If you visit York Minister cathedral in England you will likely be shown one of the more curious examples of liturgical art: in the lower border of the “pilgrimage window” on the north side of the nave you will see what looks at first glance to be a rather conventional medieval rendering of the funeral procession of the Virgin Mary. On closer inspection, however, one recognizes with surprise that all of the characters in the procession are in fact apes!
There have been scholarly articles written on the deep “iconographic” significance of employing these animals in such a setting, but the tour guides offer a simple explanation that has the ring of plausibility. The city of York was a seaport, and it seems that sailors would commonly “camp out” in the cathedral, which due to its being a very large sheltered building (the nave is the size of a football field!), was used as a kind of public space by the surrounding community. Apparently, some of the sailors had pet monkeys that escaped and formed a feral troop which roamed the high spaces of the cathedral. According to this story, the stained glass artist whimsically incorporated these familiar residents of the cathedral into his design for the window (not an implausible theory, given the many other humorous/bizarre touches to be found in the myriad decorations of such buildings).
Whether this story is factual or not, it is a reminder that much of what is found in churches has been shaped by thousands of years of accommodation to the realities of ordinary life during times that were very much different from what we know today.
Monkeys in church may be an extreme case, but we have our own examples of how dealing with extraneous critters shaped church architecture and practice. Consider the rail that surrounds the altar in our sanctuary. Today we commonly know it as a “kneeling rail” and implicitly assume that this was the original purpose. However, there is reason to believe that this architectural feature originally functioned as a barrier to keep local dogs and livestock that wandered through the open doors of the church from “desecrating” the area around the altar. Similarly, the special covers and cloths used to cover the plate (patten) and cup (chalice) used in communion served to keep extraneous stuff out of the bread and wine, such as the insects buzzing around the altar and debris from the birds and rodents that resided in the rafters (need we say more?)
Such liturgical oddities are the sorts of things that delight trivia fans, but they also serve as a useful reminder that our God is present for us, not in some sort of other-worldly perfection, but in the messy realities of everyday life. Our Savior, who was born in intimate proximity to farm animals and sometimes preached from a smelly fishing boat, is certainly not offended by homely surroundings! So, though we earnestly aspire to honor Him in all aspects of our worship, we also keep in mind that it is He Himself who sanctifies our humble efforts by His presence, and that His pleasure is not in the fineness of our buildings and rituals, but in the faithfulness of our hearts.