Church Flower Arranging

Each week, all over the world, people are arranging flowers in their churches. They do so because they want their church to look beautiful and cared for, just as the people who clean the brasses, polish the pews or scrub the tiled floors all want to make their church look as tidy and shining as possible. Cleaning brass and polishing woodwork are fairly straightforward. We all do it at home, and there is little difficulty.

But doing the flowers is often another matter. Theoretically, since we also arrange the flowers at home just as we do the housework it would seem to be a simple matter to do two vases of flowers for the altar or a large pedestal vase by the pulpit. But it is not quite as simple as that.

Let us go into the points to be considered carefully one by one. Containers for flowers on the altar are important for the same reasons that they are important in home decoration. They should show off the flowers well, be easy to arrange, hold plenty of water and fit in with their surroundings. But how often does this happen? Frequently, vases provided by the church are beautiful in texture and design as vases, but when it comes to putting flowers into them their shapes are almost impossible from the point of view of arranging a dozen daffodils or a bunch of chrysanthemums. Narrow necks, which seem to prevail, are ideal for two or three branches with long stems, but not easy or suitable for a bunch of stocks or marigolds.

Church Flower Arranging

However, from the arranger’s point of view, much more interest is now being shown in church vases and if suggestions are made tactfully it may well be possible to have vases which are made not only from fine brass or silver, often with exquisite craftsmanship, but which also have a good shape suitable for flower arrangements. Another requisite is that vases hold a good supply of water. They may not be topped up every day even though the verger has the best intentions, he may not have the time or opportunity, and so the more water they can hold the better.

Now comes the most important point that of the vase fitting in well with its surroundings. The usual arrangement on an altar is to have the cross in the middle and a candlestick at either end. In between stand the vases. If possible they should combine well both in the metal they are made of and in their shape, (particularly at the base), with the candlesticks and the cross.

Often vases are given in memory of someone, and so may be beautiful in themselves.

Flowers suitable for an altar arrangement should fulfil certain qualifications. First and foremost they should be sturdy and long lasting. In most cases, they must continue to look fresh for about a week. This is quite a tall order and can be fulfilled only by certain ones.

Here is a short list of long lasting flowers which I have personally found useful when doing church decoration, but there is no guarantee that they will always last the required week : African lily (Agapanthus), allium, carnation, chrysanthemum, yarrow (Achillea), gladiolus, larkspur, ixia, fox-tail lily (Eremurus), Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria), Corsican hellebore, marguerite, globe thistle, Michaelmas daisy, zinnia, narcissus and daffodil (only if just cut before being arranged), London pride, godetia, sea holly (Eryngium), globe flower (Trollius), arum regale and longiflorum lilies.

Foliage for an altar arrangement, one must remember, should be clearly seen right down the church. As long as foliage is given a good supply of water, it will usually last through the week without difficulty. Here is a list of leaves and branches which might prove helpful: rosemary, pussy willow, eucalyptus, berberis, periwinkle, camellia, veronica, bergenia, whitebeam, Portugal laurel, magnolia, garden ragwort, Garrya elhptica, hydrangea, golden privet, tradescantia.

The background of the altar is obviously a most important factor in deciding what flowers and foliage to select, and, in the case of a reredos, whether to have any flowers at all. If the reredos does not permit having flowers actually on the altar a big vase on the altar step or on a pedestal can sometimes be used. Pedestal vases are discussed.

The only possible place for them when there is an ornate altar is at the side, otherwise the carvings or other decorations would be concealed and the whole character of the altar spoilt. On very elaborate altars it is really unnecessary to have any flowers although small vases may be placed there for the benefit of the clergy or brides. Small vases do not show up even at a short distance away, and if they were made more important they would obscure the reredos.

As regards the relation of flowers to their surroundings, the flowers should not stand out on their own but should bring into close relationship the cross with the candlesticks, the altar with its background and the cross again with a window, picture or curtain which may be above or behind it.

A children’s chapel, or a small table for which the children are responsible is included in many churches. Small children like to arrange a small vase and often like to provide the vase themselves, which may well turn out to be an old honey jar or a meat paste pot. Using a bunch of anemones in such a vase, the child may learn one of the first principles of flower arrangement — i.e. To cut the stems at different lengths.

Now let us turn to harvest festivals and christenings. It always seems to me slightly impertinent to make suggestions for harvest festival decorations. Many churches already adorn their pulpits, choir stalls, window ledges and lecterns with the fruits of harvest so beautifully that further ideas seem unnecessary. There is such a generosity of material available at this time—vegetables, flowers, fruit, corn, wine, etc. — and it is generally displayed attractively in all its bounty. Flower arrangement may play a part in this festival, but it cannot be regarded as the most important one.

