This longer form article developed from an adult education seminar.
It considers the use of liturgical furnishings and their
relationship to worship at four
article, in slightly edited form, appeared in Call to Worship, a
publication of the Presbyterian Church (USA). See also The
Pulpit, The Lectern
& The Font.
The pastor finishes
reading the scripture lesson and prays that his words would be lost in
God’s message. He turns in
the pulpit and walks down three steps, across the chancel, skirting the
communion table, descends the chancel stairs and moves up the center aisle
to stand at the third pew. There,
he begins his sermon.
What is the
congregation to understand of the relationship of the sermon to the
pulpit? How does the
congregation relate to the pulpit, or to the preaching position?
Does the movement on the pastor’s part communicate anything about
the source and authority for the preaching?
Is this message coherent with the pastor’s prayer?
Where is the congregation to see the preacher relative to God and
to themselves? What can one
say about this church’s theology of worship?
The space we occupy
and the objects that surround us communicate something of our purpose in
being there. No space
designated for worship is message-neutral.
The presence (or absence) of even a pulpit speaks of a church’s
theology of worship. More
generally, the presence, design, location and use of liturgical
furnishings offer clues to the emphasis in worship.
These considerations must be read in the context of the surrounding
architecture. When worship practice and worship setting harmonize, the
congregation relates more cogently to God and to one another.
Presbyterians worship through Word and sacrament.
The balance between the two can be communicated by the function and
symbolism of furnishings.
In fact, it is
virtually impossible to avoid sending a message about a church’s
theology of worship through its liturgical architecture.
Church leadership has a responsibility to read the message and
assess its accuracy and consistency. Such
a message may be subtle. A
large, permanent-looking pulpit says one thing.
If it is never used for preaching, something altogether different
is being said. Careful reading
of the message is a precondition of deciding whether changes are warranted
to assure coherent communication.
THE LITURGICAL FURNITURE
Over the past
century-and-a-half, Presbyterian churches have employed up to four items
of liturgical furniture in worship. They
are the pulpit (for proclaiming the Word), the lectern (for reading
scripture), the table (for The Lord’s Supper) and the font (for
Baptism). Today, worship leaders and liturgists often speak in terms of
three worship centers - ambo, table and font.
The ambo combines the proclamation and reading functions at a
“table of the Word.”
Ambo is an ancient
term of basilican origin that means platform.
Contrary to modern use, there were often two ambos in a secular
basilica, each used to argue an opposing view.
In churches, the ambo on the congregation’s left was used to read
the Gospels, on the right for the Epistles.
Preaching eventually migrated from a bishop’s throne to the
Gospel side ambo. The Epistle
side became a lectern.
The absence of a
separate lectern is not novel. In
Reformed churches, a prominent pulpit on the main axis of the room points
up the centrality of preaching. When
there is no lectern, a pulpit’s centrality can de-emphasize the grace
inherent in reading and hearing scripture.
In a seemingly paradoxical re-interpretation, the dual-use ambo is
now seen as elevating the place of scripture reading.
Presumably, this relates to the fact that lecterns are usually less
imposing than their counterpart pulpits.
Further, lecterns are often used for purposes in addition scripture
reading, which might dilute their symbolic message.
In any case, lecterns are still found in many churches, and deserve
and materials) and location send a message about a given worship center
and the practice it signifies. Consider a heavy stone communion table
located near the forward wall of the worship space.
Its elevation and lighting make it easy to see.
A lamb carved on the face recalls Jesus Christ as the Agnus
Dei. One could say that
its obvious quality, prominence and permanence attest to the importance
placed on the Lord’s Supper.
complain that wood is more appropriate for a table (i.e. stone equals
altar). Some would further
contend that even wood as a material selection is not enough.
If the sides are closed (no distinct legs), some believe it does
not represent a table since people cannot sit at it.
They might also protest that a location closer to the people better
suggests gathering around a meal. The
leg argument is not bolstered by Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Twelve
reclining at the table.
If this seems a lot
of quibbling, even the orientation has been contentious.
Some Puritans claimed that the only proper alignment of a
rectangular table is with its length along the axis from front to back of
the nave. If it is set across
the width of the nave, it is an altar!
Thus arose the great tablewise-altarwise controversy of the
The message sent by
the liturgical centers affirms or contradicts the actual practice of a
practice characteristics include, for example:
frequency of celebration of the sacraments; relative placement of
sermon and sacraments in the worship order; number and source of scripture
passages read; congregational
preparation for and response to scripture, sermon and sacrament.
A church is in a happy circumstance when its worship practice and
architectural context relate comfortably.
Presbyterian churches demonstrate a variety of emphases in worship, which
may be read in their use of liturgical furnishings.
