Fonts: The Fallacy of Function Over Form

When my wife and I travel around the country and have leisure time, we’ll typically find the largest churches in the area to see if we can tour them. Usually this means finding the local Catholic Cathedral Basilica, as many of the major cities in the US have one, though we have also checked out Orthodox and Lutheran cathedrals.

Generally, when a church body commits to building a cathedral, they do so knowing they’ll be pulling out all the stops to ensure it truly is a monument to the glory of God. Touring them makes me a bit wistful thinking what I’d try to build if I had an essentially unlimited budget. But, I enjoy seeing what others have done and how they approached the problem of what to build and why to build it. Granted, if you’re building a cathedral you’re already operating on a scale most local parishes will never achieve. However, that isn’t what I find most intriguing. What they build within the cathedral is certainly important. Perhaps even more important though, is why they build it.

This is where the question of form vs. function comes to the forefront. There are many basic things a church typically needs to do what it does. Many of them are technically negotiable, especially when you’re talking about a very poor or newly formed congregation. But, just about every congregation moves toward having these essentials to make the worship life of the church operate the way it’s supposed to. So, when a congregation discusses something like having an altar, there usually isn’t a debate as to whether to have an altar or not. The discussion centers around what the altar is going to be. What will it be made of? What sort of decoration will it have? Where will it be placed?

Historic Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit, MI

The same is true of a baptismal font. That a church needs a font is rarely questioned. What the font will look like is usually where you find the debate. The designers of the baptismal font at Historic Trinity in Detroit made some choices when they created this stone font. The traditional octagonal structure emphasizing the Eighth Day of creation – the new creation that comes through Christ’s resurrection. The stone font suggests permanence and immovability, being built on the Rock that is Christ. The wooden cross on top indicating whose death we are being baptized into and the dove on the side indicating the Spirit’s work in the water. All of this surrounded by various pictographs of the the three Persons of the Trinity, indicating whose name you are receiving in baptism.

Whenever people who are interested in this sort of thing come to visit, we’ll typically take them over to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, which purports to have the largest stained glass windows of any building in the country.

Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, KY

This baptismal font is found directly inside the main doors of the sanctuary. Another octagonal, stone edifice, this time carved with images from creation, including Adam and Eve around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. An image of the Spirit as a dove is hidden behind the font in the center of the pool. This recalls God’s work in re-creating us through the waters of baptism and wiping away the stain of Adam’s sin.

Finally, there is the font at the St. James Cathedral in Seattle.

The font itself is made of a beautifully polished, but otherwise unadorned, marble. Nevertheless, around the outside is clearly written the words of 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. That you may declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness into marvelous light.” Despite the fact that the font itself rather plain, there is no doubt as to the importance of what takes place here. This font is positioned in the aisle in the middle of the sanctuary.

In their own ways, each of these three examples makes abundantly clear that what takes place here is truly a momentous event. You can’t help but notice that each congregation feels baptism is important enough to make it a focal point.

Purely in terms of function, none of these work really well. The cover on Trinity’s font is big and cumbersome. The fonts in the two Catholic cathedrals are positioned right in the way. You have to walk around them as you come in, which also makes any kind of procession a bit more difficult. Their position at the back of the sanctuary means the congregation has to maneuver a bit to see what’s going on. Nevertheless, their construction and position says something about what takes place there. The very fact you have to walk around them means they can’t be ignored. The artistic motif expresses a small portion of the wondrous gift that is received when someone comes to the waters.

Luther might have thrown out Andreas Karlstadt, but the mentality seems to continue. Perhaps it is a holdover from last century’s dalliance with modernism. Whatever the case may be, many Lutheran congregations approach the design of the font asking, “What do we need this to do?” and not asking the question, “What are we doing when we do this?” Obviously, the font needs to be able to facilitate a baptism. But, like the rest of the church artwork and architecture, and the rest of the liturgy as a whole, it can do so much more.

Not every congregation has the option of making something as grand as these. Not every congregation is blessed with the resources, space, etc., to do what could be done with more money or more space. Still, that should never stop us from looking at how to communicate the richness of God’s mercy. If we hold baptism to be a truly singular and momentous event in the life of a Christian, shouldn’t that come through loud and clear? Let’s use every tool available to us to build up the faith and spiritual life of the church. Let the font itself help express the depth of love and grace found in the waters of Holy Baptism.

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