However, there are a few points which apply equally to the arrangement of fruit and vegetables as they do to flowers. One is that they should be in a position which enables them to be seen by most of the congregation, and the other is the consideration of colour.

Positions in which the produce is arranged must, therefore, be selected with an eye to their sitting, and at a harvest festival great use can be made of ledges and sloping window sills, which are difficult to decorate at any other time of the year. Pillars can be brought into use by twining seed heads of wild clematis spirally, these are kept in position by thin bands of wire. Corn and wheat look effective tied in clusters in this way too.

Colour in a harvest festival gives a feeling of abundance just as much as the quantity of material used. There are scarlet hips, deep brown reed mace, nasturtiums, zinnias, Michaelmas daisies, the purple-pink of Comtesse de Bouchard clematis, dahlias, chrysanthemums, the good, clear yellow of golden privet, scarlet oaks, wine-red azalea leaves, scarlet and red and purple Virginian creeper, dark green, clear cut fig leaves, trailing ivy and periwinkle, and long curving stems of summer jasmine. Sometimes there are still some pure white Japanese anemones in bloom and always the bunchy hydrangeas. Imagine this riot of colour with shining red apples, great yellow and green marrows, scarlet carrots, the green-white or orange-gold of onions and clusters of grapes providing a note of clear, pale moonlight green or deep aubergine purple.

Any local product usually is, or should be, given first place. For instance in the parish church of Tenterden, England, bowers of hop garlands decorate the pillars or provide special decoration for the harvest festival scheme. In most churches there is a stack of corn as well as baskets of eggs.

The idea of decorating the font for a christening seems to me a very charming one. It is so simple to do that it is quite unnecessary to have any particular knowledge of flower decoration, and a good effect can be achieved with only a few flowers.

Whatever the decoration, simplicity should be the keynote. Small flowers seem to be more in keeping and seem to make the best decorations. After all, the most important person present is usually still rather small, and probably, if we only knew, prefers small things. The same applies to the containers for the flowers. The area to be covered is not very large, and anything big or clumsy might look out of proportion, apart from probably getting knocked over.

Some churches have a semi-circular tin tray for flowers which fits their own font, but this, I have found, is not usual. (The idea of flowers for the font seems to come from the parents and is usually carried out by them.)

Containers can vary from small porcelain troughs to egg cups. I have seen, and used myself, small branches of wood scooped out to hold water and flowers. These seem to fit in rather well in a country church. Silver egg cups filled with snowdrops and interlaced with branches of shining ivy leaves made another decoration, slightly more formal. Rosemary played an important part on another occasion. Only two troughs were used this time, but the small collection of spring flowers, yellow, white and pale green, were given greater width and importance by sprigs of rosemary, which have a most attractive and rather sprightly shape.

Perhaps the only special point to remember about decorating a font for a christening is that space must be left for the clergyman to approach close to the font with the infant in his arms and lean over into it. Anyone who has been present at a christening will appreciate this necessity, having probably noticed the often generous sweeps of drapery involved in the process of pouring the water on the baby’s forehead. A flower decoration which is too pretentious might well prove restricting.

Equipment for doing the flowers for church vases depends on how well the vestry is organised, but the following may be helpful: scissors or secateurs are essential, as well as large mesh wire netting. (In most altar vases, however narrow. I have found it helps to have some kind of anchorage, and crushed wire netting provides this.) Also a dust sheet to spread out close to the vase with the fresh flowers laid out on it, so that you can see exactly what material you have available.

Fill up the vases with fresh water to within two inches of the top and fix in your wire netting. Spread out the dust sheet, so that you can arrange the vase in position without fear of spilling or making any mess which might spoil the vestments. If you are using foliage, it seems sensible to arrange it in the vase first. This will help to get the height and outline necessary to take in the flowers.

When you have finished, and before removing everything, go to the back of the church to see how the flowers show up from a distance. Finally fill up the vases to the very top from your narrow spouted jug, then clear away the dust sheets, watering can, etc., (these may all be left, by arrangement with the verger, in a cupboard for the next time.)

Now there is the problem of trying to keep the flowers looking tidy during the week and, most important of all the clearing away of the old flowers before the next Sunday when the vase will be arranged by someone else — usually there is a compost heap in a corner of the churchyard where the old flowers should be taken — and leave the vase clean and empty and in position, if this is convenient. In some churches, if the vases to be arranged are of great value, they may be locked safely away in the vestry while not actually in use. In one of the big London churches the altar vases are screwed down in position and only the container inside each vase holding the water can be taken away to clean and re-fill.

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