Into the Chancel



Early Christians sometimes observed proclamation, the Lord’s Supper and baptism in completely separate sections of their house churches.  And so, it is not too surprising distinct locations came to be used in churches.  By medieval times, worship roles for clergy and laity differed so much as to give rise to sharp architectural distinctions and even barriers between the two.  Worshipers observed priests celebrate the Mass, through a lattice-work screen.  The Latin for lattice, cancellus, led to the clergy side of the screen being called the chancel.  The screen, when it supported a cross, was known as a rood screen.

The Reformation tenet of a priesthood of all believers expressed itself in a rejection of this architectural division in Protestant churches until the second quarter of the 19th century.  A Church of England movement to return to more ancient worship advocated a clearly articulated separation of nave and chancel.  This practice was adopted in North America among “ High Church ” Episcopal congregations.  Known as a “divided chancel,” it finally reached Presbyterian churches in the second quarter of the 20th century with the Ecumenical or Liturgical movement. (The reference is to the division between nave and chancel, not a division within the chancel.)


Two expressions of the divided chancel are seen in Calvary Episcopal Church and Shadyside Presbyterian Church.  Designed by the eminent Gothicist, Ralph Adams Cram, Calvary has a more traditional arrangement of chancel furnishings.  He provided an elaborate and beautiful rood screen and articulated the space behind it further into choir, chancel and sanctuary.  However, at Calvary , the laity are not excluded from the space beyond the screen.  In fact, during the Mass, they enter and kneel in the chancel to receive communion, served from the altar in the sanctuary.  The baptismal font is in located in an adjacent chapel, clearly visible from the nave.  (Alternatively, they can receive the elements in the nave, by intinction.)  

Likewise, at Shadyside, the laity, in the form of elders and deacons, enter the chancel to receive the elements from the table for service to the congregation in the nave.  (Recent practice at the church also has the Lord’s Supper received by intinction during weekly vespers.)  Here, the chancel/nave division is less pronounced, in the form of a slight elevation and a low stone chancel “rail.”  As at Calvary within the sanctuary, the communion table is raised to a position of prominence, here in a semi-circular apse.


At both churches, the pulpit and lectern are actually located in the nave, though in both places the pulpit is entered from the chancel side.  In the Presbyterian Church, baptism is expressly a corporate act of the congregation, so the font is found at the front of the nave, rather than in a chapel. 

Each congregation uses a slightly different form of procession at the beginning of worship.  Some churches are uncomfortable with what they see as excessive ceremony in a procession.  However, it can actually be seen as affirming that the leadership of worship comes from within the congregation.  The pastors, choir and elders do not mysteriously materialize in the chancel from places unknown.

Calvary Episcopal and Shadyside Presbyterian are both clearly post-Reformation churches in worship and its architectural expression.  However, neither rejects completely ancient practices which reflect a reverential formality and a robust liturgy.