christopher Zehnder in the California Catholic Daily.

The sanctuary of St. Malachy’s with its plain, white-marblish, free-standing altar is separated from the nave by an altar rail, and behind the altar sits the tabernacle, unmoved from where it was placed over 40 years ago. Christ in the Blessed Sacrament commands the attention of those who enter the church. He is the focal point, drawing the eyes of worshippers, as is His right, to Himself.

Sounds nice, right? Wait. The Church is about to start renovating. And not in a good way. To guide the proposed renovation, St. Malachy’s pastor, Fr. Joel Davadilla, retained the services of architect and liturgical design consultant Bill Brown, known for his penchant for the progressive in interior church layout.

Parishioners met Brown last month at a get-to-know-you meeting and people were asked what they’d like to see. The upshot of this meeting was that the people didn’t want any significant changes to the church. They wanted to retain the current layout of the church, with the tabernacle centered behind the altar, and the altar rail separating sanctuary and nave.

At a second meeting,

Brown directed the meeting with aplomb. His style was folksy, and his handling of the crowd adept. He insisted several times that no decisions had been made regarding the interior design of the church. Though, he noted, the pastor and the bishop have the canonical authority to make renovation decisions without consulting parishioners, the bishop, John Steinbock, would not hear of such a high-handed proceeding. He, and Fr. Davadilla, did not want to proceed without parish consensus.

I confess, I found Brown’s performance rather cloying. At one point, to explain how renovation desires had to match with ability to pay, he stretched out his arms to right and left, like a balance scale, and invited everyone in the church to do the same. “Come on,” he said. “Loosen up!” The first time he did this, most of us joined in. (Later, after someone asked about how much the parish had paid Brown so far, the response to Brown’s second invitation to the balance caper was more tepid.) How having us holding our arms out, moving them up and down balance-wise, elucidated anything was unclear, at least, to me.

Maybe it’s just me but anytime a Church “designer” says “Loosen up” I get worried. Just so you get to know Brown a little bit. In a 1999 project one parishioner said “What I see being proposed here, just from an architectural standpoint, is that you’re taking the ‘Catholic’ out of the church. I have nothing against Protestants,” she added, “but I’m not Protestant.”

The writer continues:

No one objected to doing what was necessary to repair, maintain, and even beautify the church. But, is a major renovation – and paying large fees to a high-profile consultant like Bill Brown – really consonant with the mission of the People of God in the Tehachapi Valley?

It appears, of course, that more is planned for St. Malachy’s than a mere buffing up, or even the building of additions to the structure. Both Brown and the head of the parish’s new building committee emphasized that we all have to be open to what the parish consensus might be – we have to all be willing to do what the parish “community” wants – which suggests that some rather major changes may be in store for St. Malachy’s. Future meetings will witness preliminary design concepts, which parishioners will be invited to comment on. They will also feature “catechesis” by Brown on what the Church has said about interior church design – and given Brown’s past work, which features the removal of altar rails, the pushing out of the altar into the congregation space, and other such progressive designs, including side chapels for reservation of the Eucharist – one can suspect what this “catechesis” will deliver.

At the end of its renovation, St. Malachy’s in Tehachapi may be a very different church than what it is today. And if that “difference” is what I fear it will be, I, for one, will not say “Wow” – at least with any sense of pleasant enthusiasm.

Hey, what’s a little “liturgical rearrangement” between friends anyway? When is all this going to end?