The churches span a century from First Presbyterian (1904) to
Aspinwall (2002). In between
are Shadyside (1937 remodeling) and Fox Chapel (1963).
Each congregation existed before the design of their present
worship space. Presumably
then, an established order of worship influenced the architecture.
They display a range of use of the four liturgical centers.
Reading the messages of these arrangements is instructive to those
interested in the meaning and influence of worship architecture.
One need only peruse
’s history, The Church That Was Twice Born,
to grasp the premium put on preaching.
Such noted preachers as Clarence McCartney and Bruce Thielemann
spoke from one of their three pulpits.
Yes, three, and one of those, outside the church, overlooks busy
and the prestigious Duquesne Club. The
meaning of a pulpit pointed at a business leaders’ club is beyond the
Centered in the chancel is a broad stone desk that served, in 1904, as
the first preaching platform. By
1915, the addition of a high, carved stone pulpit on the congregation’s
right allowed better communication with people in the side galleries.
Here, the original preaching desk emphasized the importance of
proclamation. Then the church
reinforced this emphasis, by adding the new pulpit that not only sent a
strong message but functioned more efficiently.
Both inside pulpits are still in use.
The church’s present worship order is notably Zwinglian in its
emphasis on and culmination with the sermon.
At first glance, the central stone pulpit looks like a communion table.
It is a near duplicate of a pulpit the church built in 1853 for Dr.
William Paxton, who paced across its breadth during his hour-long sermons.
However, the actual communion table, made of wood with two
shortened legs to accommodate the chancel stairs, is in evidence only when
the sacrament is administered. The
central pulpit also features a corbeled shelf on its front face for the
bowl used in Baptism. This
bowl, the nineteenth century gift from the silver service of a member, is
placed on the shelf on the day of Baptism.
Presbyterian, when the sacraments are not celebrated, there is no visual
reminder of them. The
architectural stress is on preaching. The nave has the proportions of a
meetinghouse; wide from side to side, shallow from narthex to pulpit.
Puritans and Congregationalists used this shape to bring the people
close to the preacher. Finding
such proportions within an archeologically correct Gothic Revival exterior
is a surprise.
Chandler showed his genius in creating and resolving this apparent
inconsistency. He provided
huge, wooden doors immediately behind the chancel.
These form one of the walls that define the meetinghouse shape.
When swung open, they reveal a long, narrow, properly Gothic space
in keeping with the exterior of the church. The added space accommodates
more seating for the congregation as well as classrooms.
In this respect,
’s 1904 design parallels the
Plan, then popular in Protestant churches.
Stained glass windows
were originally the only symbolism evident in the church.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, a large brushed
aluminum cross was suspended above the chancel.
The only furnishings permanently placed within First Presbyterian
are the two imposing stone pulpits, delivering a message appropriate to
the extant worship practice. Use
of an elaborate, imposing pulpit can say more than the sermon is central.
It also articulates an authority for preaching rooted in God rather
than in the preacher.
remodeled its 1889 sanctuary during the three decade pastorate of Hugh
Thomson Kerr. In 1937, the
church changed from a central pulpit with no lectern to a divided chancel.
Four distinct liturgical centers are always present.
The chancel division from the nave is not prominent. A low rail and
a platform raised for visibility distinguish chancel from nave.
The chancel elevation is reached by five wide steps.
Close inspection shows that the pulpit and lectern, although
approached from the chancel, are actually located in the nave along with
the large font.
distinction of chancel and nave is not trivial.
In medieval churches, a rood screen emphasized the division.
Passing from nave to chancel through the rood screen signified
entry into heaven, and that passage was for the priests, God’s
representatives. In the
Reformed tradition, the priesthood is of all believers.
The body of Christ on earth most closely approaches heaven by
gathering around the table for the Lord’s Supper.
By this principle, approach to the table should not be discouraged
by the architecture.
Chandler’s fellow Philadelphian, Wilson Eyre, was near the end of his
successful architectural career when his firm designed the new worship
space for Shadyside. A
moderately deep chancel was added to this landmark Romanesque Revival
church, but the predominant spatial feature remains the “lantern” roof
with stained glass windows high aloft.
Light entering these windows directs ones awareness, but not
one’s attention upward. The
space might be described as sympathetic to a mystical aspect of worship.
The marble communion
table sits within a semicircular apse, three steps up from the chancel
floor. There is space behind
the table, so the ministers face the congregation during the Lord’s
Supper. High quality
workmanship and materials along with prominent placement of the table
speak of the importance of this sacrament to the congregation.
One concern with this table’s location is that there is no line
of sight to it from the very front of the transepts.
All four liturgical
furnishings are of stone, all of substantial proportions with carved
depictions emblematic of their use. The
stonecarvers’ work on the pulpit includes traditional symbols for the
authority of scripture and for the authority of the church.
