I was brought up with Lent being marked by church furnishings and vestments in a deep purple colour, the same as are used in Advent (and by some for funeral services).
St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit however is a church that has turned to an older tradition, as I have discovered that the purple is a relatively modern (19th century), originally Roman Catholic tradition. Instead, we use the more ancient custom of the Lenten Array where we cover the altar and decorative elements of the church in unbleached linen (or in places, it’s modern equivalent – best not look too closely!) The candles held by angels around the altar aren’t lit either.
The idea (as I understand it – feel free to correct me if you know better) is that we focus on the suffering of Christ (which is why the red motifs), our need for repentance, and is a reminder perhaps of the sackcloth of the ancients for whom it showed grief when someone died (Lent being a time when we try to be dead to our sins, of omission and commission).
In our large Grade 1 listed church, the Lenten Array means that the various furnishings of the church fade into the background of the whitewashed walls, and I am aware there is much less to distract the eye than at other times of year. One of my Twitter pals (@Turkeyplucker) suggests that this was something that Percy Dearmer was aware of when he revived the Sarum rituals at the turn of the 20th century in his search for a more authentically English catholic sense of ritual in the Church of England.
Our Sacristan was wondering if we are a rarity in using the Lenten Array, but my little conversation on Twitter this morning, and this 2013 conversation at the Shop of Fools, suggests whilst not common, it’s far from being a forgotten tradition. Salisbury Cathedral unsurprisingly (given the origins of the Lenten Array) use it, as does Westminster Abbey, St. Bene’t’s, Cambridge and the Lady Chapel at Winchester Cathedral. Closer still, but over the diocesan border, All Saints Wokingham use it, and my memory from my Reader Training placement is that just into town nearby, All Saints, Basingstoke use it too. So, perhaps we’re not so unusual.
Part of me wants to say it’s fussy covering everything up; in many of the churches I’ve worshipped in, we’ve struggled to have liturgical furnishings of any sort – in a school hall, you’re lucky if the tressle table doubling as ‘holy table’ has a covering of the correct seasonal colour! However a church like St. Mary’s is very different, and I am finding I like this particular tradition; when Easter arrives it means the sudden colour of golden vestments, floral decorations and candlelight are a much more significant echo of the Resurrection.
(When I remember to take the camera, I’ll try and get some better photos than these taken on my iPad.)