Participation From Antiphonal Seating

A comment box participant related, then asked:

In antiphonal seating, I have the altar far to the left of me and while I certainly don’t mind turning my head to look on the Sacred Presence, I feel like I am dividing my attention (as orientation of the head and body are divided) rather than giving it all to Christ.

I am curious if you have any insights into physical participation in the Mass with antiphonal seating.

My first experience was somewhat as you describe. The altar was placed on one end of the seats, the ambo on the other. The chairs were curved slightly in their set-up, but I will also confess they didn’t have kneelers. The advantage there was that people standing could face toward the liturgical action, especially if it was at the altar.

In many monasteries, I’ve seen the altar more central. That solves the problem somewhat. Fixed kneelers connected to pews or chairs do make for some twisting of the neck if the altar is located at one end.

One’s own liturgical devotion might come into play. Is it needful to be watching the whole action all the time? If other people in one’s line of sight are a distraction, would closing one’s eyes improve this?

Maybe Liam and a few others might have some helpful comments, too.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to Participation From Antiphonal Seating

  1. Liam says:

    Antiphonal seating works well in chapels and I am fond if it if it can be configured well from an acoustical perspective.

    In larger spaces, it’s an ergonomic pain in the neck for many people (not just figuratively). People who don’t have vision, hearing and joint issues seem to typically champion in such settings.

    Therefore, I am of mixed minds about it. Anytime someone espouses it simply due to the visual symbolism, it’s a red flag for me that they perhaps haven’t experienced it in the shoes of others….

  2. Dustin says:

    There’s something I don’t understand here. In the referenced post, you described antiphonal seating as “in the round.” In such a scheme, everyone would already be oriented toward the altar, if I understand it properly. However it seems that I don’t. What does it mean, then, that in this arrangement people are positioned, as the comment described, to the side of the altar without actually facing it? I’m having difficulty visualizing this.

  3. Dustin says:

    I meant to continue: “I’m having difficulty visualizing this, given your description of it as ‘seating-in-the-round.’ The two descriptions seem contradictory to me. What have I failed to apprehend?”

  4. Liam says:

    Btw, I don’t know of a single Catholic church where other people – even the faces of many, are not in the line of sight of everyone else….

  5. Todd says:

    Hi Dustin.

    My preference would be for either antiphonal or seating in the round. They each have their own advantages. It would be possible to have a hybrid of both, I suppose. The main difference is that antiphonal seating has a procession path through the seats, usually including the altar, ambo, font perhaps.

    In either set-up, I think I’d prefer the altar at the center.

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    My parish of 400 active souls has antiphonal seating as part of the overll “U” shaped seating. A good many of the attendees are old enough to be eligible for aches and pains associated with moving around. No one has complained to the Pastoral Council (of which I am a member) nor the Pastor Almighty about this seating.

    If the movements are difficult for them, they can always sit in the part of the church not subject to the antiphonal seating.

    I doubt very seriously if any church of any great size only has antiphonal seating.

    I am slightly hard of hearing and I prefer to be as close to the altar and lectern as possible …. both possible with AS.

    If you want to see what it looks like, go to our parish website and look at the “Gallery” photos (

  7. Liam says:


    How large is your worship space? As I recall, MHR’s revamped space is not particularly large. But that’s the photos I’ve seen of it.

    I am talking about antiphonal seating in excess of 100 feet in length, with the altar and ambo at the ends. And with less than 8 rows of seating on each side. But in the smaller chapel, it was fine.

  8. Jimmy Mac says:

    It seats 350 comfortably and 400 with help of a shoe-horn. We also can seat another 30 or so in the front of the church where the altar used to be and which now is a eucharistic chapel and repository of the tabernacle.

  9. Liam says:


    The antiphonal seating in that photo is definitely of a more chapel-size scope – where it presents much less problems than the larger old churches we have here in the Northeast. Imagine those antiphonal rows extended another 80 feet and you’ll get the sense of what I mean.

  10. ajdisciple says:

    Thank you for all this attention. I have been adapting exactly as you suggested actually — closing my eyes. God’s grace is working through the opportunity, affording greater insight, including on the consecration.

    I don’t have the chapel dimensions, but it seats about 100. There are several photos here of the beautiful oratory.

    A floor plan:


  11. Paul says:


    I was wondering if anybody was familiar with the historic origin of antiphonal seating (with bibliographical references, if possible – I’m working on a thesis on church architecture.)

    Many thanks,

  12. Todd says:

    Paul, my suspicion is that the tradition is monastic. If architecture sources aren’t turning up anything, I’d look to monastics ones.

  13. Liam says:

    Antiphonal seating appears to predate Western monasticism (at least Benedictine monasticism). In older churches, you will see the choir arranged antiphonally between the sanctuary and the congregation (which is not seated antiphonally – actually, congregations weren’t really seated at all except perhaps at the edges but stood/knelt looking forward towards the liturgical east). This was functional, as it facilitated the antiphonal approach then used for singing liturgical music (antiphonal not meaning refrains but alternation, for example, by verse couplets). Monastic chapels basically deleted the congregational seating, as it were.

    Understand that congregational pews/seats are latecomers in Catholic church design, and they still are a novelty in Orthodox church design outside North America. Seating doesn’t make much sense in a liturgy (like Orthodox liturgy) where there are times of the year when the congregation prostrates itself many times (people who want to invoke the Orthodox tradition of standing for liturgy need remember it’s married to periodic prostrations)….

  14. Alban says:

    I’ve seen churches with antiphonal arrangements having tiers of seats, not unlike cathedral choir stalls where the the highest level of seats is towards the back. It works very well and I’d recommend it. Everyone can see everything.

    One church in Washington DC has a “bema” for the altar in the middle of the church connected to another bema where the priest’s chair and ambo face the altar from the western end (entrance end). The old sanctuary has a rood screen with red curtains and icons. Behind which you have a eucharistic chapel and seats for worshippers are located (in the east end where the old altar was located). A very lovely rehab.

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