This congregation seems most comfortable with preaching from the
roomy pulpit. One
justification for this practice is that leaving the pulpit may call
attention to the preacher rather than the proclaimed Word.
On the other hand, many churches today believe a pulpit restrains
full expression of the sermon. They
claim it prevents more intimate connection between people and preacher.
At Shadyside, one risks a fractured message by not using this
prominent pulpit. Recently,
the Pastor, the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, has preached with the pulpit
desk removed. To a remarkable
degree, the sense now is of a conversation rather than an address.
The lectern, across
the chancel from the pulpit, is elaborate and substantial, but does not
rival the pulpit in this regard. At
Shadyside, it is used for worship leadership functions in addition to
scripture reading. The winged
“beasts” that represent the four Gospel writers support the lectern
top. Clearly, Dr. Kerr was not made nervous by explicit symbolism.
The glittering tile mosaic of the Transfigured Christ behind the
communion table confirms this.
A generously sized
font is to the congregation’s right of the lectern.
Wavelike carving and an octagonal base speak of the baptismal
waters and renewed life, respectively.
Current celebration of this sacrament stresses the corporate
responsibility of the covenant community.
Presently, a small bowl placed in the stone font contains the
water. One might wonder if a
dry font risks a fractured message.
A listing of
Shadyside’s pastors indicates the highest regard for preaching.
The close-in transepts and rear gallery within a Greek cross plan
support this emphasis. The
arrangement and quality of furnishings evidence a balance of Word and
sacrament. Recent worship
order agrees with this balance, as does frequent celebration of the
Lord’s Supper. A dynamic
aspect of worship has been added during Advent and Lenten Vespers,
celebrating communion by intinction. This
church, in a residential city neighborhood, pioneered Worldwide
Communion Sunday in 1933, four years before the worship space
Presbyterian Church was founded in a wooded suburb in 1953, where it grew
rapidly. By 1963, it was ready
for a larger structure, this one patterned on Christopher Wren’s
Renaissance churches of seventeenth century
. Light pours in through
large, clear windows onto white-painted and natural finish wood.
Clearly visible are the pulpit, lectern and baptismal font.
At the center and end of the divided chancel is what might be
termed a credenza. The
Lord’s Supper, however, is served from a table brought in and placed
much closer to the congregation.
Like Shadyside, the
chancel is technically divided from the nave, but again the division is
not sharp. A paneled modesty
rail delineates the juncture. A
recent transition platform softens the distinction.
The pulpit is prominent but not overpowering.
Its elevation helps eye contact in the remarkably long nave.
Visibility is enhanced at the entrance end of the worship space, by
raising the pews to a gallery over the narthex.
In Wren’s time,
Enlightenment influence and Reformation rejection of iconography called
for a space free of distraction. The route to spiritual connection was
through the intellect. Wren shrank the chancel nearly to non-existence,
crowding the liturgical furniture (Fox Chapel did not). He gathered the
congregation close to the pulpit. Presbyterian congregations from before
the American Revolution through today have embraced architecture
influenced by Wren and James Gibbs, his successor.
Up until 1820, these period structures are properly called
Georgian, Federal or even Baroque. In
the revivals starting after 1876, they are termed Colonial.
The space allows for
emphasis on Word, sacrament or both, since the furnishings do not
dominate. This non-prescriptive environment allows versatility.
A number of congregations have found an open, airy, non-symbolic
Wren church adaptable to “contemporary” or blended worship.
Fox Chapel has seen varied emphases in worship over forty years,
with the desire for strong preaching as a continuing thread.
An examination of various recent worship orders shows adherence to
Book of Order guidelines. At
the time of this writing, the church is in an interim pastorate and has
considered experimenting with features typical of contemporary worship.
Use of contemporary or other alternative modes does not, per se, define a
church’s theology of worship. However,
because such modes sometimes eschew pulpit and lectern for images, the
architectural message may be less easy to discern.
Reliance on electronically-produced imagery need not result in an
New York City
) Presbyterian’s “Fifth at
Five” jazz-contemporary service is decidedly Reformed in its balance of
Word and sacrament. It
delivers this message, however, with little help from the liturgical
Fox Chapel is a
structure based on classical architecture, which prized symmetry. While
the table is not continuously present, its position is central when in
use. The pulpit on the left
balances the lectern on the right. The
font, of modest size, seems to “want” a balancing counterpart.
The church departs from a lack of overt symbolism, somewhat, in
placing a Peace Candle on a pedestal symmetrically across from the font.
Of all the liturgical furniture, only the pulpit is built in.
