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It’s not very often one gets excited about a chart. Yet as I was reading George Guiver’s riveting book about how and why liturgical changes happen (Vision Upon Vision: Processes of Change and Renewal in Christian Worship 1), I kept returning to an unassuming looking diagram at the top of page 102. [Please click on the diagram to see a larger version.]


Diagram showing how over two milennia fonts rise out of the ground and contain less and less water

Fonts rise out of the ground and contain less and less water

Father Guiver, the superior of the Community of the Resurrection, taught for a significant period at the English seminary Mirfield, and he includes the chart in a section that discusses how symbols shrink:

In the Christian eucharist, the corporal was a large tablecloth thrown over the bare altar by deacons at the point in the eucharist where bread and wine were prepared. …. The cloth was gradually reduced to the size of a handkerchief for convenience’ sake, and then irrationally had to have under it a large linen cloth over top of the altar. (101—02)

It’s a striking description, especially when paired with the diagram about fonts. Guiver writes “The French scholar F.M. Buhler has produced a diagram showing gradual shrinkage of the font from river and bath to tiny bowl, as submersion in the life-giving waters was sanitized into the sprinkling of a few drops.” (102)

There’s been some recovery of symbols—and especially baptismal symbols—in recent years. The font in the Episcopal Church’s rebuilt Philadelphia Cathedral is a recent example. My favourite, though, is the font designed by the artist William Pye at Salisbury Cathedral: it’s a gorgeous example of trying to allow for full immersion while offering an arresting image of flowing water and direct reference to God acting through water in the scripture at its edges. It cannot be confused with a birdbath, unlike too many of the fonts built in the last few hundred years. Its reflective surface draws us and the world into its baptismal waters. [For a larger version, please click on the picture.]

The striking, cross-shaped green marble font of Salisbury Cathedral

The Font at Salisbury Cathedral, (c) Charlie Dave.

Guiver goes on to write that “When we cease to see the essence of symbols we trim them for convenience, and upon our diminished understanding there then follows a deeper diminishment of the symbol’s ability to speak.” (102) As someone who works in a beautiful, almost-two-hundred year-old parish, I have a fairly small font—made smaller by a silver dish that sits on the rim to make it easier to dispose of the baptismal water after the fact. As the Vigil approaches, and with it the baptisms that will happen here in the Great Fifty Days of Easter, I continue to wonder how I can make the symbol speak more deeply—aside from just pouring the water into the font from a ewer raised as high as my arm will go.


How will you make a splash with baptisms this Easter? How do you help the symbols to speak of how we walk in newness of life through baptism (Romans 6.3—4)?


1 I thank Fr. Guiver for extending his kind permission to reprint the diagram from his marvellous book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Vision Upon Vision: it’s an insightful, funny, and deeply enjoyable study of how our liturgy has evolved, and offers some thought-provoking ideas about how we can support its continued evolution. The full title is Vision Upon Vision: Processes of Change and Renewal in Christian Worship (2009), and it’s published by Canterbury Press.  The chart itself is from an unpublished work by F.M. Buhler, entitled “Schéma de l’Évolution du Baptême et des Installations Baptismales.”

Matthew Griffin

About Matthew Griffin

I'm a priest serving in the Diocese of Niagara, with both a pastoral and an academic interest in the relationship between liturgy and theology. I enjoy reading, cooking, and spending time with my beloved and our young son.
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