If Pulpits Could Talk



NOTE:  This longer form article developed from an adult education seminar.  It considers the use of liturgical furnishings and their relationship to worship at four Pittsburgh Presbyterian churches.

This 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.


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 consideration.

Design (configuration 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. 

Critics might 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 seventeenth century.

The message sent by the liturgical centers affirms or contradicts the actual practice of a congregation.  Important 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.

Four Pittsburgh 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 downtown First Church ’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 Sixth Avenue and the prestigious Duquesne Club.  The meaning of a pulpit pointed at a business leaders’ club is beyond the scope here.

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. 

At First 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 like First Church is a surprise. 

Architect Theophilus 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, Chandler ’s 1904 design parallels the Akron 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.



Chronologically next, Shadyside Church 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. 

A diminished 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.

Theophilus 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 remodeling.



Fox Chapel 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 London .  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 obscured message.  Fifth Avenue ( 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 centers.

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.

The wooden 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.


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 diverge.

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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