A short distance from
Fox Chapel is the pleasant residential-commercial neighborhood of
Aspinwall. The Presbyterian
congregation there experienced a tragic fire in 2000, destroying much of
their century-old brick Romanesque structure.
They rebuilt in the same location, asking architect Roger Kingsland
to design a building that “looks like a church.”
The result, a mixture of styles, achieves much more, especially in
the worship space.
As at Shadyside, the
present worship order at Aspinwall stresses both Word and sacrament.
Here, however, the uses made of the table and font acknowledge the
sacraments, even when they are not celebrated.
All four liturgical centers are present on a compact, semi-circular
chancel, which is distinguished from the enveloping nave only by a
three-step elevation. The two
transepts, flooded with natural light, gather the congregation close to
surround the worship leader.
furnishings are movable, yet well made and sturdy looking.
A wide wooden pulpit allows Pastor Don Bolls some freedom of
movement while still preaching “from the pulpit.”
He speaks of motion being an important component of Aspinwall’s
worship. The pastor and other
worship leaders take seats with the congregation rather than on the
chancel. This adds movement
and reinforces the notion that leaders are also participants.
The communion table
is centered in the chancel and supports a short lectern, borrowed from the
Anglican tradition where it is known as a “Gospel desk.” This
arrangement reflects a different approach to combination than that
suggested by an ambo. Scripture
reading is honored and the connection between Word and sacrament affirmed.
On the table, a cup, pitcher and plate are displayed even when
communion is not served. Their
presence clearly states the primary purpose of the table.
The presence also is a strong reminder of the sacrament.
The font, on the
congregation’s right, is a copper alloy bowl on a wood pedestal.
It has a pull-out shelf, on which the water-filled ewer is placed
before each worship service. A
child from the congregation comes to the font and fills the bowl from the
ewer to begin the service. The
shape and material of the bowl were selected, in part, for their
acoustical properties, so that pouring the water is an aural and visual
experience. From this
location, the pastor delivers the Words of Assurance following the Prayer
of Confession. On some occasions, he dips then raises his hand, the water
trailing back into the font. Such
practices reinforce Baptism’s assurance of the washing and cleansing of
sins, as John Calvin taught.
The Aspinwall church
is an intimate space and its layout encourages movement and communication
among all worship participants. Its
floor plan is a Greek cross. In
a refinement here, each bank of seats (including the choir) faces the
geometrical center of the plan, adding a “worship-in-the-round”
sensibility. Tall bay windows
admit light and allow passers-by to observe that worship is in progress.
Four round stained-glass windows hover above with symbols of the
church year. While the
liturgical furnishings are not imposing, their presence and their use
embrace each aspect of worship. Because
it is so new and its planning so careful, this church design responds most
directly to existing worship.
SENDING AND READING MESSAGES
Without question, a
church’s actual practice in reading and proclaiming the Word and sharing
the sacraments is paramount. It
is elemental that pastors and session understand their theology of worship
and practice accordingly. However,
liturgical furnishings send messages, irrespective of practice.
These messages can reinforce or contradict practice.
Confusion among worshippers can result when message and practice
The design process
for pulpit, lectern, table and font develops features such as size, shape,
substance and symbol. These
features speak of the importance ascribed to the worship aspect they
represent. Context influences
the perceived message text. That
is to say, the relative placement as well as architectural setting of the
furnishings condition the worshippers’ understanding of the text.
The power of the
message of liturgical architecture should not be underestimated.
The two older worship spaces examined here, First Presbyterian and
Shadyside, may hint at the power. Ten
decades and seven decades, respectively, after their conception, the
designs are sympathetic to present worship practices.
It would be instructive assess the degree to which this congruence
results from consistency of theology or influence of architecture.
Lutheran pastor and worship scholar Paul F. Bosch weighs in with
his essay “Architecture Always
Wins,” addressing churches in general.
The simple presence
or absence of a liturgical center articulates an attitude about worship.
The relationship between presence of a center and use of a center also
creates a message. A very
carefully designed, constructed, located and oriented communion table that
is used only quarterly creates a dissonance.
If this item is so prominent, why is it used so infrequently?
Dissonance fights clarity. A
lack of clarity creates confusion. Confusion
hinders building relationships within the body of Christ.
The purpose of
attending to the message of liturgical furnishings is not to prescribe
theology or practice. Leaders
can learn to read that message and assess its coherence with the
church’s intent. The leaders
are then better equipped to decide whether changes should be made.
Caution in implementation is wise, especially with respect to
honoring history and tradition. Leaders
and congregation may agree that preaching and reading the Word are best
done from a single location. The
sudden disappearance of a familiar lectern might still be traumatic.
However, whether fine tuning or radical overhauling, clarification
of the message will allow people to engage in deeper relationship with the
Triune God and with each other.
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